MARY ANN ANDERSON
Melody Stanley Herrington
Don’t be the woman who thinks breast cancer can’t happen to you. That’s some of the strongest advice that Melody Stanley Herrington, as a breast cancer survivor, can tell you.
“At age 36, I would have never thought I would have breast cancer,” she said.
Now 38 and two years past her initial diagnosis of Stage 2-B triple negative breast cancer, Herrington, the mother of Abigail, 16, and Christian, 11, and the wife of Scotty Herrington, shares her journey that began when she first found a lump in her breast when she was taking a shower in the summer of 2019.
That Friday night, Herrington, a hospice care consultant with Regency Southern Care Hospice in Vidalia, said in the shower that “something” under her left breast caught the palm of her hand.
“As I started feeling around more, I realized there was something there,” she remembered. “And to be honest, I didn’t do monthly breast exams like you’re supposed to.”
Since it was Friday, she had to wait until Monday to call her Ob-Gyn in Douglas, but as it turned out, she couldn’t get an appointment for at least two weeks. That’s when she called Bonnie Pittman, a family nurse practitioner with Jeff Davis Medical Group, who she saw the next day. Pittman immediately ordered a mammogram and bilateral ultrasound at Jeff Davis Hospital.
After the tests, Herrington’s right breast was ruled out for any suspicions. Her left breast, closest to her heart, was another story.
“I literally got into my car after the mammogram and ultrasound and started to pull out of the parking lot at the hospital when Bonnie called,” she recalled. “I made it to Dr. Bixler’s parking lot before I pulled over. She said that she didn’t like what she was seeing. I felt like I knew what she was going to tell me, that the mammogram and ultrasound came back highly suspicious of primary breast carcinoma.”
A biopsy was scheduled without delay.
Behind the wheel of her car, Herrington’s thoughts were jumbled, like she was in a dream. Her first call after the news was to her husband. They were to get an inground pool, and her stunned mind kept telling her that they didn’t need to get the pool. Her thoughts swimming uncontrollably, before she knew it, she was at Southside Baptist Church on Cromartie Street.
“I pulled into the parking lot and sat there for two or three hours and just cried,” she said.
Right away, Herrington had the biopsy, just the next week, with Pittman promising to call immediately with the results. A few days later, after the biopsy, Herrington was in the grocery store when her phone rang indicating Pittman’s office, but she wouldn’t answer it because she didn’t’ want to break down in front of people if the news was bad. And, of course, it was.
After Herrington’s diagnosis, she was determined to get all of her treatment under one roof to make things easier for her and her family. A friend suggested she contact Cancer Treatment Centers of America. The only problem was it was in Newnan, near Atlanta, and it could be a long, drawn-out process, with untold hours of driving. Instead, she made an appointment with an oncologist in Savannah, vowing to go to the first place she could get an appointment.
When CTCA called her on that next Monday—she had an appointment with an oncologist in Savannah for Tuesday—she said she “felt relief” just talking to the representative and made the decision to travel to Newnan for treatment.
After a three-day initial stay at CTCA that included head-to-toe scans, bloodwork and more, she was diagnosed with Stage 2-B triple negative breast cancer, an invasive type that is daunting and frightening.
“I started doing my own research to find out everything I could,” she said. “I wanted to be as much educated as I could.”
Since Herrington, the daughter of Charles and Christine Stanley of Hazlehurst, was so young at the time, she said that CTCA would throw everything at her that she could handle, including genetic testing for the BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes. The name BRCA is an abbreviation for BReast CAncer gene, and both BRCA1 and BRCA2 are two different genes that have been found to impact a person’s chances of developing breast cancer. Every human has both BRCA 1 and BRCA2 genes.
Herrington explains, “When I was genetic tested, they went back to third cousins. CTCA came back and said I had a 10 percent chance of having the gene that may have caused this. Three weeks later, they called and said I have the BRAC1 gene mutation that caused my breast cancer. Usually people who have this gene mutation, if they develop breast cancer, it’s typically triple negative.”
