BY WAYNE GRANT | STAFF WRITER
Casey Perez, of Palm Coast, wanted to get mammograms early, in her late 20s, since her aunt and grandmother both have breast cancer. But she was too young, according to the procedure's guidelines, and heredity wasn't an issue, doctors said, since her mother never had the disease.
In 2009, a couple of weeks before her 30th birthday, however, she was diagnosed with breast cancer. At the time, she was engaged to be married.
“I put off the wedding until after my treatment for the cancer,” she said. “I wanted the wedding to be a celebration of health.”
Perez discovered the cancer during a self-examination.
“One day I felt a lump, about as long as my finger, in my breast,” she said.
She went to her gynecologist, who sent her in for a mammogram and ultrasound. She had a biopsy the next day.
This was the beginning of a long process of treatment — she knew that. But she kept her spirits up.
“I knew I was young and well prepared for it,” she said.
The first procedure was chemotherapy, April to August 2009, at Florida Hospital Flagler. Then she had a double mastectomy after lumps were found in her other breast. They were not yet cancerous, but she decided to have the operation on both breasts anyway, rather than continually watching and testing to see if the lumps ever turned cancerous.
She had reconstructive surgery started when the mastectomy was performed. Follow-up visits were required to complete the reconstruction.
In June of 2010, she started radiation. This is after cancer was found in her lymph nodes, under an arm.
“Losing my hair after the radiation was the toughest part,” she said. “I thought it would be losing my breasts, but losing my hair was the toughest.”
She wore a wig for a long time — but not because she was embarrassed, she says, but because people would come up to her and express their sympathy.
“I would always tear up,” she said.
Another problem she had during the treatments was the effect of steroids.
“I had ‘roid rage,” she said. “I would get angry in stores.”
But today she’s feeling great, and she still sees the doctor every six months for checkups.
“You should know how your breasts look when you are standing up, sitting down and when you look into a mirror,” she said, reinforcing the importance of mammograms, especially when there is a family history of breast cancer. “Then you’ll notice when something is different.”
Her favorite quote, that helped her through the ordeal, is “Life is not about waiting for the storm to pass by, it’s about learning to dance in the rain.”
While Perez wanted to get mammograms, but was too young for the guidelines, Elsa Wittbold, 63, of Ormond Beach, was the opposite.
“I didn’t think it could ever happen to me,” she said.
Then one day in 2010, four years after her last mammogram, she found a lump in a breast which hurt when she touched it.
She went for mammograms, an ultrasound and, ultimately, a biopsy, which confirmed that she had breast cancer.
Wittbold needed a mastectomy in one breast, but she decided to have a proactive double mastectomy, despite not having any family history of breast cancer. After her surgeries, she had chemotherapy, followed by reconstruction surgery, at Florida Hospital Memorial Medical Center, in Daytona Beach.
Wittbold took some time off from dentistry while going through the chemo and other treatments. And after she recovered, she started a new practice, called Florida Snoring and Apnea Solutions, on West Granada Boulevard.
Then, in 2012, she noticed another lump on her chest. A biopsy confirmed it was cancer.
“It was confusing,” Elsa said. “How could I have a recurrence after a double mastectomy? It was definitely a wake-up call for me. I didn’t take it as seriously as I should have.”
She said she didn’t take the prescribed medications after the surgery because she was afraid of the side effects.
“As a dentist, I was always preaching prevention, and here I didn’t follow the prevention advice of another health professional.”
Now, after her second round of chemo and radiation, she takes the medication and said she suffers no side effects.
“I’m healthy and happy and my practice is going,” she said. “I want to tell others going through treatment to have hope. They can go back to a full normal lifestyle.”
She said now she eats vegetables for the antioxidants and recommends that people maintain a healthy lifestyle so the body is strong enough to fight disease.
Cancer can happen to all women, she says. But it doesn't have to define them.