For Dee Burrell, a life-threatening breast cancer diagnosis tested her strength and left her with newfound clarity of purpose.

By Martin D. Hirsch

Doretha Burrell—nicknamed “Dee” by children at the school where she once worked as an administrative assistant—has always considered herself a strong, upbeat person. She was raised in Maryland by a hard-working single mother who was a model of grit and independence, and became a single mother herself at a young age. But when she was 50, her strength and positive personality were severely tested by a life-altering diagnosis.

Dee, who’d rarely even suffered a common cold, was on vacation in Mexico with her partner, Jim, when she began seeing her doctor’s number appear on her mobile phone screen. She’d recently had a mammogram, and, fearing the worst, didn’t answer her doctor’s calls until her holiday was over and she was in the airport awaiting her flight home. “Where have you been?” the doctor asked. “Your mammogram came back abnormal and I need to see you right away.”

Back home, Dee’s doctor delivered the bad news in person. Dee recalls feeling smothered under a sudden avalanche of fear. “It flashed in front of my face: My daughter. My granddaughter. Death. I thought of all the older people I know who had cancer. They all died of it. I was devastated.”

Dee’s doctor biopsied her breast to find out more about the type and stage of her cancer. He asked Dee if she wanted to send the sample to a lab and get results in a few days, or do the whole procedure right there in the office and get the results in a few hours. She opted to find out quickly.

“If I’d had to wait for the diagnosis a few days, the anxiety would have killed me before the cancer did,” Dee recalls.

The results showed that Dee had an aggressive form of breast cancer. The cancer was HER-2- positive, a genetic mutation that in the past meant a poor prognosis. But because Dee’s cancer was diagnosed early, and targeted treatment options are now available for women with this form of cancer, the likelihood of survival was better than it would have been for her mother, or grandmother. But she was still facing life-threatening news.

The power of a positive attitude

Dr Robert A. Somer vividly recalls the moment Dee walked into his office ten years ago. “Despite her cancer diagnosis, Dee was positive, upbeat and had the attitude that she had to grin and bear it,” says the 46-year-old Head of the Division of Haematology & Medical Oncology at MD Anderson Cancer Center at Cooper University in Southern Willingboro, New Jersey. “She knew it was going to be a long road, but she seized every opportunity to find whatever good she could in her circumstances, and that helped me and the nurses and medical assistants as much as it helped her.”

It was indeed a long road. More than five years of treatment and recovery followed that first visit.

At the beginning, Dr Somer wanted to understand Dee’s family history of cancer to better arm himself for the battle ahead. When Dee told him she had no relatives who’d had breast cancer, he urged her to dig deeper. As it turned out, while there was no history of the disease among the women on Dee’s mother’s side of the family, she discovered that on her father’s side, she had four half-sisters, three of whom had been diagnosed with breast cancer. Two of them had died from the disease.

That was an important finding for Dr Somer. These days, he notes, there are genetic tests that can look for even minor genes that cause cancer. “A mutation in a family,” he notes, “would not only change the course of care for the woman in front of you, but also her whole family.”

Breast cancer survivor Dee Burrell (right), preparing for a picnic lunch with granddaughter, Jayla, and daughter, Andrea, at their Maryland home.
Breast cancer survivor Dee Burrell (right), preparing for a picnic lunch with granddaughter, Jayla, and daughter, Andrea, at their Maryland home.

It’s a finding that could affect Dee’s daughter Andrea, now 41, as well as her granddaughter, Jayla. But the fact that they are armed with the understanding that this cancer mutation runs in the family means they can stay on the alert for an early diagnosis and, like Dee, improve their chances of a good outcome. “I often think about the possibility of getting breast cancer myself, and the thought makes me anxious,” says Andrea. But she’s encouraged and inspired by how her mother handled her diagnosis and treatment.

“Although breast cancer threw her a blow, it didn’t knock her out,” Andrea says. “My mom has always danced to the beat of her own drum, and breast cancer has only added to her dance moves.” Dee says it was the support of her family, her doctors and staff, and close friends that helped her stay positive throughout her treatment.

From the start, Dee says she knew that Dr Somer was in her corner, which was a vital aspect of her recovery. She felt she had a lot of personal support from him and his staff – and has strong advice for women with breast cancer about choosing their doctors.

“If you walk into your oncologist’s office and feel like you’re waiting in line to buy a sandwich at the local deli, then leave,” Dee insists.

Dr Somer agrees. “My philosophy has always been to treat others like members of my own family,” he says. “The moment you do not treat patients like that, directing care as you would for your own flesh and blood, is the moment you should reconsider practicing medicine.” He views medical treatments as “the easy part” of the profession. Knowing how to create a bond with a person under your care, and how to earn the patient’s trust, he says, is where medicine becomes an art.

Dr Somer is a firm believer in the power a positive attitude has in helping a patient fight cancer. “From my observations,” he says, “patients who think they are doing poorly feel worse, do less and ultimately do not have the same quality of life as those who have a positive attitude.”

Dee endured her entire five-year course of treatment with an optimistic attitude. First, she underwent a lumpectomy. Then radiation. That was followed by what she described as “a very powerful and frightening” regimen of chemotherapy. She then had two-and-a-half years of biopharmaceutical treatment. Her recovery also included a short regimen with another chemotherapy agent to prevent infections. Finally, her surgeon recommended that she go on an extended regimen of a drug aimed at reducing the risk of recurrence.

