A small lump high in her breast didn't really concern Danette Tucker.
She was only 39, so she assumed it was nothing.
That was January 2011.
Photo by Diana Paddock
Danette Tucker and her three daughters, Emily,
Katelynn and Alyssa.
By March, Danette - a mother of three busy girls, age 11, 15 and 17 - finally decided to make an appointment with a gynecologist, "just to make sure," she said.
By the time she got in it was April.
"I had been avoiding the dreaded gynecologist for about four years," Danette shared, "so it was about time anyway."
"I wasn't very thrilled to go, but there I was. I told her that I had a lump in my breast and that it was new, never been there before. She really didn't say much about it. She kind of shrugged it off, so I figured it was no big deal. At the very end of the appointment she did ask me if I wanted to get a mammogram to check it out further, but she didn't make a big deal about it so I said 'no'."
"Over the next several months, I noticed that my lump was getting bigger," Danette remembered. "By the end of the summer it was quite a bit bigger and it was starting to ache."
"I was thinking, 'Should I call again and ask if I should be concerned now or am I just being paranoid?' I wasn't sure if I should call my gynecologist again."
Danette got caught up in the beginning of the school year with her three daughters. Katelynn, 18, is a swimmer and student athletic trainer at Corry High School. She is in honors choir and student council. Alyssa, 15, is a swimmer and a member of student council. Emily, 11, is in basketball, cheerleading and soccer.
Lots to keep a mom and dad, Roy, moving.
"They keep me very busy," Danette explained.
But in the whirlwind of school-year parenting, she ignored the growing lump in her breast.
"I ended up putting it off a couple more months, even though deep down I knew I needed to have it checked out," she said.
She finally decided to call the gynecologist again in December.
Danette had her mammogram and a follow up with a surgeon.
"That really freaked me out," Danette remembered. "I didn't know a surgeon came standard with a mammogram."
"The day of my mammogram my anxiety was so high that I just sobbed," Danette shared. "I knew I was in trouble; I just knew it."
Before she could meet the surgeon, the doctor's office called to tell her that the mammogram didn't look good and to make sure she took someone with her to her appointment with the surgeon.
"I was absolutely terrified. I thought, 'great I'm dying'."
"I was an absolute mess by the time I went to see the surgeon," Danette said. "He told me my mammogram was ugly and I needed a biopsy. He also told me that it was most likely a lymphoma, or, if it was a breast cancer, that it would be a weird breast cancer because of its location."
The third possibility was that the lump was an infection, the kind you get from cats.
"I was really hoping for the infection," Danette said.
"I thought, 'I'm only 39. It can't be cancer, especially a weird cancer'."
The most difficult part of the few weeks between Danette's appointment and diagnosis was keeping her fears to herself, keeping it from her beautiful daughters.
"I didn't want to say anything until I knew," she said. But, "I'm not exactly the best at hiding things. I'm a pretty emotional person."
"The following week was my biopsy, and a few days later I went in for my results. My breath was taken away when he said, 'you have breast cancer and looks to be a Stage III'."
It was Dec. 19, 2011. Danette was diagnosed with Stage III invasive ductal carcinoma.
"I couldn't hear anything else he had to say after that," Danette said. "I just sobbed uncontrollably, and I kept saying, 'This is not right'."
Danette was referred to a medical oncologist. Although she was terrified, she listened to all the information he had to share.
"My only thought was that I have three beautiful daughters I want to be around for and I'm only 39 years old," she said. "I just wanted to know if he could help me save my life."
A second biopsy provided the clues Danette's oncologist needed to start treatment, she explained, first chemotherapy to shrink the tumor, surgery, then radiation.
"Sounded like a good plan to me," Danette said. "I just wanted to start fighting the cancer."
The girls handled their mom's diagnosis in various ways but were generally supportive. There was a lot of anger about the unfairness of Danette's diagnosis and the practical matters of day-to-day life when they had to help out. The girls had to pitch in and care for one another some days.
"My oldest one instantly became an advocate for me," Danette shared. "She even got her swim team members to wear pink swim caps in support of me. Somehow she also got the Girard swim team to come all in pink for one of the Corry home meets. I can't tell you how much it touched me."
"My middle daughter had a really difficult time with it in the beginning," Danette said. "She was very angry for quite some time. I had to actually take her with me to my first chemotherapy so she could see that it wasn't as terrible as she was imagining ... even though I really didn't know. My youngest seemed rather clueless at first, but as I got closer to my surgery date she revealed to me that she was afraid of losing me."
Chemo started by the end of January as did the resulting nausea and exhaustion.
"That's some rough stuff," Danette said. "After my second treatment, I started to lose my hair quite rapidly. It was really devastating."
Her responsibilities as a mom kept her going.
"It took me a few weeks to come to grips with everything. I was quite a mess, but then I realized that my emotional roller coaster was effecting my children. Right then and there I decided that I was going to keep my head up high and fight this nasty beast head on."
The illness and treatment took a huge toll on Danette's family.
"I tried to keep things as normal as possible" for the children, she said, "because it was so stressful."
But that was a challenge. When chemo was taking its toll, it was difficult for Danette to say no.
"I'm the mom who goes to every game, concert, meet," she said, and often her husband is working.
"My husband is a long haul truck driver, so he is away often. He has had a very difficult time coming to grips with my diagnosis, as well. It's also very hard for him to be away while I've been going through treatments. My parents have been my rock through this whole thing, especially my mom, who has gone with me to just about every single appointment I've had to date."
Because the chemo was effective, she had the option of having a lumpectomy with lymphnode dissection, which occurred in July.
She is currently finishing up radiation treatment at Warren General Hospital Cancer Center and is looking forward to being cancer free.
"It's been a long and difficult road these past several months, but the light at the end of the tunnel is a lot clearer now," she said. "I still have some bad days, but they are few and far between."
"I just had the privileged of celebrating my 40th birthday in August," Danette said. "I never thought I would be excited to turn 40, ever."
"I am fighting this cancer with every ounce of my faith, strength and being," she said. "I don't want to leave my children motherless, not when there are so many important things for us to experience together. I have graduations, dances, proms and other firsts to be here for."
"I am so very thankful for each and every day I have on this earth," she shared. "I will never take anything for granted again. You don't know how frail your life is until something like this happens."
Danette, who has no family history of breast cancer, encourages other women to have anything suspicious checked out by a doctor immediately.
"If you find something suspicious, don't second guess yourself," she said. "Don't just blow if off and think that it's nothing. It can happen to you."