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Paulette Baker had cancer in her left breast. The doctor said so.
But the thought of dying never occurred to the now 65-year-old woman, who had been born with an enlarged heart and spent the first 60 days of her life in an incubator.
“I told my friends and my family, you’re not going to lose me,” Baker said. “It was as if God himself told me I’m not going to die.”
But when she was diagnosed in December 2000, the danger was all too real.
Baker’s father died in 1964 from what was thought to be lung cancer. Her brother had been in remission seven years for colon cancer. Her best friend would die a terrible death from breast cancer about 10 years after her own diagnosis — a fact that still fills her with sadness and even anger.
Baker spends a lot of her time these days at The Armory apartments, 646 Franklin St. in Columbus, where she plays cards and engages in other activities with fellow residents. She enjoys the life that never was guaranteed to her all those years ago, and she tells anyone who will listen about the importance of routine mammograms to detect breast cancer.
She said the cancer never would have been discovered if it hadn’t been for her habit of going through the procedure every year.
Baker, who grew up near Taylorsville, said she was still a couple of months away from starting her new job as a stocking clerk at Walmart in Columbus when a routine mammogram in the summer of 2000 detected a “spot” in her left breast.
The doctor told her there was only a 10 percent chance it was cancer. Six months later, Baker underwent a needle biopsy. And another. And another. Each one came back inconclusive.
Baker said she stayed positive through it all. Yet the repeated visits were slowly bringing her to the conclusion that something was wrong. The doctor confirmed that feeling when he sat with Baker in a room and told her the lump was cancerous.
It should have been devastating news. But Baker said she stayed calm as the doctor explained his plan to remove the lump, which had split open, and check lymph nodes next to it to make sure the cancer had not spread.
Baker, who isn’t married and has no children, said her mother, two sisters, two brothers and their families took the news of her cancer surprisingly well. They believed Baker would recuperate, which helped keep Baker confident.
But Dawn Ott, who is Baker’s niece, credited her aunt with keeping everyone calm.
“She had such a positive outlook,” Ott said. “I thought she’d be OK.”
Surgeons took out the cancerous lump and one of the lymph nodes, which turned out to be cancer free, Baker said. She started chemotherapy in February 2001, followed by radiation treatments to kill the cancer cells.
Baker had few health issues related to the treatments and was able to resume her job with little difficulty, she said. However, she recalled one day when the chemical smell of workers buffing the store floor forced her into the bathroom, where she got sick to her stomach.
There were cosmetic challenges, too. Baker said her hair came out in clumps, prompting her to wear wigs and hats.
But those were minor inconveniences.
“I didn’t really get sick with chemo, and I felt guilty about that,” Baker said. “Why was that fair? Other people get feeling much worse than I ever did. I didn’t see why.”
Baker said she has been cancer-free for about 13 years. She got a scare about a year ago when a mammogram detected an abnormality that turned out to be scar tissue.
Aside from that, Baker said the only residual effects she has experienced from her cancer were breast reduction surgery to minimize the chance the cancer will return and a strong belief in routine mammograms for women.
Baker used to preach to a good friend about the importance of mammograms. The friend didn’t heed the advice and one day found that she had advanced breast cancer that had spread to both breasts, Baker said.
Although the friend had both breasts removed, the cancer invaded her bones, eventually leading to her death.
“I didn’t tell her I was mad at her, but I was,” Baker said. “How soon would they have found this if she had a mammogram?”
Others were affected differently by Baker’s illness.
Ott, 50, said she was on edge after a doctor found an abnormality during a mammogram for Baker. Fortunately, it turned out to be nothing.
“I have a fear of cancer anyway,” Ott said. “I’m a smoker.”
Baker said she will continue to preach the importance of
TYPE OF BREAST CANCER: Unknown.
WHEN DIAGNOSED: December 2000.
HOW LONG IN REMISSION: 13 years.
TREATMENT: Surgery to remove lump, chemotherapy and radiation.
OCCUPATION: Retired as stocking clerk from Walmart.
FAMILY: Sisters, Sandra and Suzette; brother, Ronnie.
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