moving forward | Local news

moving forward |  Local news

In 2018, Alicia Crum noticed something when she was changing her clothes: a small hard lump near the surface of her left breast. She said she knew right away that she had to get it checked out.

He went to his regular doctor’s office in Crawfordville and saw the nurse practitioner, Ada Torres.

Right away, Crum said a series of tests were scheduled. In July he received the phone call with his official diagnosis after the biopsy. There was another surprise: a lump under the nipple area that he hadn’t noticed before as an “official” lump.

This was completely unexpected as in December 2017 she had a full checkup including breast palpation and all went well.

“So, from December to July, these bumps showed up pretty quickly,” he said.

In September 2018, she underwent a double mastectomy to treat breast cancer: invasive ductal carcinoma. She spent October recovering, which she described as a horrible process.

On top of the pain and dealing with uncomfortable drainage tubes and small pockets of fluid for weeks, there was the loss of independence, which really irritated the personality of the then 54-year-old Wakulla High School English teacher, who was used to being the one who helps others.

Her daughter and stepdaughter helped with her care, including showering. She had to sit in a shower chair, hold her tubes and let one of them do the rest.

“You just can’t do anything for yourself,” he said, “and I didn’t like that feeling, and the pain, of course, the first few days.”

She said that her husband, Donnie, also helped a lot.

“You have to give in,” he said, “and let people help you.”

She said recovery from her double mastectomy was more complicated because she also underwent breast reconstruction at the same time, replacing old implants with new ones. She said that one of the reasons she was able to have breast reconstruction was that her lymph nodes were free of cancer, although there was “lymphatic activity.”

“Another month and they would have been there,” he said of the cancer cells. “It was moving very fast and of course I didn’t know until long after the fact.”

In November, Crum was set to start chemotherapy to prevent the cancer from coming back due to her likelihood of cancer recurrence, which is one of the reasons she opted for the double mastectomy. Cancer was also in her family history: her mother had pancreatic cancer, and both her paternal and maternal grandmothers had cancer later in life.

He received four rounds of chemotherapy, each 21 days apart. Despite undergoing chemotherapy, she said she didn’t miss much school because there was no school over the holidays for part of the time she spent recovering from the side effects of chemotherapy.

His chemotherapy treatments were scheduled for Fridays, so after each treatment, the idea was that he would have the weekend to recover. He didn’t quite work out that way, he explained to her, because he received steroids as part of his pre-treatment regimen, which gave him a boost. He didn’t really feel the deep fatigue until Tuesday, when he said he could feel the energy draining from his body.

“On Tuesdays and Wednesdays I would just kill myself,” he said. In those days, she said he felt a flu-like tiredness that made his bones numb.

“All I could do was curl up on the couch and lose 24 hours,” he said. “It’s the strangest thing I’ve ever had in my life.”

With double mastectomy, breast reconstruction and chemotherapy, and another subsequent breast reconstruction to correct some “imbalances,” Crum is grateful for everyone on her care team, including Ada Torres, who has retired; Dr. Shelby Blank, TMH surgeon; oncologist Karen Russell MD; plastic surgeon Larry Harper, MD, of the Tallahassee Plastic Surgery Clinic; and Dr. Robert Frable of Capital Regional’s primary care office in Crawfordville, who has since retired.

She is also grateful to her daughter, Natalie, now 27, and stepdaughter Carla Lunny.

“He couldn’t have done it alone,” Crum said.

Carla accompanied Crum on her chemotherapy visits to make sure she had her sub-zero “cold caps” ready. The “cold coating” is designed to inhibit hair loss due to chemotherapy by preventing the drug from reaching the hair follicles, Crum said. The caps had to be kept in a freezer or cooler to be changed every 15 minutes during the IV chemotherapy infusion, which could take several hours.

“It was an all-day procedure,” Crum said, “and she was dedicated to it.”

Thanks to the protection against the cold, Crum said when she returned to school, she never seemed like a cancer patient to the children.

“It made me feel special that I didn’t lose my hair,” she said.

Natalie Crum also returned home to help care for her mother.

About two years ago, Alicia Crum dropped out of the school system to spend more time with her husband, who has ongoing health problems. She now works from home, as an English teacher for a virtual school.

Crum, now 58, has takeaways to share from his experience.

The most important thing: “If you find something suspicious, do not delay, hesitate, deny.”

He said that the cancer in his body was growing very fast. In a pathology report after the double mastectomy, he said that his right breast also showed signs of cancer (invasive ductal carcinoma) that probably would not have been found for six months or more had he not opted for the double mastectomy.

Crum said that when her oncologist suggested removing both breasts, the doctor was relieved because insurance companies often prohibit doctors from recommending a double mastectomy if only one breast has been confirmed to have cancer.

She said if a patient asks to have both breasts removed, it’s a different story.

“Women need to know that,” she said.

Despite the double mastectomy and chemotherapy, Crum said there’s still a more than 33 percent chance of recurrence, which is why she takes hormone suppressants, something she thinks she’ll have to do for the rest of her life. She said that even in menopause, a woman’s body can release small amounts of hormones, which promote cancer.

“This pill makes sure the body doesn’t make any hormones,” he said, “so the cancer can’t feed on it.”

The downside of this treatment, Crum said, is that it prolongs the “menopausal condition” forever, including hot flashes, dry skin, weight gain and fatigue.

Crum has been doing everything he can to mitigate these symptoms, maintaining a strict eating plan and exercising regularly, but he has committed to taking his medication.

“I’m going to do everything I have to do,” he said. “I’m not going to stop taking them.”

With her healthy lifestyle, which includes avoiding extra calories from wine, cutting back on carbohydrates and sugar, and exercising regularly, she has lost 67 lbs.

She’s rightfully proud of the stamina she’s built by riding her elliptical bike (which has three wheels) through her neighborhood and onto the beach at Mashes Sands.

“When I leave the house, that’s what I’m going to do,” he said. “It’s nothing to ride 3 miles at a time. I can go 9 miles per hour”, he said laughing, “very fast”.

Leave a Comment