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Taking All Prayers: Breast Cancer Survivor Urges Women to Get Mammograms

November 7, 2018 12:15 p.m.

When Melissa Hurst was first elected Coles County Circuit Clerk in 2012, she was excited about the upcoming challenge.

She had worked in various roles at the courthouse in Charleston for more than 15 years and she knew what to expect. However, nothing could have prepared her for the frightening breast cancer diagnosis she received halfway through her first term.

Melissa was diagnosed after a routine mammogram in February 2015. She had gone to the doctor because of stomach cramps, but it was the mammogram that the doctor scheduled for convenience that presented the most cause for concern.

Melissa wasn’t alarmed when the mammogram technologist noticed a suspicious area on her right breast. “My mother has had some fatty masses removed from her breasts and I honestly thought that’s what it was,” she said. “I have no family history of cancer.” An ultrasound and a needle biopsy were recommended and performed on the same day. 

Melissa is grateful to friend and neighbor Joshua Garrett, MD, a radiologist at Sarah Bush Lincoln, who sought her out to explain her biopsy results while her doctor was out on a Friday afternoon. “I know it was hard for him to tell me that it was cancerous because he knows me,” she said. “After I heard the word ‘cancer’ I quit listening and was so thankful that my husband, John, was with me. I don’t remember much of the conversation, but I do remember thinking ‘I have a 13-year-old son at home. Where do I go from here? What do I do next?’” 

Acting quickly, Melissa visited SBL Surgeon Curtis Green, DO, first thing the following Monday. “I just told him that I want the cancer out and I want it out as quickly as possible,” she said. Melissa is grateful to Dr. Green for expediting her surgery. He removed the cancerous tissue by performing a lumpectomy two weeks later.

Melissa was also impressed with SBL Regional Cancer Center Director and Medical Oncologist Abdur Shakir, MD, who handled her follow-up care. “I’m telling you that I absolutely love Dr. Shakir. He just has your best interest at hand and his theory is ‘we’re going to fix this.’ I wasn’t going to have any problems,” Melissa said. “He was there for the cure, and I was going to be fine.”

Melissa was therefore devastated when post-surgery testing revealed that she needed chemotherapy because her chance for recurrence was extremely high. Additionally, genetic mutation screening revealed that she had a rare gene mutation not typically associated with breast cancer. Melissa met with a cancer genetic specialist in St. Louis upon Dr. Shakir’s recommendation, and her doctors agreed that her cancer must be treated very aggressively.

Melissa completed 12 chemotherapy treatments over a five-month period before undergoing additional surgeries. She continued to work through her treatments and to maintain a positive attitude. “I never once thought I was going to die, but it hit my son, Caleb, the hardest when I lost my hair,” Melissa said. “He couldn’t even be in the same room with me.” 

Looking back, Melissa wishes she had been more mindful of her son’s feelings. “I didn’t even think to ask what kind of help there is for children who have parents going through this, but I wish I would have,” she said. Caleb was uncharacteristically sick during this time. “Let me put it this way: Caleb was sick and I was not. As good as my son is, he may have said, ‘Give the sickness to me and not my mom.’ That’s just the kind of son I have.”

Melissa embraced her bald head as soon as her coworkers assured her it was alright. “I tried the wig thing and it just did not work for me; it itched and it was hot,” she said. Her lack of hair became the catalyst for many jokes at the courthouse and at home, and it sparked conversations with other cancer survivors that may not have happened otherwise.

Anxious to eliminate all threats of cancer, Melissa underwent a double mastectomy with reconstruction after completing chemotherapy, followed by an oophorectomy (a surgical procedure to remove her ovaries). “I decided ‘I have a 13-year-old son and I want to be around for his wedding and for grandkids,’ and there was not a chance that I was going to risk the cancer coming back,” she said.

Melissa is grateful for the unwavering support she received from her family and friends. “This community was great. At first I didn’t know whether to tell anyone and then my husband reminded me that if people don’t know that you have a problem, then people can’t pray for you and that’s when I decided I would take any and every prayer that I could get,” she said. 

“To this day, people still ask ‘Were you really sick?’ and I tell them I was not sick one day through the whole entire thing – not one day – and I guarantee it was absolutely everybody praying for me. That’s truly amazing and that’s how I know we have a truly awesome God,” she added. 

Melissa encourages others to have mammograms regularly. “When I first found out I had cancer, I made the decision that I would go to every office in the courthouse. I didn’t want people to hear it from someone else. You will not believe how many women in this courthouse went and made their mammogram appointments. It actually brought a lot of us closer in the courthouse,” she said. “My tumor was so tiny that I couldn’t even feel it. I had no idea that it was there and I do breast exams all the time. That machine and the technologist found it and I’m so thankful for that young lady. I’m thankful for her every day.”

Melissa has been cancer-free for three years and her journey has made her more appreciative of family and community. “It puts life into perspective. I do not take anything for granted anymore,” she said.

To make an appointment for a mammogram, call SBL Central Scheduling at 217 258-2588.

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