A breast self-exam is a manual self-check for any changes in your breast tissue.
It can be a way to find breast cancer early. Haley Willette is a firm believer in that statement because that is exactly what happened to her.
“That’s what I tell people all the time,” the Hillcrest Elementary School Special Education teacher said as she described her personal journey with breast cancer that began early this year.
“You may not think that you need to do a self-check but you’ve got to do them,” the mother of 10-year-old twin boys stressed. “I really think that was the only way I would have found this.”
At a routine check up with Enterprise obstetrician-gynecologist Dr. Kent Heim, Willette was told that women between the ages of 35 and 40 should have a baseline mammogram—a mammogram taken to compare future mammograms to—and was given a doctor’s written direction to that effect. “To tell the truth, I just folded it up and threw it in a drawer,” Willette recalled with a smile.
On March 28, 2018, Willette had a baseline mammogram which tested normal. “The letter also had a generalized statement saying that with dense breast tissue there are some things that can’t be seen and that I should have follow up mammograms each year,” she said.
Willette did breast self-checks fairly often, she said. It was during such a self-check at the beginning of 2019 when she discovered a pea-sized lump “at the 6 o’clock position” on the bottom of her left breast.
“I started panicking,” she said, adding that she asked her husband, Jeremy, to check it. “Then I started Googling,” she said referring to her online research into the difference between breast cysts and tumors. “From everything I read, if it’s breast cancer it is kind of hard and doesn’t really move,” Willette said. “Mine moved around. I describe it as a hard, English pea underneath the surface of my skin. It was tiny, like the tip of my finger.
“But I just knew it wasn’t supposed to be there and I kept worrying,” Willette said. She called Heim who scheduled another mammogram immediately and told her to expect to have an ultrasound also.
“When the radiologist came in there was a look on his face that just told me something,” Willette said about the radiology doctor who read the test results. “He never really said the word ‘cancer.’ He just kept saying, ‘There is something there that just looks different than the rest of your breast tissue.’”
Willette and her husband next met with Enterprise surgeon Dr. Sherry Roach who explained options which included deciding between having a needle biopsy or surgery. Willette opted for surgery. “That was on a Wednesday and the following Friday, I had surgery to have the tumor taken out,” she said.
When Willette returned for a post-operative visit to Roach she learned the test results. “That’s when she told me it was breast cancer,” Willette said.
“I had prayed and prayed and prayed that whatever she told me the Lord would help me handle,” Willette said. “And I just prayed that if it is cancer, help me to accept whatever she says.
“When (Roach) came in, there was a look on her face that just told me what she was going to say,” Willette said. “I had been telling myself that no news is good news. I kept thinking that if it had been cancer, Dr. Roach would have already called and told me over the phone.
“I just had to sit there and let it soak in,” Willette recalled about the moment she heard the word cancer. “Because when you hear that word, when somebody tells you that you have cancer it’s like a million different things go across your mind. Like, what is my next step? What am I going to do? Am I going to live? How bad is it? You just have all of these things going through your brain.
“I sat there for a minute and then I just broke down. Just came apart,” she said. Willette called her husband who was at his drug store, Bryars-Warren Drug Company, filling in for a co-worker who was out.
After giving him the news, she put Roach on speaker phone with her husband. “She talked him through everything because she was putting out all this information and I had no idea of what she was talking about,” Willette said. “But she was able to tell me that if there is a good kind of cancer to have, I had the good kind because mine was hormone receptor positive. That means, basically, that my cancer was being fed by hormones. I had a high level of estrogen and progesterone receptors in my tumor.”
The pathology report showed some cancer margins remaining. “So we knew that I would have to have another surgery,” Willette said, adding that the options given were another lumpectomy or a mastectomy.
Willette opted to have a double-mastectomy. “They had told me from the get-go that even if they did a mastectomy there was no guarantee the cancer wouldn’t come back,” Willette said about her decision. “But I had to do what I had to do for peace of mind. I was willing to go as extreme as I had to to make sure that I was around for my children and my family.
“I knew that’s what I had to do. I couldn’t always wonder what if it came back between screenings and they didn’t catch it?” she added. “I had a peace about it. The Lord gave me a peace about it.”
Willette made the decision to have the surgery done at the UAB Hospital in Birmingham. “I got diagnosed Feb. 13,” she said. “The next day was Valentine’s Day and the next day was the day that I told Dr. Roach I wanted to go into UAB.”
Waiting for an appointment from UAB, Willette said she was home alone doing her daily devotion at about 8:30 one morning when she called her mother. “She asked to pray for me before we got off the phone,” Willette recalled. “She prayed with me that I would hear from UAB sooner rather than later—and during that prayer I just had a meltdown.”
Thirteen minutes later, Willette received a call from UAB asking her to come up to meet her three-member, all-female team of doctors. “The hand of God has been all over this,” she said. “God has just had this the entire time.
“I said that I was 100 percent sure,” Willette said about her decision to have the double mastectomy and reconstructive breast surgery. “I said I have to do this for my peace of mind. I will not be at peace if I don’t go this route.”
On Aug. 15 Willette had her final reconstruction surgery. “I have breast implants now that replaced all of that,” she said.
“God’s hand has been in this from the get-go,” Willette said. “I had been praying about some things and those prayers were answered, not the way that I had planned for them to be answered but they were.
“I know that my faith has grown a whole lot stronger since Feb. 13,” she said. “As much as I prayed and prayed that it wouldn’t be cancer, I had no control over that and once you get the diagnosis, you just have to accept it and you have to figure out how to be strong enough to get through it all.
“But as much as I had accepted that surgery, I had many breakdowns the week before and I had many breakdowns afterwards,” she added.
Her husband, she said, has been a strong support through it all. “Jeremy got really quiet when I first told him. Then he said, ‘We’ll do whatever we need to do. We’re going to get through it,’” Willette said. “And I knew that he was going to be the rock no matter what.”
Telling the twins was a task undertaken with much prayer, Willette said. “I had prayed all day long to just give me the words to tell them.
“I told them that afternoon after we had gone fishing at the ponds in the neighborhood,” she said. “I told them that God is going to take care of me.”
The boys don’t like to talk about her cancer but do wear pink breast cancer awareness bracelets in support of their mother. “I tell them that I understand that they don’t like to talk about cancer but if someone at school does ask about the bracelets, it would be the perfect opportunity for them to share Jesus.
“Because God made the doctors smart enough to understand how to take care of cancer patients but the only person who can heal me is God,” Willette said about her advice to her young sons. “I tell them that they can use this as an opportunity to spread that news because there’s lots of people who don’t know about Jesus.
“I just don’t know how people go through this kind of a situation without having faith,” she said. “I don’t know what you would lean on otherwise. I have been so very blessed.”