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Denial follows discovery: Fear of losing breast spurs delay in treatment


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LaFern Allman credits her husband Fred with helping her through her battle with breast cancer.
LaFern Allman credits her husband Fred with helping her through her battle with breast cancer.


When LaFern Allman detected a small lump about half the size of her thumb under her right breast, she wasn’t terribly worried.

After all, she was only 40, had no family history of breast cancer and none of her 12 siblings had yet been diagnosed with cancer.

Allman’s doctor assured her it was probably a fibroid cyst.

“I was pretty healthy,” the Walesboro resident said.

While she did have routine mammograms for a few years, “I didn’t go forward with anything else,” Allman said. “I just accepted the diagnosis.”

With the passage of time has come the realization that fear played a large role in her initial dismissal of the lump. Treatments at the time were limited, and she feared her only option would be a mastectomy.

“I was still young enough that I didn’t want to lose my breast,” she said.

She was newly married to Fred Allman and wanted to get on with life.

 

“I wanted to believe it was a cyst,” she said.

For the next 15 years, Allman pushed her concerns to the back of her mind. While in good general health, she didn’t always get regular checkups and let her mammograms fall to the bottom of her to-do list.

“For almost 20 years it (the lump) didn’t do anything, so neither did I,” Allman said.

Her fears crept back when the lump began to grow in the early 1990s. Her physician had recently prescribed estrogen pills to treat symptoms of menopause, and Allman said the tumor seemed to grow larger.

When she read about diagnosis through a less-invasive needle biopsy, an outpatient procedure that uses a hollow needle to draw cells from the lump to be studied under a microscope, she decided to face her fears once and for all.

In 1995, at age 57, she was diagnosed with breast cancer.

“I wasn’t too worried. I guess I thought I had lived a good life.”

While waiting for the doctor to come in and discuss a treatment plan, she spied the words “poor prognosis” written across the top of her chart.

Despite the bad news, knowing the truth lifted a weight.

One of her brothers recently had died from a heart attack, and grief and increasing worry about her own health had given her insomnia. The night following her diagnosis, she slept through the night for the first time in weeks.

“I took it harder than she did,” Fred Allman said.

Fern Allman’s doctor had called him with the news while she was on her way home. When she walked through the door, she found her husband with tears streaming down his face.

“I didn’t want to spend the rest of my life alone,” he said.

Fortunately, her cancer had not spread, and her treatment plan was fairly straightforward: Radiation five times a week for seven weeks, followed by outpatient surgery to remove the tumor and, as a precaution, lymph nodes under her right arm.

Fern Allman, who had always complained about the difficulty in finding a well-fitting bra, made a deal with herself: “If I can make it through this with both breasts, I am never going to complain again!”

Every day upon leaving her job as a nursing assistant at Four Seasons Retirement Center, she drove to Columbus Regional Hospital for her radiation therapy then back home.

She declined rides from friends and refused to take time off work.

“It wasn’t anything more than a little inconvenient,” she said. “It just made me a little late getting home.”

The lumpectomy was similarly uneventful. Allman had a bit of a stomach ache afterward, but recovered quickly and even tried to return to work before receiving clearance from her doctor.

The ordeal was over, but Allman found it harder than she expected to move on in some respects. She is plagued with survivor’s guilt, particularly since several siblings since have fallen victim to lung cancer and other terminal diseases.

Now 73, Allman is a 17-year breast cancer survivor.

“I sometimes feel guilty. Here I am, an old lady with no kids or grandkids,” she said. “Why was I spared?”

She believes that her faith ultimately is what pulled her through.

“I’ve always believed that this isn’t all there is to life,” she said. “It can’t be. It’s too uneven and too unfair. Maybe I survived because I wasn’t too afraid of it.”

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