When the surgeon told Nancy Hayes she had breast cancer, “I just felt my whole body draining.”
But once Hayes regained her composure, she came to one simple realization, and it completely changed her outlook about her illness and her life.
“You can’t control getting cancer, so you have to learn to accept it,” she said. “It’s the same way with any illness or any situation. You’ve got to let it go. You just make the best of it.”
And she has.
As a two-time breast cancer survivor, Hayes, 66, now volunteers with the American Cancer Society’s Reach to Recovery program, helping breast cancer patients cope with their diagnosis, and on Saturday, she will be among the cancer survivors and caregivers who will serve as models at the Washington County ACS unit’s 32nd annual Holiday Fashion Fare at the Hilton Garden Inn at Southpointe.
“Now, I’m trying to give back my attitude,” Hayes said, referring to her participation in Reach to Recovery.
Hayes, who resides in Canton Township, was diagnosed with breast cancer in 1996 at the age of 49.
Even though she didn’t detect any lumps, she had mammograms every six months because of calcifications in her breast. A biopsy of one of the suspicious calcifications confirmed she had breast cancer.
At that time, she had no computer, and there wasn’t a wealth of information on the Internet. Fortunately, she had a strong support system that included her husband, the late Dr. Melvin Hayes, a biochemist who once did research for the National Institute of Health. He asked the surgeons all the right questions and provided Hayes with the comfort – and answers – she needed.
Hayes underwent six weeks of daily radiation treatments at Allegheny General Hospital, and did not miss a day of work as the post master in Ingomar.
All was well until May 1999, when she again was diagnosed with breast cancer. This time, however, the treatment was more aggressive and invasive.
“The surgeon said, ‘OK. We’re going to remove the breast, and we’re going to do plastic surgery,’” Hayes said.
The surgery involved a tummy tuck. The surgeon lifted the skin from her abdomen and pulled the muscle up to her chest to form a breast.
“The best part of breast cancer was getting a tummy tuck. I can still wear a bikini because of the tummy tuck, and now, every time I’m hungry, my breast growls,” Hayes joked.
After the surgery, Hayes also had to undergo chemotherapy. She got sick the first night after the treatment; otherwise, the only side effect was extreme fatigue for three days after each treatment. By this time, she was working as the post master in Venetia, and she did have to take time off work.
“I loved my bald head,” said Hayes, who wore fashionable scarves and floppy hats during chemo.
Hayes previously had long hair, and her mother, Genevieve Brehl, a self-employed beautician, often urged her daughter to cut her hair, but Hayes refused. Now, Hayes wears her hair short and spiked. Her mother, however, never got a chance to see her daughter’s short hair. Brehl died three months before Hayes was diagnosed with breast cancer in 1999.
Hayes has an extensive family history of cancer on both her mother’s and father’s sides, “but nobody in my family died of breast cancer, and I’m still here.”
But she has two daughters and three grandchildren, so Hayes underwent testing to determine if she carries the BRCA gene for breast cancer. She does not.
“I know how lucky I am. There was no lymph node involvement,” Hayes said. “Every time I talk to a patient, I tell them everybody’s treatment is different and everybody’s doctor is different. I just explain what I went through.”
In addition to serving as a Reach to Recovery volunteer, Hayes works part time as a bank teller and enjoys tole painting.
“And, yes, I’m a cancer survivor. I’m a two-time survivor,” she said.
Holiday Fashion Fare
The American Cancer Society, Washington County unit, will celebrate the society’s 100th anniversary Saturday at its 32nd annual Holiday Fashion Fare at the Hilton Garden Inn at Southpointe.
A craft show and Chinese auction will get under way at 10 a.m., followed at noon by the luncheon and at 1 p.m. with the fashion show.
Fashions will be provided by Macy’s.
Donation is $40. RSVP is required by calling 724-222-6911.