Dawn Formea, left, celebrates her last radiation treatment alongside Leigh Ann McRoy, who went through treatments at the same time. Formea says the traumatic experience brought the women closer together.
There were no teasers or previews when it came to the day that forever changed Dawn Formea’s life.
“There was nothing to feel,” she says. “The mass didn’t even show up on the ultrasound.”
As a woman in her 40s, Dawn knew she had a responsibility to get annual checkups for breast cancer. Although the disease was not overly prevalent in her family, she did have aunts on either side who were diagnosed.
She went in for what she assumed was a routine checkup. The results came back as “abnormal,” and an ultrasound was scheduled.
“I still wasn’t too concerned,” she says. “This had happened before.”
But when the ultrasound called for a biopsy, that got her attention.
“I was not a zealot about getting checked, but I did it every year, and thank God I did,” she says.
Breast cancer is the most common cancer diagnosis for women, accounting for 25 percent of all cancers. In 2012, there were more than 1.5 million cases, resulting in 522,000 deaths.
As is the case with most cancers, endless arguments can be made when it comes to concrete causes as well as the best treatments. With breast cancer, possible risk factors can be as straightforward as tobacco and genetics, or as obscure as shift work and pesticides.
A thesis on the disease was not in the forefront of Dawn’s mind, however, the day she got her results. All she heard was the “C-word”… and how it would affect her family.
Dawn lives in Godfrey with her husband of 23 years, Dr. Bob Formea (owner of Formea Animal Hospital in Alton) and children, 17-year-old Emily and 14-year-old Brian.
“I was concerned about how Brian would deal with my diagnosis,” she says. “He had seen some of his friends face this with their own families, so I wanted to try and protect him as much as I could.”
The tumor was “stage zero” (a marker condition, much less severe than later stages), and was caught early, so the prognosis looked good. She went in for surgery and was home that same afternoon.
“I really tried not to say, ‘Why me,’” Dawn says. “I knew there were many women with much worse diagnoses than mine. I tried to see it as, ‘This is the best of the worst news I could get.’”
The diagnosis was nothing to take lightly, however. Although she was stage zero, it was an aggressive tumor.
“I really believe if I had waited six months, it would have been a very different scenario,” she says. “I could easily have not taken it seriously, especially since it had happened before.”
Six weeks of radiation followed, five days a week.
“That was more taxing, both physically and emotionally, than I thought it would be,” she remembers. “I was getting it done here in Alton, so I thought it would be no big deal.”
As anyone with a serious illness will tell you, a strong support system is not only important, it is vital. Along with supportive family and friends, department head of oncology and radiology at Alton Memorial Stacey Ballard was a light in the darkness.
“We were friends before, and I don’t know how I could have navigated this without her,” Dawn says. “It takes a lot to get through something like this, and you have to be prepared to lean on everyone that you can. It takes a village, because it is just so much, so fast, so unexpected.
“This is a social group I never thought I would be a part of.”
And that social group is large. Today, it is more likely than not readers know someone close to them who has been diagnosed with breast cancer … and although it is 100 times more common in women than in men, males are not immune.
With today’s advancements and early detection, however, seeing a diagnosis as a “death sentence” just may be giving the cancer more credit than it deserves.
“I realize just how lucky I am,” Dawn says, smiling. “I know how much worse it could have been. I want to make sure I remember that each and every day.
“I think (this experience) has made me a more positive person. That is what I hope and want, anyway. I also learned that I am tougher than I thought I could ever be.”