By Molly Smith
Cindy Dewey stood up with the sunrise, pulled a blonde wig over her scalp, hid any signs of discomfort with a dab of makeup and drove to work.
She felt her face flush when colleagues examined her more than usual before she gave a presentation; their gaze darted from the bags under her eyes to the sweat glistening on her forehead.
“You look a little tired. Are you feeling OK?” one asked.
“I’m totally fine,” she said with a smile.
Her feet could barely fit in her shoes that day. She was swollen from head to toe.
The night before, she made ice packs with Ziploc bags to soothe a skin rash, took steroids prescribed to relieve the itching and used what strength she had to Google how much Benadryl was safe to ingest.
The swelling crept up to her neck and slowly began to suffocate her. She laid awake in bed, staring at the paint on her walls and wondering if that was the last time she’d get to look at them.
Dewey was diagnosed with stage one breast cancer in 2017 at UNC Hospitals. She stopped after three rounds of chemotherapy because of a severe allergic reaction. She believes her symptoms were overlooked, her diagnosis was oversimplified and her cancer overtreated.
It started with an ordinary visit to the doctor. As many cancer stories go, Dewey didn’t suspect anything was wrong. She exercised every day. She watched what she ate. And like most 52-year-old women, she dreaded mammograms.
A few women in her life had been affected by breast cancer, but none in her immediate family, she would tell the nurse after the screening. Then came the waiting.
Waiting as women came and went with their results.
Waiting and realizing that she was in the cancer area, spotting bald heads.
Waiting and worrying and watching the clock.
“It’s probably nothing,” a nurse finally said, “but there’s a small growth.”
Moments later, she was looking up at a slew of women standing over her, holding her trembling hand through the biopsy that revealed she had cancer. It was treatable, it was early and the tumor was the size of a pencil eraser.
But in the space of a day, that little nothing became something that affected her whole life. Before long, something turned into everything that she agonized over for the next year.
Two weeks later, Dewey had surgery to remove the tumor and see if the cancer spread – it hadn’t. Her oncologists were convinced she wouldn’t need chemotherapy. Maybe a few weeks of radiation at most, they assured her.
Her two children celebrated in the bright consultation room. They thought the battle had begun and ended all in a month. They watched the surgeon promise a quick recovery with light in their eyes as they slowly removed their armor.
Then, Dewey was asked to take the test. The Oncotype DX test is for patients just like her, with early stage, low-risk cancer. It uses genes to assess how likely the cancer is to return.
“Wouldn’t you want to have all the information available?” Oncologist Carey Anders urged.
Her results read “33” in bold, black digits. Scores 31 and up signal a high probability of recurrence, and lower than 18 is safe. Suddenly, her life was in danger again.
“They were telling me I would die if I didn’t do the treatment,” Dewey said. “It was like night and day.”
Dr. Hyman Muss, another breast cancer oncologist at UNC, said that when the value of chemotherapy is great, oncologists try to talk patients into it. But it’s always a mutually agreeable decision.
Dewey agreed to four chemotherapy sessions.
The next time she visited the hospital, the nurse prodding her arm for an IV didn’t believe she was allergic to the adhesive tape. She broke out in hives. At a later visit, doctors ignored her after she insisted the anti-nausea medication gave her a blinding headache. It was the main side effect of the drug.
As her energy drained, she laid down in the waiting room before one of her last visits.
“Must be nice to rest,” a nurse said as she passed by.
“Must be nice to not have cancer,” Dewey thought.
She developed a self-titled syndrome she called “bitch cry,” the phenomenon of getting assertive when not listened to, then falling into a depressive, guilty state.
“I ended up with this continuous knot in my throat because I didn’t want to have to be that way,” she said. “I wanted them to take care of me.”
After Dewey’s allergic reaction, Dr. Anders warned against stopping chemotherapy before the sessions were over. Allergists would later tell Dewey that it was threatening her life.
If she could go back in time, she wouldn’t agree to the treatment.
The bumpy road to recovery
Dr. Muss is confident that the cancer hospital has a “more is worse” approach to chemotherapy. He said that treatment is a balance of the benefits and risks.
“I’ve been doing this for 45 years,” Muss said, “and we’ve learned so much about who doesn’t benefit from chemo.”
Its purpose is to kill any cancer cells that may have spread, he said. But there’s no test to know the exact possibility of a relapse.
“We don’t know that chemo actually reduces the chance of cancer coming back,” Dewey said. “We’re loading chemicals into people’s bodies thinking that’s what’s doing it.”
Bari Sholomon had a similar diagnosis: stage one, didn’t spread, aggressive tumor determined by the test, chemotherapy.
Dewey knew Sholomon as her daughter’s former high school counselor. Then, as a fellow cancer survivor. Then, a workout buddy.
The two participated in Get Real and Heel at UNC – an exercise-based strength program for early-stage breast cancer patients who finished chemotherapy. Physical therapists train the survivors to rebuild their stamina and use exercise as a healing tool, both mentally and physically.
“I stayed with them for three or four years after I stopped chemo,” Sholomon said. “I got my strength back that way.”
Dr. Claudio Battaglini co-founded the program in 2004 after studying the connection between exercise and quality of life in cancer patients. Breast cancer survivors who exercise regularly are 40 to 50 percent less likely to redevelop the disease.
“They really feel that their lives have been stolen from them, so we help them regain a sense of empowerment,” Battaglini said.
Dewey won the battle for her life, thanks to Get Real and Heel and therapy. She still doesn’t know what went wrong in her treatment plan. Maybe it was just protocol. Maybe it was ego. Maybe it was overprotection.
“Regardless, I should’ve given myself permission to trust my instincts and use my voice,” she said. “I gave away my power. But now I’m stronger.”
Edited by Johnny Sobczack and Spencer Carney