Breast cancer survivors’ stories shed light on disease, awareness

Published 12:20 am Thursday, November 2, 2023

Patty Kupper remembers the exact date she noticed something suspicious in her breast.

She also remembers the moment in the days after surgery when she was filled with peace and knew she was going to be OK.

The Port Neches woman woke up Nov. 11, 1996, with a bruised feeling in her breast. She took a shower, felt a pea-sized lump and called her doctor right away.

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“It was a feeling of dread. I was soaping up and felt the lump. My heart sank,” Kupper said.

At the time she was 42 with no history of breast cancer in the family.

Kupper shared her story with Port Arthur Newsmedia during Breast Cancer Awareness Month, along with Dianne Brown, Sharon Williams and Corby Woods. These brave women battled breast cancer and now tell others the importance of early detection, how having support can help physically and emotionally and of programs such as the Julie Rogers Gift of Life program Active Living After Cancer.

A week after the doctor’s visit, Kupper underwent a biopsy and the cancer was confirmed.

A storyboard made by Patty Kupper while taking part in the Active Living After Cancer program. (Courtesy photo)

“I had two kids about to graduate in May, one from college and another in high school,” she remembers. “I said I don’t have time for this right now, but you end up making time.”

She also had a child in middle school at the time.

By Nov. 26 that year Kupper underwent a modified radical mastectomy on her right breast and on Thanksgiving Day, she was waiting on her doctor to give the final pathology report and discharge her from the hospital.

That is when something special happened.

“I opened up the blinds in the morning and there was such a beautiful sunrise. The rays were shining down. I felt a peace come over me, and the (doctor) said everything is OK,” Kupper said.

The cancer was gone with the surgery, and no cancer was found in the lymph nodes.

Next came the recovery process. Due to the surgery she was unable to lift her arm to wash her face or even brush her hair, so she began a little exercise where she made a pencil mark on a wall and used her fingers to travel up the wall.

By January 1997 she met with two oncologists who each suggested the same course of chemotherapy. She chose the one closest to her home, which was then called Mamie McFaddin-Ward Cancer Center.

A storyboard made by Patty Kupper while taking part in the Active Living After Cancer program. (Courtesy photo)

One day she was fine, the next day she was nauseous. Then her white blood cell count would go down, then back to normal, only for her to start the next round.

She hoped she would be one of the lucky ones and not lose her hair, but that wasn’t in the cards. She ended up with a short haircut, but her hair fell out anyway.

There were bright moments in the journey. A cousin who is always looking on the bright side sent her a card that made her laugh.

“It said when life gives you lemons, (opens card) stuff them in your bra,” she said with a laugh. “I thought, how appropriate is that? Laughter is the best medicine.”

Kupper then underwent the procedure to prepare her body for reconstructive surgery. This requires expanders placed in her chest and routinely filled with saline.

It was painful.

This went on for a few weeks before they were removed and the implants put in.

“They’re not the same. They’re not the same size. I was self-conscious,” she said. “I went back to work and would wear a scarf on my head. I didn’t like wigs, they were hot and I was afraid it would fall off. But things gradually got better and you go on with life.”

She recalled the night her and her husband sat down and told the children about the cancer. They all said OK and went back to their rooms and discussed it a bit. She didn’t realize until much later how it impacted their lives.

“It took a long time for them to come to grips with it,” she said.

Kupper took part in the Active Living After Cancer program through the Gift of Life and MD Anderson.

But unlike many, she did the program years after her cancer.

In 2021 she was approached about taking the course and thought, “oh my God, it’s been 25 years.”

Rita Davis, one of the facilitators, urged her to sign up.

“It was exactly what I needed at that time,” she said.

The course happened during the pandemic, so classes were done via Zoom. She felt a kinship with the women in the program.

The 12-week program met one day a week for two hours, she said.

Kupper said the facilitators have a way to guide a person through their feelings and teach them how to be healthier.

“You realize you were so busy going through the motions of everyday life, kids, husband, then getting through chemo, that you didn’t take time for yourself,” she said. “You finally have to come to terms with what you lost, a breast. Yes, you lost hair but life is still going on. I think that’s important. Everybody has their own story. You learn from them and they learn from you. You learn to problem solve.”

Breast cancer is something Kupper wouldn’t wish on anybody.

“You have to keep your faith and have the support of your family or like the people in this group,” she said.

Kupper took the BRCA test to see if the cancer is hereditary and it came back negative.

Breast Cancer Awareness Month is over now but awareness must continue. Get checked. You don’t have to wait until October rolls around. Early detection saves lives.