How Doctors, Determination and Dancing Helped Judy Stokes Through Breast Cancer Treatment
There’s one piece of advice that Judy Stokes gives every woman—check "the girls" every month. Set a regular date, such as the day of your birthday, and make that your monthly breast self-exam day. Judy knows what she’s talking about—a breast self-exam saved her life.
On October 11, 2012, Judy discovered a lump during a breast self-exam. She was young, healthy, a non-smoker, had breastfed three children and wasn't overweight. In other words, Judy was an unlikely candidate, yet she was diagnosed with breast cancer. And it turned out that her cancer journey was just as unlikely. Judy refers to it as a roller coaster ride, which slowly unfolded over a few years.
The lump didn’t show up on a diagnostic mammogram, which is more detailed than a standard mammogram. She then had an ultrasound, and the radiologist thought the lump could be a cyst. Judy’s breast surgeon attempted to drain the cyst in his office, but couldn't remove any fluid so he took a biopsy. When Judy and her husband returned to the surgeon’s office to learn the results, her surgeon shook her hand and said, “you saved your own life." The biopsy confirmed that Judy had breast cancer.
The next year was a series of ups and downs. Initially, Judy had a lumpectomy, but further testing showed that she had invasive ductal carcinoma, a common cancer that spreads beyond the breast ducts and into the surrounding tissue.
She underwent 2 rounds of chemotherapy—the first was 4 cycles over 8 weeks, and the second was weekly for 12 weeks. When she finished chemotherapy, she learned that a small margin of cancer remained in the breast. After many lengthy discussions, Judy opted for a double mastectomy (surgical removal of both breasts). After healing from surgery, she underwent 4 weeks of radiation. Through all of the stress and surprises on her cancer roller coaster, Judy persevered.
Perseverance leads to survivorship
Judy is 5 years cancer free and still fondly remembers her doctors and nurses in Virtua’s breast cancer program. Throughout her experience, her medical team was always there for her—putting Judy and her family first. Judy knew that with every turn, her doctors were doing everything they could to eradicate the cancer.
Her doctors and nurses even went a step further. As a dancer, Judy was concerned about maintaining her fitness and was determined to continue exercising throughout her treatments. Her team helped her find an exercise routine to help her stay fit. In fact, near the end of her second course of chemotherapy, Judy performed in a dance recital. The nurses helped her manage her chemotherapy side effects, and they even had a solution when she started losing her nails during treatment.
The importance of a team to support you and your family
Judy credits her great team for helping her survive each twist and turn on her cancer roller coaster. Her husband Cliff’s love and support was constant—he researched everything, gave her reasons to laugh, offered a shoulder to cry on, and attended every doctor’s appointment, surgery and chemo/radiation treatment.
Judy lauded her Virtua nurses as “phenomenal,” describing them as compassionate, knowledgeable, understanding, sympathetic and encouraging.
Virtua’s social workers also provided much-needed support for Judy, her husband, and their youngest child, Julia, who was age 9 at the time. A social worker guided them to consider both the psychological and emotional perspectives of Judy’s medical issues, and she taught them to spot the warning signs of anxiety or depression in their daughter. Julia was able to discuss her fears about what was happening to her mom and learned self-soothing techniques to keep her anxiety under control.
Judy’s words of wisdom for how to face cancer
Judy encourages people to take control of their own health. If you’re concerned that you may have cancer, but don’t receive a definitive answer, keep pursuing a diagnosis until it has been ruled out. In Judy’s case, based on the early screenings, neither her doctors nor her surgeon thought her lump was cancer.
Also, if you’re diagnosed with cancer, she stresses the important of getting a second opinion—just as the doctors at Virtua encouraged her to do. Judy knew second opinions were important, and, in her case, they confirmed that she was getting the right treatment at Virtua.
Also, make sure you have the best medical team on your side. Judy believes that she made it through because her doctors, husband, children and faith kept her going. “Don’t do this alone,” she advises. “Reach out to your loved ones. And, reach out to other survivors because their experience is invaluable.”
And her final advice—make your annual mammogram a priority!
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Updated April 23, 2019