CTCA offered free genetic testing for the rest of her family for prevention’s sake, with Herrington adding, “If you know you have this higher risk, you can do preventative things to keep from getting it.”
As it turned out, Herrington inherited the gene from her father’s side of the family. Having the gene, she said, increases the chance for men to get prostate cancer, with women having a higher chance of developing ovarian cancer.
After getting the news, her sisters, Grace Gibbs and Joy Grantham, both opted for prophylactic double mastectomies to prevent breast cancer.
After she was officially diagnosed on August 1, 2019, Herrington completed eight rounds of chemotherapy, making the drive to Newnan for treatment.
CTCA, Herrington added, also helps patients with their deductibles, coinsurance, out-of-pocket costs and even mileage and lodging expenses.
“I took advantage of all of it,” she added, “especially when I had to have radiation for five weeks and had to stay a long time. I think a lot of women don’t know where to start or where to go when they get diagnosed, but I would highly recommend CTCA.”
The drive was tough, she said, but added, “You want the best care for yourself at all costs, and fortunately, I’ve had good enough insurance to have had made that possible.”
After four months of chemotherapy, in January of 2020, Herrington underwent a bilateral double mastectomy. Eighteen lymph nodes were removed, and one came back positive for triple negative breast cancer, having spread from the cancer’s primary location.
From the chemo, Herrington lost all of her hair and was riddled with nausea and nerve and bone pain.
“It was bad,” she stated matter-of-factly.
After the mastectomy, the first phases of reconstruction were done at the same time, with tissue expanders put into place. Six weeks later, she had complications and one expander had to be removed, with the excess skin having to be sewn into her chest wall. “I essentially came out with one breast,” she said. “That was devastating because it was so unexpected.”
“It’s such an emotional rollercoaster,” she said. “You get a little bit of hope, and then that hope is crushed.”
But her surgeon reassured her that he could make a breast later, that aesthetics were not important, telling her that getting over the cancer and getting her well was his number one priority.
Twenty-five rounds of radiation came after that, five straight weeks of driving to and staying in Newnan. She came home only on weekends.
After all the chemo, the mastectomy, the radiation and all that goes with it, Herrington eventually returned to work and was down to taking a 6-month chemotherapy pill to help stop recurrence of the disease. But that wasn’t the end of the story.
“The day that I took my last chemo pill, the very next day I got COVID,” she said. “I had double COVID pneumonia and ended up in the COVID ICU unit at Coffee Regional Hospital for five or six days.”
Add on top of that, she suffered a bout with lymphedema and had an adverse reaction to an CTCA immunotherapy clinical trial, a reaction that effectively killed her adrenal gland and thyroid.
“Now I take medication just to be able to feel good in the morning, just to get up and feel normal,” she said.
After Herrington went through all of that, in June of this year, she had DIEP flap reconstruction of her breast, short for deep inferior epigastric perforators. She explained that since there was no skin on the left side because the excess skin had been sewn into her chest wall, doctors had to use her lower abdomen to make new breasts, adding, “They took all the blood vessels, the blood supply, the tissue, and everything off my stomach and essentially gave me a tummy tuck, and then moved all that fat, blood and tissue and used that to make me breasts. It’s a big procedure.”
While she has since healed from that, she’ll still undergo a couple of more revisions, including nipple reconstruction and tattooing, to perfect her new breasts. And next year, to prevent ovarian cancer that can be tripped by the BRCA1 gene she carries, she’ll have a hysterectomy.
The last couple of years have left Herrington and her family shellshocked, to say the least. She credits her husband, Scotty, with helping her through it, saying, “My husband never broke down, and that, to me, helped me, because I broke down enough for all of us … my husband is my biggest supporter. My family has been great and a blessing to me.”
In the end, if there is one thing that she wishes every woman knew about breast cancer, it is early detection.
“If you can catch it early, then you have more options,” she advises. “Know your body and become familiar with it. There is a saying that I agree with, and that is, if you don’t make time for your wellness, you’ll be forced to make time for your illness.”