Breast cancer survivor tackles the journey head-on

“This is not the end of my life, having breast cancer.  I’m going to get through it.  I’m going to be just fine.” 

One beautiful spring evening in May, Terri Wilson was sitting on her living room couch, arms crossed, when she felt the lump. 

“I didn’t freeze,” she said, remembering.  “I knew immediately what I needed to do.”

That’s just Terri, handling things as they come.  The next day she called her gynecologist to make an appointment.  Days later, after a mammogram and an ultrasound, Terri was surprised when the radiologist himself came into the room.

“He said I needed a biopsy,” Terri said.  That’s the first time Terri Wilson realized this journey was going to be longer than she ever anticipated.

Dr. Lisa Bellin, breast cancer surgeon at Saint Thomas West, was Terri’s next stop. The lab report on the biopsy came back with the news no woman ever wants to hear:  breast cancer

“I just went going forward, step by step,” Terri said.  “I had no idea how much the cancer had grown or what stage it was.  I had to wait about a month between the biopsy and surgery to find out.”

That’s when the stress set it, but even then, Terri’s husband and best friend were even more afraid than she was.  “I didn’t cry much,” she said.  “But when they cried, it made me cry.” 

Terri had BRCA genetic testing to see if she carries the gene that causes breast cancer.  “The test was negative, but by this time, I was prepared for it to be positive,” she said.  “I was ready to pull the trigger, without hesitation, and go ahead with a double mastectomy if necessary.”

As Terri’s lumpectomy surgery date neared, she got a call saying her insurance was denying reconstruction. The surgery was postponed.

“My plastic surgeon, Dr. Michael Cash at Saint Thomas Midtown, went to bat for me,” she said.  “I’ll never forget that.  He fought for me.”    If reconstruction was not covered, Terri would have had a large, permanent depression in her breast, even from the most minor option, a lumpectomy. 

Dr. Bellin had presented all possible options to Terri, from a lumpectomy to a double mastectomy.  The final decision couldn’t be made until Dr. Bellin did the surgery and saw the extent of the cancer. 

Fortunately, the day came and Terri and her family got the best possible news under the circumstances:  the cancer was Stage 1 and had not spread to the lymph nodes.  She had a lumpectomy, and was scheduled for six rounds of chemotherapy and 33 radiation treatments.

Dr. Gian at Tennessee Oncology Associates at Saint Thomas Rutherford Hospital is my primary doctor right now,” Terri said.  “I love him. He’s a straight talker.  He doesn’t sugarcoat what’s happening, but he’s kind and compassionate.  For example, he told me he was really sorry, but my hair was going to fall out.”  

Terri has been married to her husband, Kevin Wilson, for 23 years.  The couple have three children:  Ryan, 22, a junior at MTSU majoring in health; Emilee, 19, a sophomore at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville majoring in architecture; and Seth, 15, at Eagleville High School.  Self-employed, the couple purchases their own health insurance. 

Before her diagnosis, Terri worked two jobs, as a self-employed house cleaner and in a children’s after-school program at Stevens Family Taekwondo.  Over the past year, she stopped cleaning houses because of the physicality of that work, but still works in the after-school program.

“Staying active and busy has been a saving grace,” she said.  “I have worked out almost every day, all through my treatment.”

Terri credits staying active, exercising and eating healthy---along with her strong faith---with the minimal effects her cancer treatment has had on her lifestyle.

“Even though I was pretty tired, I was able to go and work out,” she said.  “I had no nausea, just some food aversions. I’ve had lots of family support. And I wouldn’t be here, smiling like this, without God’s grace.”

Today, in addition to her family and her job, Terri works in the family’s large garden and strawberry patch on their farm in Rockvale.  She enjoys reading, and participates in the After Breast Cancer program at the Rutherford County Family YMCA four times a week. 

“This is not the end of my life, having breast cancer,” she says.  “It happened.  But I’m going to get through it.  I think differently now about life.  I appreciate things more.  There were hundreds of people praying for me over the past year.  Even though I was scared at times, my most constant feeling was peace.  I’m going to be just fine.”

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