Beating the odds
Hartselle woman fights though breast cancer diagnosis, treatment
By Jennifer L. Williams
For the Enquirer
Three years ago, Melissa Dalrymple sat in the car line at Hartselle Intermediate School the week of Thanksgiving. While waiting to pick up her daughter, she received a phone call that would change her life.
“I’d had my regular annual mammogram in October,” said the Hartselle mother of two, “but I never heard anything back from the doctor. I just assumed all was fine. But I answered my phone, and it was the doctor’s office saying they saw something ‘suspicious,’ and they wanted me to come in for more tests.”
With the busy holiday season, it took a few weeks to schedule and complete the ultrasound and biopsy. Melissa was out to dinner with her husband Kevin and daughters Natalie and Allison, ages 15 and 10, in December when she got the call with her results.
“The words started blurring together at that point,” she said. “I started Googling as soon as I hung up the phone, and it was not encouraging.”
The following Monday, Melissa received a more detailed diagnosis. Her breast cancer was what medical professionals call “triple-negative,” which means it tested negative for estrogen and progesterone receptors as well as for the HER2/neu protein.
Triple-negative breast cancer accounts for about 10-15 percent of all breast cancers. It is considered an aggressive cancer because it grows quickly, is more likely to have spread by the time it’s found and is more likely to come back after treatment than other types of breast cancer, according to the American Cancer Society.
Melissa booked appointments in Birmingham and soon had a whole team of doctors – an oncologist, a radiologist and a surgeon. They met with her and recommended chemotherapy, then surgery, finishing with radiation.
Melissa started chemo in Birmingham in mid-January 2018, going once a week for 12 treatments. “I was fortunate having my mom be able to come with me for my treatments,” she says. “We would drop off my girls at school and head straight down so we could do the treatment and be back before the girls were out of school that day.”
At the end of her first round of chemo, her doctors discovered she’d had a “complete response” to treatment, meaning the tumor had disappeared, but they all agreed to move forward with the rest of the planned treatment to reduce the chances of the cancer returning.
So Melissa started what is known as A/C “Red Devil,” a particularly toxic form of chemotherapy that has to be spaced out to give the body time to recover.
“Those were not fun,” said Melissa. She said she actually weathered the treatments better than most, which she attributes to drinking “a ton” of water before and after her treatments to help “flush” her system.
“I didn’t have too many terrible side effects,” she said. “I did lose my hair and would feel really exhausted after treatments, but I just told myself if I was feeling badly, it must be doing its job.”
Melissa followed this treatment with a lumpectomy, which found no signs of cancer. “They called it a pathological complete response,” she said, but she still chose to continue with the five-days-a-week radiation to complete the entire course of treatment.
“I figured if I do it all, and did everything I could, I would have the best chance of being there for my girls when they grow up,” said Melissa.
Today Melissa maintains a clean bill of health, having just completed a follow-up mammogram – something she does every six months now. Her doctors have been positive about her long-term prognosis.
She said she is thankful for her family and for their church family at Central Baptist.
“I am so very blessed,” she said. “God really watched over me. At first I was really scared to death, but then once treatments started, I settled down and made it through.”
Melissa and her family took a trip to California to celebrate her good results. “I think the most important thing I did throughout the whole thing was to keep a positive attitude, and I basically kept my same routine,” she said. “That – and my family and friends really helped me be where I am today, and I am thankful.”