Seated behind her desk, Barbara Dorn takes a deep breath as she opens the gray folder.
“I have my whole history in here.”
Different pages detail different things: her diagnosis, the treatment plan, information about radiation, wires, chips.
She never thought she’d be here, with this gray folder, and she’s ready to put it away forever.
* * * * *
Barbara and her sister, Bonnie, have birthdays a week apart and, for the past decade, they have scheduled their mammograms together. It’s something they’re diligent about doing because of their mother’s experience with breast cancer.
“We have a date together,” Barbara said. “We always have a date around that time and we go and have our mammograms together. We book them 15 minutes apart. We go to Methodist North and when we leave there, we hit Marshall’s, go to lunch, shop, do whatever we want to do.”
Things were different this year, though.
“My technician said, ‘Let’s do this again, I’m not getting a very clear film.’ They’ve had to do that before, that’s normal, but her demeanor changed. She did it four times on my right breast.”
When she was done she told Bonnie she didn’t have a good feeling about the mammogram. Bonnie tried to calm her down by telling her not to worry. Barbara had, after all, had a diagnostic mammogram done in the past.
“I immediately got a phone call for a diagnostic mammogram. I’ve had this before, but they didn’t do all of the setup that they did on this one. The red flags were going up.”
While at West Breast Center, she remembers sitting in her gown with other women, waiting.
“Some of the people that came back started asking questions. I had to say, ‘I don’t know, I don’t know.’ They were scared and looking for reassurance. It was intimidating.”
After the diagnostic, she was taken for an ultrasound. The tech brought a doctor in.
“That’s when I knew,” said Barbara. “That’s when I knew.”
The official diagnosis came that Friday afternoon while she was still at work.
“They found a mass. It was no larger than my fingernail and it was against the chest wall. Very small. Don’t know how long it would have taken to surface to where I would have felt it.”
* * * * *
Like Barbara, her mother was diagnosed with estrogen receptor-positive breast cancer. Neither one carries the gene mutation which increases their likelihood of cancer, however.
“She had the genetic testing done, she didn’t have it. I don’t have it, either. It was just by chance we both had the same type.”
Barbara was nervous about how she’d share the news of her diagnosis.
“We’re a bunch of criers,” she said with a laugh. “How do you have this conversation with anyone? It was easy to tell my husband, Rick, because he’s my husband. We were sitting at the breakfast table and I asked Mom a question about her breast cancer treatment and I said, ‘Well, I’m gonna go through that, too.’
And she was a champ, Barbara said.
“She did not weep. She just looked at me and goes, ‘You are?’”
In the months since, they have connected over the diagnosis, as if it were meant to be that mother was there to lead daughter through one of the most anxiety-inducing human experiences.
“It was good to have her there to talk to. We went through the same thing.”
Barbara isn’t sure if Bonnie is worried, but said she hopes she isn’t.
“I can’t imagine that it isn’t somewhere in her mind, that the possibility is there. You don’t ever think that it’ll happen to you, you don’t. It’s certainly my prayer that she won’t.”
* * * * *
Everything started moving quickly after she was diagnosed.
“Once they see anything they’re on it,” she said. “They did everything for me. They scheduled everything for me.”
That was May.
She had surgery to insert a wire on June 11, then a partial mastectomy. Barbara chose for radiation to be delivered internally through a catheter.
“I did not have the anxiety for my surgery that I did for this,” she said, explaining the procedure of getting local anesthesia and having the incision reopened. “I covered it all with humor and when the assistant came in, I told her, ‘I am prayed up, I am pulled up, but when this is over, these big girl panties are getting burned because I’m done with them.’”
She had two radiation treatments a day for a week in July, will have mammograms every six months for a year and will be on medication for the next five years.
Rick and Bonnie helped support her day-to-day and Bonnie will be there, as if it were a regular sisters’ day out, at the next mammogram.
“She’s going to be there. She’s already told me: We do it together, we just do it together.”
* * * * *
Being diagnosed with cancer is often life-changing. For Barbara, it expedited a move she had planned further in the future.
Last Thursday she retired from the City of Munford, where she worked as the community development director for more than a decade.
“It was something that I’d planned on doing, but I’ve chosen to do it now versus later simply because of my father’s health, the age of my grandchildren across the street and I need to take the time for me and restore my health, get my energy levels to where they were before.”
While she’s battled breast cancer and recovered, she has been fortunate enough to work as little or as much as she was able, but now it’s time to leave it behind and move on to the next chapter.
She is slowly incorporating her other activities – being involved with the praise band and youth group at Restoration Church – back into her routine post-treatment.
“It takes awhile for your energy levels to come back up,” she said. “You wouldn’t think that, but it’s true. It just takes some time.”
* * * * *
It’s hard to retain information after you’ve been told you have cancer.
“Once they tell you what you have, you don’t hear a thing. So it’s really important to have someone with you all the time taking notes, listening for you.”
At her first visit she was handed the gray folder – oddly drab, but it fit the mood – and it held all of the notes, all of the information she couldn’t absorb. She read everything, kept everything.
“It made me anxious going through that again because I’m the type of person that you do what you gotta do when it’s unpleasant and you put it away when it’s done. Don’t go back there, don’t look back.”
And so she isn’t looking back.
She will close the gray folder, celebrate her career with Munford, then she will focus on recovering.
The experience wasn’t easy, but it brought her closer to God and the people around her.
“I had so many people pray over me – coworkers, friends and my faith family at Restoration, especially. Friends who were walking the same walk reached out to me and helped me navigate the unknown.”
In describing the early detection, the way her diligence in preventative testing likely saved her life, Barbara doesn’t use the word “lucky.”
“Blessed,” she said. “I’m blessed.”