By MARTHA SMITH
Special to the Standard
NORTH KINGSTOWN – What most people would regard as tragic is not how Anne Huling views the toll taken on her body through numerous surgeries and progressive deafness that forced her to end the teaching career she loved.
She is a survivor in every sense of the word; her spirit has risen to fight lung cancer which she feels was caused by second-hand smoke in a small, windowless teacher’s lounge.
She has battled back from abdominal surgery after two small growths were found in the colon: she also had her gall bladder removed.
And she has triumphed over breast cancer, electing to undergo a therapeutic mastectomy of the right breast after the left was invaded by malignancy.
She’d had biopsies in 1998, 2000 and 2001 – what she terms “many call-backs” – but things seemed normal. “The first one scared me,” she admits. “I had just had lung cancer although I’d never smoked.” She’d had surgery on the left lung and, as it developed, breast cancer appeared on the same side.
Then, starting in 2008, Anne endured multiple agonizing tests after a mammogram found a tumor when neither she nor a doctor could find anything wrong during external examinations.
She shares her story for National Breast Cancer Awareness Month, stressing the importance of mammograms. She says the annual procedure is vital; without it, her cancer would have gone undetected.
“There was no cancer in my family,” she notes. “I was no more susceptible than anyone else.”
According to BreastCancer.org, one in eight women will develop invasive breast cancer during the course of their lifetimes; last year there were 230,480 new cases and 57,650 more of in situ (contained) breast cancer. Although slightly more than 39,000 were expected to die of the disease, mortality rates have steadily declined since 1990 largely because of screenings.
Anne’s courage in opting for a double mastectomy is an option not commonly chosen: standard protocol is some combination of surgery, chemotherapy and radiation. (TV reality show host Giuliana Rancic recently made news when she publicly announced she was having the same preventive surgical procedure after cancer was discovered in one breast.)
Anne’s personal story began on Aug. 28, 2008, with a mammogram. On Sept. 11 a second mammogram and an ultrasound were performed; eight days later she endured the intense pain of a needle biopsy, performed by a doctor who inexplicably left the door open, exposing her to anyone who passed by in the hallway.
On Sept. 29, she received the biopsy results – positive for a left-breast malignancy – and 10 days afterward underwent a double-breast MRI. In 11 days a small tumor was also detected in the right breast. On Oct. 29, after Anne refused additional invasive testing and made her choice – “I’m very pragmatic” – a bilateral mastectomy was performed.
She remembers telling the doctor: “No more biopsies. It’s going. I didn’t need that fear,” she says. “I was 58 years old. I didn’t want her [the surgeon] to try and save the breast.”
Throughout her ordeal, Anne – who describes herself as “joyfully single” – was sustained by nurse friends and by her own sense of humor. Rather than weep, she has countered her situation with laughter.
For instance, when she had an MRI – lying face-down on a table with her breasts dangling – she found it hilarious that her round objects were being forced through square holes. “A man must have designed it,” she says of the unlikely configuration.
The technician told her how many images would be required. “I’ve always been small-breasted, so I said I didn’t think I had 420 pictures’ worth of boob,” she says, hooting uproariously.
Anne also resisted the surgeon’s urging to have breast reconstruction. She recalls thinking, “What? You’re taking something foreign out to put something foreign back in?” And when she was urged to wear a bra after surgery, she responded, “Really, they don’t get out much.”
Although the removal of the drains implanted during surgery was horrendous, she describes it in retrospect as pure physical comedy. She’d taken pain medication in advance and after the first drain came out effortlessly she breathed a sigh of relief.
Then the second drain refused to budge; tissue had grown around it. Giggling and jumping off the couch to demonstrate, Anne says she half-expected the doctor to plant a foot on her side to gain traction in yanking out the “garden hose” that was stuck.
The Saunderstown native who graduated from and then taught at Wickford Elementary School, shares her home on Tower Hill Road with a 12-year-old adopted German shepherd named Ruby and three cats including a pair of official greeters with Scottish names and a recluse.
Anne says her “life plan was to teach five more years” because she loved the job and the kids and then she was going to retire and give music lessons. A handsome old piano, a guitar and a French horn in the living room speak to her musical interests. Pervasive hearing loss ended that dream and forced early retirement.
“Who wants to study with a deaf music teacher?” she asks, smiling and shaking her head. Instead, she seeks introspection by paddling her kayak around Wickford Harbor, in the Wood River or the Narrow River.
Now 62, Anne was secure in choosing a bilateral mastectomy four years ago. “I’m still comfortable with it. I don’t regret it for a minute and I don’t think I would have minded if was 28.
“It was absolutely the right decision for me. I was so fortunate.”
Martha Smith is an award-winning journalist, author and cancer survivor. Retired, she is a freelance writer for SRIN.