Courage in its purest form can be demonstrated by a woman going about her day. No fanfare or hullabaloo is needed, really, to participate in an act of bravery; just a rather quiet, perfunctory concentration on the tasks at hand is enough to qualify.
Whitney Danehy McGowen was 33 years old in late fall of 2017 when she went for a regular checkup with her obstretician, six months prior to the encounter with a radiologist that would change her life, save it even.
During that fall appointment, Dr. George Vick examined what Whitney described to him as a slight change in her left breast, but was not overly concerned. He told her, however, “Let’s use this as a reason to get a baseline mammogram.”
Whitney would have been considered too young to have a mammogram, if it were not for her paternal grandmother, who lost her battle with breast cancer in the 1980s.
A paternal aunt had been diagnosed with DCIS (ductal carcinoma in situ), a non-invasive breast cancer. The aunt had genetic testing performed; those results would be consulted when Whitney had her own testing that confirmed she inherited the genetic mutation, with a 50/50 chance of one day having a similar diagnosis.
The Danehy family history crossed her mind during the December 2017 mammogram, Whitney said, “But nothing to the extent I actually thought, ‘This is going to happen.’”
She noted on her calendar the follow-up mammogram scheduled in six months.
Whitney moved to Morristown with her family in 1996 from Kingsport. She graduated from Morristown West High School and went on to earn a Bachelor’s degree from Carson Newman University and a Master’s from the University of Tennessee. She started dating her husband, Matt, near the end of her college days and after marrying, the couple lived for around nine years in Knoxville. Then she joined the Morristown accounting firm of Craine Thompson & Jones PC and the couple relocated (Matt commutes).
“We were very glad to be home,” Whitney said.
Her life in Morristown has included raising Patrick, the couple’s son, who is now four and a half. In addition to her full-time postion, she has been involved in the community, including co-founding the young professional’s networking group, HYPE, sponsored by the Morrsistown Area Chamber of Commerce. The couple are active members of First Presbyterian Church in Jefferson City.
Despite her busy schedule, Whitney kept the appointment for the follow-up mammogram.
The radiologist assigned to read Whitney’s mammogram did so with due diligence. She noted the arrangement of small, white spots evident on the x-ray.
“Every woman has calcifications, but the way mine were lining up gave her concern,” Whitney said. “Something looked suspicious.”
When compared with the baseline mammagram, Whitney’s cell alignment had changed. The radiologist immediately ordered a biopsy.
The Danehy family history was now at the forefront in her mind and Whitney thought, “Oh my gosh, this could really be happening.”
From the maternal side of the family, Whitney inherited a no-holds-barred, lets-get-this-done approach to everyday life. The radiologist was cut from the same cloth. She bluntly told Whitney to prepare herself for the biopsy to show malignancy. And unbeknownst to Whitney, the radiologist scheduled an appointment for her to see Dr. Aaron Margulies, a breast surgeon oncologist who operates at Tennova North in Knoxville.
The waiting period between testing and hearing the results was excruciating, due to the July Fourth holiday. Whitney was given the news on July 6 that she and her aunt share the DCIS diagnosis.
“My dad has the mutation; my mother does not,” Whitney said. “I ended up on the wrong side of 50/50.”
“I was as ready as I could be to hear it, but it was a shock. I told myself, ‘This is reality now,’” she said.
Things moved quickly; the appointment with the breast surgeon had been made for that very afternoon — “I didn’t have to wait like a lot of women have to. I’m very thankful for my radiologist who got me moving in the process,” Whitney said.
The options were clear. DCIS has a 95 percent success rate. She could get a lumpectomy; there were clean margins, it would just be a chunk of skin removed. The second option was a mastectomy of the left breast.
“I opted for a double,” Whitney said. “I didn’t want to risk the other side.”
During the interview for this article, she was 16 days into recovery from the Aug. 28 surgery and looking ahead to a six month reconstruction process.
“A lot of people think of it as quick, that you come out of surgery with a new set of boobs,” she said.
The pathology report was great; there were excellent margins on the left side. On the right side, testing revealed a small cluster of cancer cells.
The words, “You absolutely made the right decision,” were confirmation of that leap of faith.
Not that going about her day felt like taking the winner’s lap, by any means.
“I can’t lift anything over the weight of a laptop,” she said. “I have limited range of motion in my arms. I can’t really get them up over my head. I’m working on that daily. The first four or five days after surgery, there was discomfort, pain, that was the worst. I have stiffness that varies from day to day. I have to sleep on my back, and I’m a side sleeper. It’s uncomfortable to lay flat, so we bought a wedge pillow.”