Ten years later, at age 60, Dee is still cancer-free.

Dr Somer says Dee’s treatment was a two-way street: he not only treated Dee, but learned from her. He learned, for example, the power of the human spirit, which he says keeps him afloat. He also learned that cancer will sometimes bring out the best in people. “If Dee had never had cancer, perhaps she never would have lived to her fullest potential,” Dr Somer suggests.

“She teaches me to live like she does, counting every day as a blessing, because in one quick second it can all come to a sudden halt,” Dr Somer says, “But if it does, she has shown me that one can emerge stronger and more confident.”

Pictured are Dee Burrell during treatment, with her daughter Andrea, at a luncheon for breast cancer survivors celebrating life.
Pictured are Dee Burrell during treatment, with her daughter Andrea, at a luncheon for breast cancer survivors celebrating life.

A more meaningful life

Today, Dee’s life after cancer looks very different from her life before. She quit her job in New Jersey and moved to be with her daughter and granddaughter in Maryland. She found an interesting new position as an executive assistant for a famous judge in Washington, DC. She started Y-U Breast Cancer Foundation Inc. to raise funds for women with breast cancer. She became a breast cancer patient advocate and public speaker. She’s even about to release a song she wrote called “It’s All About Me” – a funk-blues empowerment anthem for women with breast cancer.

Dee also parted ways with her former partner, Jim. Studies show that it’s not uncommon for women facing life-threatening diseases to experience relationship trouble.1 While some view cancer as a frequent cause of breakups, in reality it’s often the catalyst to end a relationship that had problems in the first place.

Cancer can be a wakeup call for all sorts of changes in life that may have been needed but have been resisted for too long.

Dee says her cancer taught her several difficult and important lessons. “Watch out for jobs and relationships that aren’t right for you,” she says. “Before cancer, I stayed in bad situations too long. But not after. It’s like you have to fall flat on your face to get serious about what you want and don’t want. Breast cancer knocked me down and forced me to pick myself up and figure out what really matters and go after it.”

For five years, Dee has been living on her own terms. She’s come out the other side of the cancer experience stronger and more fulfilled. “I’m not sure it had to be cancer,” Dee says of the changes in her life. “But I do think I would have needed to go through something – some sort of crisis – to get to the place I am today.”

Andrea talks about how grateful she is for the sacrifices her mother made for her. She knows it wasn’t easy for Dee to make sure her daughter had all she needed growing up, or to work two jobs to put Andrea through college. And Andrea’s she’s learned from the grit Dee demonstrated during her five years of treatment. “I’m not one to allow fear to rule my life,” she says. “I feverishly pray that ‘The Big C’ will never knock on my door, nor my daughter Jayla’s. But if it does, we’ll deal with it.”

Dee’s favorite books for women fighting breast cancer

One of the activities that helped Dee through her recovery from breast cancer was reading. Here are six books she recommends to help women understand their disease and develop the positive attitude needed to conquer it.

1. Dr. Susan Love’s Breast Cancer Book, by Susan M. Love, MD
Known as “the bible for the newly diagnose,” there’s lots of insight here as well for women interested in learning about their risk of breast cancer, as well as how it’s diagnosed and treated, including a section on personalised medicine.                                                     

2. Support to Go: The Unbook for the Journey Through Breast Cancer, by Pat Godfrey McRee
She says this one is a must-read. The “unbook” is in the form of cards that can be read in any order. Appreciated by family members as well.

3. Crazy Sexy Cancer Survivor, by Kris Carr
The personal story of Kris Carr, diagnosed with inoperable Stage 4 cancer of the liver and lungs. Covering mind, body and spirit, the book is an uplifting and informative survival guide for anyone dealing with cancer or other health challenges.

4. The Patient Patient, by Muriel Cunningham
A patient’s attempt to find humour in her own experience with hospitalisation, including hard beds and doctors who do poorly in her personal physician satisfaction assessments.

5. Chicken Soup for the Woman’s Soul,  by Jack Canfield, Marc Victor Hansen, Jennifer Read Hawthorne and Marci Shimoff
A collection of inspiring stories about women in all walks of life, by the publishing team behind the popular “Chicken Soup for the Soul” series.

6. Living Your Vision and Purpose, edited  by Linda Eastman, featuring a chapter by Dee herself
Twenty-one women authors recount their life journeys. Among them are ministers, life coaches, seminar leaders, including Dee Burrell, breast cancer survivor.

7. Open Up the Door and Let Me In, by Dee Burrell herself!
Dee Burrell, honored among the 2009 Susan G. Komen Outstanding Breast Cancer Survivors, was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2007. She kept a journal of her struggle with the disease and two years later published it as “Open Up the Door and Let Me In.” The book catalogues Dee’s daily struggles with fatigue, tough treatments and emotional turmoil, as well as the powerful and healing support she received from family, friends, and, most importantly, her healthcare team. The book is as much about beliefs and attitudes as it is about illness. Dee advises her readers to “never, ever give up on your dreams, no matter how long they take to achieve.”

References

  1. Glantz MJ, et al. Gender disparity in the rate of partner abandonment in patients with serious medical illness. Cancer. 2009 Nov 15;115(22):5237–42.

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