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The lump and pain that would not go away

Vernell Miller is the fourth person in her family to be diagnosed with cancer
  • Vernell Miller.

Guardian Lifestyles Editor

Published: Oct 29, 2013

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Vernell Miller has a high incidence of cancer in her family – she had a sister pass away in 2001 due to breast cancer; another sister who is a seven-year survivor – despite that she never felt the urge to take a mammogram herself – that was until two months ago. Miller had her first mammogram and it revealed the worst possible result – she had Stage II breast cancer.

The lump in her right breast the 56-year-old mother of one said she found herself in May through self-examination, was brought to the attention of her husband, Anthony Miller, who said he did not feel anything, and to her nurse sister, who she said told her that it was probably chalked up to fibrocystic breasts. Miller put it out of her mind and ignored it for two months.

While on vacation, she felt a pain in her breast that she brought to the attention of her mother, Geneva Pinder, who was traveling with her at the time. As she was wearing an underwire bra, she removed it, thinking that would give her relief, did not feel the pain for the rest of the day so she again ignored it. She spoke to a nurse friend about it who told her to have it checked out when they returned home. The pain again went away, so Miller ignored having it checked out.

Miller, who accompanies her sister and her mother to doctors appointments, said she was at one of those dual visits — with her mother at the eye clinic and her sister at her doctor’s office downstairs. While she collected her sister she said she jokingly said to her doctor that she felt “funny” in her breasts and wanted him to check it out. “I have to know that I’m well too, and I was really kidding,” she said. The doctor’s receptionist told her to have an ultrasound or a mammogram, neither of which Miller wanted to do.

“I’m scared of those things; I’m not into that,” she said of the tests. “I just wanted him to check it. He said to her when she returned with my sister that he would examine me.”

Two days later, Miller said she was still feeling “funny”, and she went to have an ultrasound done. After that result, it was requested that she also have a mammogram.

Miller’s biopsy was done on July 24. She was diagnosed on August 13, one day before her 35th wedding anniversary.

Miller has become one of a growing statistic that shows a high incidence of breast cancer in Bahamian women.

In a recent study that involved Dr. Judith Hurley, a breast cancer specialist at the University of Miami School of Medicine; Dr. Theodore Turnquest of the Oncology Center at Princess Margaret Hospital (PMH) and Dr. John Lunn, medical director at the Bahamas Breast Cancer Initiative, research has shown that 48 percent of women diagnosed with breast cancer in The Bahamas are under the age of 50; 20 percent of the women diagnosed with breast cancer in The Bahamas are under the age of 40.

According to research, 42 is the average age of women diagnosed with breast cancer in The Bahamas, and 44 percent of women diagnosed with breast cancer in The Bahamas present with late Stage 3 or late Stage 4 breast cancer.

“When I got the result, I never shed one tear; I never got upset. I did not get frustrated, and I did not get angry,” said Miller. “I said I’m blessed and God will deal with that.”

She made plans, not having even told her husband yet that she had been diagnosed.

When the doctor came in to speak with her, she inquired of him when they would do what needed to be done without even speaking to her husband first. As soon as the diagnosis was confirmed, she decided she would remove the right breast and have reconstruction surgery.

“I decided on one breast basically because of my husband honestly, and the doctor said it wasn’t necessary to remove both breasts then because it was so small. I think he was being a little considerate too,” she said.

Since her surgery, Miller said her husband has told her to remove both breasts to give her the best chance of beating breast cancer. He told her to remove both the night before her September 4 surgery. It was too late to come to that decision mere hours before her surgery. She felt that if he had said it even two days before that it could have been done. But she said she realized he had to do his own research and come to answers about what was best for her by himself.

Miller plans to have the second breast removed early next year and have reconstruction at the same time. She says she’s going for 18-year-old breasts.

Before she was diagnosed, Miller said even though she felt the lump and had pain in her breasts that she never really thought she had breast cancer. But one of the newest members of the Sister Sister Breast Cancer Support Group says she now encourages people to not take anything for granted. The woman who prior to this year had never had a mammogram says she now encourages her sisters who have never had mammograms to have it done.

“When you think you have done it all, and everything possible to keep yourself in the right way, or the way God wants it to be… you have done everything honestly, you feel like God has you so wrapped up, so protected that nothing will happen to you,” she said.

Miller has been given a four-course treatment. She’s only had one treatment so far and says she’s feeling fine. But she says people who feel lumps should never ignore them, and have a mammogram annually.

As she battles breast cancer, Miller does not have health insurance but she says she and her husband are dealing with the bills as they come. She estimates that her bills have already amounted to over $70,000 in a few short weeks, and she knows that there is more to come.

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