By COLLEEN MCCARTHY
When VerLean Akins received her breast cancer diagnosis in August of 1998, she said she was surprised because she was young, healthy and had no family history of the disease.
Within just four years, two of her five sisters would also receive the same life-changing diagnosis.
Akins was just 33 years old and a new mom to a baby girl when she received the news.
“I had just gone for my regular check-up and everything came back fine. My baby was 17-and-a-half months old when I got diagnosed, and I was having a little bit of discharge from my breasts and I thought it was strange,” she said. “But we checked that, and everything was fine. So we weren’t going to do anything else, but my OB/GYN told me to get a mammogram and I thought, ‘Oh my God,’ but I did it. It came back and there was a lump in my right breast, and we had been focusing on the left breast.”
Though the diagnosis came as a surprise, but the cancer was only in stage one and the prognosis was good. With a young daughter at home, all she could think about was getting back and being a mom.
“I told my doctor, ‘Whatever we have to do, let’s get it done. I’ve got to get home to my baby.’ I found out, had a biopsy on a Wednesday. My doctor called on Thursday and gave me the results. I had a consultation on Friday, and on Monday I was in the hospital having surgery,” Akins said. “I had a my right breast removed. After that, because it was so early in stage one, they didn’t see the need for chemo, nor radiation. I took a drug called Tamoxifen for 60 months, which is five years.”
After the mastectomy and years of medication, she never saw her cancer come back. But almost exactly two years after her own diagnosis, her sister Victoria Hill found a lump in her left breast.
“Her treatment was totally different. She had a lumpectomy — she had the lump removed,” Akins said. “Then she went through chemo and radiation. She had radiation for 30 days and she had eight rounds of chemo because hers was more advanced. It was stage four.”
Hill said that her sister was a big supporter during her treatment.
“She was able to tell me a lot of stuff about the treatments, even though our treatments were very different,” she said. “I saw how she got through it and it lifted me up a lot.”
Hill recovered, but right around the five year anniversary of her diagnosis, the cancer came back in a lymph node in her neck. She took a chemotherapy drug by mouth for about a year before she was in the clear again.
Then just two years after Hill’s diagnosis, their sister Annie received the same bad news.
She had stage one cancer in her right breast.
Though her diagnosis was similar to Akins’, her doctors decided an aggressive approach would be best. She had four rounds of chemotherapy and a mastectomy.
“They were strong, strong fighters throughout the whole thing,” Akins said.
VerLean has been cancer-free for 13 years, Victoria for nearly five years and Annie for nine years.
“I think we’re all like the Energizer bunnies — we just keep going and going and going,” Akins said. “It takes a lot more than that to stop us.”
One thing women could learn from her story, Akins said, was nobody is immune. She and her sisters were all under the age of 40, had no previous family history and where otherwise healthy women. She also have three other sisters who have undergone genetic testing to see if they are predisposed to the disease, but the results said they weren’t. Hill said she was tested as well, out of fear that she may have passed it on to her three daughters, but the test said she did not have the gene either.
“Most of the time they say it could be hereditary or it could be genetic, but a lot of times, it’s not,” Akins said.
She stressed that early detection can make a huge impact when fighting the cancer, so it is essential that women get checked regularly.
“Please get checked, regardless, because I was 33 when I got diagnosed. Do your self-check exams. Make sure that you keep your appointments,” Akins said. “I know it can be frightening to go to the doctor because you don’t want to hear that anything is not right. It doesn’t matter if you have a history in your family, please get checked. It’s out there and it’s not targeting one group of people, one race, one age group.”