The “we” in team McGowan is made up of Matt, Whitney’s mother, and Patrick, along with a large group of supporters from a number of churches, work, and the community.
“Patrick has been great,” she said. “He’ll ask, ‘Mommie, how’s your boo-boo? We told him I had surgery, not about the cancer. He will just come over to the couch or the bed and give me a kiss on my hand. He’ll say, ‘Mommie, can I hug your shoulder?’ He’ll give me a little side hug. When I was able to get up to eat at the table, he offered to take my plate to the kitchen. He brought me a cup of water.”
Matt was able to take a week off from work and then her mother took over, taking Patrick to and from daycare and inviting him to stay over from time to time.
“You have bad days – you don’t feel good,” Whitney said. “The emotional side will get to me. She’ll take him, and that’s been very helpful. He doesn’t have to see mommy sad or see me when I’m having a rough time. It took the whole family by surprise. People in their 30s aren’t supposed to get breast cancer. It kind of sucker-punched us all. My mom is very helpful in keeping me moving forward. That’s where I get my ‘let’s get it done’ attitude from. She keeps me moving from one step to the next step. My husband supported me in all of my decisions. He told me, ‘I want that stuff out of you. We want to make sure you are here to see Patrick grow up, to grow old together.’”
A pragmatic attitude involves embracing reality and that can present a challenge, even to the brave.
“Something I dreaded the most was seeing myself for the first time,” Whitney said. “It probably took me three or four days before I would look in the mirror. When I finally did, I though, I said to myself, ‘That’s not as bad as I thought.’ There are large incisions on either side. It gets emotional when I look in my closet at shirts that I can’t wear until I can get my hands over my head. There are bras made especially for this, that make women feel normal when they put regular clothes back on. I try and keep focused on six months, when I can put a shirt on and go out in public and, unless I tell them, no-one will know.”
The best advice she’s received to date was from a breast cancer survivor, who said, “In two years, you won’t think about this very often; in five years, life will be rolling along.”
“I consider this a temporary setback,” Whitney said.
Plans to go back to work were flexible; she was considering attending a work meeting with a client set for the following week and in the meantime, there was plenty of continuing education available on her laptop.
She described her recovery to date as somewhat smooth, there were no post-operative infections, although one side effect was getting hooked on “Ellen” (again) — “I forgot how much I loved that show,” she said. Trying to stay off the couch as much as possible was a major goal; she walked laps inside the house to encourage circulation because the consistent 90-degree weather made it unadviseable for any outside exercise, not even a trip to the mailbox.
Preparing for the surgery was a learning opportunity for Whitney. She said Margulies broke everything down during the first meeting and drew out the surgical plans on a whiteboard.
“He was fantastic. He gave us a lot of information and ways to study up on it, if I wanted. After the appointment, I got online and visited sites like the American Cancer Society (and stayed off the blogs and WebMD). That helped me see the plan the cancer society lists on its site is verbatim with what the doctor told me. Being able to see it verified in various places was a tremendous help. Thankfully, because we caught mine so early, I do not have to have chemo or radiation. The cancer was non-invasive, contained within the milk duct. That was a big plus — I had cancer without having to do the horrible treatments that everybody thinks about,” she said.
Her faith in God played a large part in helping Whitney get through the emotional parts of her experience, she said. The Bible verse app she uses was spot-on the day of her biopsy.
“Devotionals and things like that gave me a lot of peace I wouldn’t have otherwise had,” she said. “They gave me the sense that ‘This is good. We’ve got a good doctor; we’ve got a good plan.’ That’s been a huge factor. Our church has been amazing; other churches have been amazing. I think I’m on most of the prayer lists in town.”
Whitney’s ability to communicate effectively is a skill she plans to use in the future to pass the word about early detection.
“I want people to be aware of what’s out there. I think awareness is a huge part in the fight against not only breast cancer, but anything you might be dealing with, especially if its genetic. Women kind of dread getting their mammograms. Mine saved my life. I want women to advocate for their own personal health.”
“Seriously, get your mammograms! Follow up!” she said.
“The only way this type of breast cancer is detected is through a mammogram. There is no lump to detect. The radiologist told me, ‘Sweetie, there is no lump … I doubt by the time you were 40, you would have had a lump.’”
“Mammograms are just so important. Doctors will start monitoring woman with a strong family history. Then they can see changes over time,” she said.