Mary Brassell tries to keep humor after struggles following diagnosis and surgeries
STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — In 2015, Mary Brassell was several months late in scheduling her annual routine mammogram.
She was focused on her 97-year-old mother, whose health was failing.
Brassell made it to the appointment but was called to come back in immediately the next day.
“They were pretty sure I had cancer in my left breast,” Brassell said.
In the beginning, there are a lot of tests, she said, and a lot of time spent waiting for test results. There are a lot of appointments with different doctors.
The first diagnosis called for a lumpectomy.
But then doctors decided to check her right breast, this time with an MRI scan.
The results of the MRI led to a bilateral mastectomy.
Right before surgery, doctors had some concerns about her heart. The cardiologist asked if Brassell was under any stress.
“My mother died six days ago,” Brassell told the doctor.
So yes, there was some stress. Brassell had been busy settling her mother’s estate — feeling a sense of urgency in case she died from the cancer.
Brassell made the decision to tell her mother about the diagnosis, knowing she was about to undergo surgery and needed to let her mother know what has happening.
Just days before her mom passed away, Brassell said, “My mother said, ‘Mary, you know there have been so many advancements. You are going to be fine.’”
Brassell then told other friends and family, one by one in phone calls. On many of the same calls, she first reported the death of her mother.
“It was an awful lot to deal with,” she said. “It was quite a journey with my mom dying — I had to put that in a box for later.”
Brassell did have a lot of support — her husband and three sons were at her side, and she has many friends. As a longtime Steamboat Springs resident, Brassell spent her career as a school librarian before moving to the Bud Werner Memorial Library.
“When anyone offers to help you just say, ‘yes,’” Brassell advised.
Reconstruction and recovery
After Brassell’s tissue was examined, Stage 1 cancer was discovered in both breasts. But it was also determined that Brassell wouldn’t need to undergo chemotherapy or radiation.
It was relatively small, caught early and had not spread to her lymph nodes.
However, at 6 feet tall, doctors told Brassell she really needed to get breast reconstruction because of her size, saying something along the lines of her body being “out of whack” if she didn’t.
Brassell took their advice, but the reconstruction process has not gone well, she said.
She had to make the decision before the mastectomy surgery, so they could begin the process.
First, there was a major problem with the tissue healing and an infection. That was before the rest of the reconstruction surgery could take place.
After treating the infection, she was instructed not to do anything for weeks — no unloading the dishwasher, doing laundry. Nothing but sitting on the deck. Her bandages had to be changed regularly.
“The healing really set me back,” she said. “Normally, I would have been more active.”
Finally, the doctors told her she was turning the corner, and that she wouldn’t every again have to deal with the misery of not healing.
But about a year after the mastectomy, Brassell had the next reconstruction surgery to insert the implants.
Again, her body wouldn’t heal, and she questioned whether she should have had the reconstruction, whether she’d done enough research.
Finally, her breasts did heal.
“But it doesn’t look normal,” she added.
Now it’s been recommended she consider another surgery to fix the reconstruction.
“I really don’t want another surgery,” Brassell said.
However, she has concerns that if she doesn’t, her breasts, which have moved in directions they are not supposed to, could affect her neck and back.
She passed the five-year mark cancer free, though still has to take a drug that knocks out estrogen production — with some significant side effects.
With the first medication, Brassell could hardly go up and down the stairs because of the effects on her joints. The doctors switched drugs, and while better, it still takes a toll on her joints.
Brassell is now 73. The side effects “are pretty detrimental,” she said. “But they say it prevents you from getting the cancer back.”
Brassell doesn’t know if the joint damage is permanent, but suspects it may be. The worst impacts are on her shoulders and knees.
She swims as much as she can, which helps.
Physical therapy also helped tremendously she said.
For other women going through the journey, Brassell advises taking advantage of everything offered by the cancer center. In addition to PT, that has included visits with a nutritionist, massages, yoga and acupuncture sessions. She also raves about Sara Ross, the center’s counselor.
Other advice Brassell has for women who are diagnosed with breast cancer is to “go back to your routine as much as you can.”
For Brassell, yoga was a priority. She started out with chair yoga, then transitioned to the floor — though is still limited because of her shoulder issues.
But incorporating any yoga back into her routine was very beneficial, she said.
The same with swimming. It took months before she was able to return to the pool. When she did return to a class, her friends were concerned about her getting up and down the ladder. She did it — and they all clapped.
“It’s also really important to have a sense of humor,” she said. Even if that humor is sometimes a bit dark.
“It is the way it is — so I’m going to try to laugh a little if I can.”
To reach Kari Dequine Harden, call 970-871-4205, email kharden@SteamboatPilot.com or follow her on Twitter @kariharden.
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