Brittany D. McClure
The Valdosta Daily Times
Not many people can say that watching television saved their life. Many will argue that too much TV is today’s downfall in society. However, Deborah A. Butts Sirmans is one of those few people who can say that TV saved her life.
“I was at home from work,” said Sirmans. “I was just really, really, really tired and I could just not put a finger on my tiredness.”
Sirmans was cuddled up in a comforter on her bed watching Oprah, which she rarely got to do.
“Dr. Oz was on her show,” said Sirmans.
Dr. Oz was discussing breast cancer and he had all these mannequins he was using to demonstrate certain things.
“He said if you have an indention on your breast, you have cancer,” Sirmans recalled.
Dr. Oz moved to the second mannequin that had skin like an orange peel on the breast. This was another sign of cancer.
The third mannequin had one nipple that was relaxed and darker than the other one.
Sirmans got out of bed, walked to the mirror and looked at herself.
“I noticed that I had the indention on my left breast and the nipple was relaxed,” said Sirmans. “It frightened me so I covered up and got back in the bed.”
A week late on Oct. 15, 2009, Sirmans went to the doctor. The doctor started the exam and immediately noticed a problem.
“He said something was badly wrong here,” said Sirmans.
Sirmans was immediately sent to have a mammogram. She suspected that the outcome would not be good.
“I noticed they were doing a lot of extra tests,” said Sirmans.
As the people performing the tests cannot discuss results with the patients, Sirmans left still hoping for the best.
As she was pulling out of the driveway of the doctor’s office, she received a call from her doctor.
“They said, ‘It’s bad’,” Sirmans remembers.
There were three masses in Sirmans breast and what Sirmans recalls as “little beads.”
Sirmans was sent to a surgeon.
“He suggested a core biopsy and he immediately did that the next week,” said Sirmans.
The biopsy showed that three tumors were pre-cancerous but the “little beads” in her ducts were definitely cancer.
“The cancer was in these little beads that were all over the breast area,” said Sirmans. “He told me my breasts could not be saved.”
Sirmans had 34 lymph nodes, three pre-cancerous tumors and one breast removed during her single mastectomy on Nov. 2, 2009.
Out of the 34 lymph nodes removed, only one of them had cancer.
“Since it was only one lymph node, it was diagnosed Stage Two,” said Sirmans.
On Dec. 1, Sirmans had her first appointment at the Pearlman Cancer Center at South Georgia Medical Center.
“I had my first chemo treatment,” said Sirmans.
Typically doctors wait a while after surgery before sending their patients for chemotherapy treatments, but Sirmans’ cancer was so aggressive that they could not wait.
Everything was happening so quickly for Sirmans and the cancer was a huge adjustment and still a shock.
“I had my annual mammograms like I was supposed to,” said Sirmans.
Though difficult, the staff at Pearlman offered every tool and resource that Sirmans needed to adjust to and accept the reality of cancer.
“I think they have an excellent program there,” said Sirmans.
At Pearlman, every patient gets a binder that explains all the medicine, all the precautions and answers to things that Sirmans didn’t even know to ask.
“It was just so much information,” said Sirmans. “The book took out a little bit of the fear.”
The chemo was difficult for Sirmans and she had five very strong treatments, every 29 days through April 2010.
“Now I’m on hormone therapy,” said Sirmans.
In 2011, she had her ovaries removed to stop the estrogen production that was fueling the cancer.
At one point, the chemo had caused so many problems that she was on ten different medications.
“That’s where the problem is,” said Sirmans. “When you can’t afford the medicines.”
Paying for the health insurance alone takes a fourth of the family’s income.
“You’re paying high insurance and the co-pay for the drugs is ridiculously high,” said Sirmans.
The medicine co-pay was $250 a month.
“That’s not counting you have to make a co-pay every time you go to the doctor,” said Sirmans. “That’s $50.”
It got to the point that Sirmans was having to determine if she even had enough money for gas to get to her doctor appointments..
“Sometimes you have to make the bills lag behind to pay for the medicine,” said Sirmans.
The stress over money further fueled Sirmans’ illness.
“That’s where my faith in God came from,” said Sirmans.
The members of St. Paul AME Church rallied around her and threw a benefit to help raise money to pay for things such as bills, gas and medicine.
“The church was draped in red,” said Sirmans. “It was beautiful.”
They had a throne for her sit on and as she looked around, she saw the members from a number of churches that she had, at one time or another, played the organ for.
Sirmans has been playing the organ since she was 14. Music soothes her. Aside from her health, it was just one more thing that she lost in her battle with cancer. She used to teach music to children.
“Because they were children, I could not be around them because I had no immune system,” said Sirmans.
While Sirmans has gone back to playing organ twice a month for St. Paul and teaching children music at Quola Lowndes County Community Development Corporation, she has not completely regained her health.
“I battle with the effects from the chemo every day,” said Sirmans.
Sirmans is now a diabetic and her internal organs don’t function right and she has experienced difficulty with her heart and her kidneys.
“So you got all these specialists you need to go to but can’t afford,” said Sirmans.
Last year, Sirmans began to undergo reconstruction for her removed breast, but she later experienced a light stroke and was not able to continue with the process.
“She’s not finished because I got sick,” said Sirmans. “I can go back as soon as I can afford it.”
It’s been a difficult road for Sirmans and she’s not yet near the end as she will not be deemed cancer free until 2014, after she’s been in remission for five years.
However, Sirmans takes the time to share her story because she has a message bigger than breast cancer to spread.
“A lot of us don’t stand in the mirror and look at our bodies,” said Sirmans.
According to Sirmans, after a certain age, women cover up and never look at themselves.
“I’ve learned to love my body,” said Sirmans.
That epiphany started with Dr. Oz, who doesn’t know Sirmans and probably never will, but nevertheless, was the single person that possibly saved her life.
“That was divine intervention,” said Sirmans. “One doctor told me I would have been dead in six months.”
So the moral of the story is to know your body and love it. Luckily, Sirmans was urged by Dr. Oz to check herself. Others might not be as lucky so now Sirmans is doing the urging.
Visit www.doctoroz.com to read the breast self-awareness card and learn more about what you can do to detect breast cancer early.