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'It never really goes away'

Westerly — It’s a distinction Michele Gardner would rather not have but embraces just the same.

She’s a breast cancer survivor and, because of that, a mentor to women going through the same painful diagnosis.

The mentoring wasn’t something that Gardner planned, but what she soon learned, once she was a survivor and friends began asking her to counsel women they knew who were shattered by their own breast cancer diagnoses.

“Once you’ve been diagnosed, people see you as a go-to person, someone who can put others’ minds at ease,” said Gardner, 61, a Westerly resident and fitness instructor who teaches spin, Silver Sneakers and other classes at the Ocean Community YMCA and for Stonington Human Services.

“I’m a shoulder to cry on. I’m someone to talk to. I’ll speak to a friend or a neighbor and I’m happy to do it because I know how terrifying it was for me,” she said. “Unfortunately, I do it more often than I’d like to because a lot of people get diagnosed.”

Gardner’s own reality came in 2014, following her annual mammogram, which included additional scans because of her dense breast tissue. In 2012, she was called back to be rescanned after inconclusive results, before finally being cleared. And then again, late in 2013, there were additional scans that led to a biopsy and then her diagnosis a few days before Valentine’s Day in 2014.

She had gone to her follow-up appointment alone and expected to hear that everything was OK, but instead remembers the words cancer, surgery, chemotherapy, radiation and the diagnosis — invasive ductal carcinoma, Stage 2, triple negative.

Triple-negative breast cancer is a cancer that tests negative for estrogen receptors, progesterone receptors and excess HER2 protein, according to www.breastcancer.org. About 10% to 20% of breast cancers are triple-negative.

The oncologist explained what was ahead for Gardner, but everything was a blur and later she’d be grateful for the folder of helpful information she was sent home with.

The cancer was in her left breast and she would go through a lumpectomy and the removal of some lymph nodes followed by chemotherapy, all at Rhode Island Hospital. But the chemo caused debilitating neuropathy, and her regimen was discontinued.

“It was kind of sad, because you want the cancer gone and you know the chemo is killing it, but the neuropathy was just so bad,” she said.

Late that summer, Gardner would undergo radiation and hear the news that September that she was cancer-free.

“But you’re not, really. It’s never done. It never really goes away,” she said, adding, “It’s just scary, very scary.”

Gardner has good reason to feel that way. In 2018, when she went in for corrective reconstructive surgery to even out her lopsided breasts, the surgeon found and removed precancerous cells in her milk ducts.

Now, she has regular appointments and screenings to keep on top of her health and will step up whenever she can to advise and support other breast cancer patients. Sometimes, she meets these women at her exercise classes or through an acquaintance or friend.

She advocates for women to find a doctor they can talk to and encourages them to ask questions.

“If you’re not comfortable, get a second opinion, and a third opinion. Don’t settle,” she said.

In hindsight, Gardner believes in 2012 she should have asked more questions and been more assertive about her own care when she had that questionable mammogram.

“The earlier we catch it, the better off we are,” she said.

But she’s generous with her time and her advice when she meets a newly diagnosed patient.

“I tell them it’s going to be all right. Yes, it’s scary, but it will be all right," she says. "And I tell them to try to find humor, and to surround themselves with great people.”

Caregivers need support, too

Her own family and friends, including her husband, Stephen, and her sons, were there when she needed them, and for that she will be forever grateful.

“If you know someone taking care of a breast cancer patient, ask them how they are doing and what they need,” she said. “Caregivers need support, too.”

For Gardner, who has always been a giver, accepting help from others was difficult at first. She recalls a woman she didn’t know coming to her door and leaving a beautiful quilt with beach scenes.

“And it just hit me, that I was the one in need and that was really hard,” she said. She accepted the help and the gifts and support, and now, she’s the giver again.

“When you get that gift, you need to give back,” she said. 

Editor's Note: This version corrects the spelling of Michele Gardner's first name in the photo captions.

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