The Register-Herald, Beckley, West Virginia

Sunday Profile

November 3, 2013

Survivors share: April Greene

When April Greene was 21 years old, she was thinking about the same things other young women she knew were thinking about.  

She had a job at a nursing home, she had family and friends, and she wanted a loving relationship with a young man.

When she was diagnosed with breast cancer that year, her life took a drastic turn that was painful and taught her lessons that she now wants to pass on to other young breast cancer patients.

For years, Greene said, the reminders of the cancer robbed her of her life. Her self-image ebbed, along with her spirit, her plans, her body, mind and relationships.

She was silently ashamed. She felt as she wasn’t whole, as if she wasn’t fully feminine anymore.

Greene didn’t talk about her cancer to many people, she said.

“The only scar I have, you only know I have it if I let you see it,” she said.

Recently, she lost a friend to breast cancer and an uncle to another form of cancer. Now, she’s caring for a second uncle who was just diagnosed with cancer.

She’s decided it’s time to share her story, she said.

“There’s one thing I hate,” she said. “Feeling alone, even when there’s other people around.”

She doesn’t want another young woman undergoing a mastectomy to feel alone.

“I didn’t have anybody to say to me, ‘You can have a quality of life after this, you can still have yourself,’” she said. “That’s what you lose, really, you lose yourself, and nobody told me how to get it back.

“I had to figure it out on my own.”

Now 37, Greene was just 21 years old when she found a bump under her arm.

“It’s summertime, I was a girly-girl,” she said. “I’m shaving and thinking I got a hair bump under my arm.

“I didn’t say nothing to nobody.”

A couple months later, she was trying to help turn a patient at the nursing home, and her left arm “lost all feeling.”

“I went home and told my mommy something’s not right,” she said.

There were other things that didn’t “feel right,” she added.

“I noticed I couldn’t sleep on my stomach because it would hurt my breast so bad,” she explained.

Her mom, who worked at a local hospital, told her to call her doctor, she said.

“I’d had a few miscarriages by then, and the doctor, over the phone, just said, ‘Nothing’s wrong with you, there’s no way it could be cancer,’” she recalled. “She evaluated me over the phone, telling me a nodule under my arm, pea-size, with my breast hurting me so bad...she said my body was producing milk, not to worry about it.”

The pain only got worse, though, and Greene finally visited the Elinor Hurt Clinic on Harper Road, operated by the State Department of Health and Human Resources.

There, a local doctor examined her and immediately referred her for a mammogram, but hospital radiologists balked at the request, according to Greene.

“They said no, we aren’t doing a mammogram on a 21-year-old,” recalled Greene. “There’s no way it’s cancer. My mom worked in radiology, so she really advocated for me to get this thing done.”

Getting approval for a mammogram “took a really long time” but it probably saved her life, she said.

“They sent me to another doctor to do a biopsy,” she recalled.

She reported that the biopsy doctor said the mass may have already attached to her breastplate and had involved her lymph nodes, so he sent her for a biopsy that would include going under via anesthetic.

“I don’t remember anything the doctor said about how bad it was,” she said. “It was stage three. I said, ‘I probably do have cancer, but is it going to kill me? ‘That’s all I need to know.’

“They said, ‘We don’t know.’”

Greene recalls nurses and a young surgeon crying after they had removed her left breast and lymph nodes.

After  chemotherapy and radiation, the cancer was gone, but her life was mixed up, she recalled.

On the one hand, she’d decided “God had this” and realized there was a purpose for her life having been spared.

“If your mind is right, and you decide in your mind that you want to live, your body has no choice but to follow along,” she said.

On the other hand, she didn’t feel as if she had a clear vision of who she was or what she could expect in life.

“I didn’t know who I was, anymore, after that, as a female,” she said.

She knew she’d never have kids and thought she’d never have a husband who could love her, she said, and that made her feel depressed.

“I couldn’t stand to look at myself in the mirror, couldn’t stand to put my clothes on,” she recalled. “I felt like someone had, literally, just took April away from me.

“I didn’t love myself anymore.”

The American Cancer Society sent a breast cancer survivor to mentor her, she said, but the woman hadn’t lost her breast at a young age so Greene had trouble relating to her.

“I told her after the second or third time, don’t come back,” Greene recalled. “You got a husband, you got kids and grandkids, you’re not gonna help me.

“I wouldn’t allow myself to be intimate with anyone, on a friendship basis, or anything.”

Well-meaning church friends didn’t help, said Greene, who is now a Christian and church member, herself.

“All the things I heard was, I was living in sin, and God made me have cancer and took my breast away,” she recalled. “I really, truly believed that for a long time, that I had done something horrible against God, and He cursed me this way.”

She moved to Atlanta, Georgia, and in five years, she was declared in remission.

Those years in Georgia weren’t happy ones, though. She didn’t let anyone close to her or share details about her life with friends, she recalled.

“I could pretend, but I spent a lot of my life running,” she said. “I didn’t want anybody to know I was missing a part of me.”

She said she lived “recklessly” during that period, unintentionally hurting some of the people she loved.

“It’s not a good way to live, being numb, because you’re not just soothing yourself, you’re hurting people around you that really care for you,” she advised. “I think now about all the friends I had down there, and I didn’t ‘let in,’ and I was probably supposed to let them in.

“And I didn’t, because I was still thinking I’m this big, old sinner, and this thing has come upon me because I’m a sinner, and God just really, really didn’t like me.”

A string of miscarriages and stories she’d heard about her own birth circumstances haunted her, playing on the feelings of inadequacy and sorrow, she said.

Green said she’d been told, as a child, that doctors in the 1970s had opted to deliver her extremely prematurely due to her mother’s health. In the delivery room, she’d heard, the obstetrician had instructed a nurse to dispose of her, then told her mom that Greene was too young to survive.

A second nurse, though, had seen Greene move and had started her newborn care, according to Greene.

“So I’m thinking I came into this world doing something wrong,” she said. “Today, I can say it’s not true, but that’s the way my mindset was, from the beginning.”

After a surgery unrelated to breast cancer in Georgia, Greene told hospital staff that her family was back home in Beckley.

“The lady said, ‘You need to go home, and you’re going to have to deal with this, because I feel like you’re running,’” Greene recalled.

As time wore on, she started to see the wisdom in the nurse’s advice, and she decided to move back to Beckley in 2005.

That’s where she met her husband. She’d gone through school with him, but one day after she’d moved home, he caught her eye.

The first time they kissed, Greene said it felt like “time stopped.”

“Once we stopped kissing, he said, ‘Did you feel that?,’ and I said, yeah, I feel like time stopped.

“Time stopped that day.”

Fearful of how he would react, she later confided to her husband that she’d had a mastectomy.

Greene recalled that his answer calmed her.

“He didn’t care,” she said. “He said, ‘I would never take off my shirt because I was fat, and you’re thinking I’m not gonna want you because of a breast...That doesn’t make you the person you are.’

“He made me comfortable in my skin,” Greene said. “He’s been a big part of me even talking about (the cancer).

“I thought I was nothing, but he’s always made me out to be this big deal to him,” she added.

Although she felt more secure with her husband’s support, she was still guarded about the breast cancer.

Then, an uncle was diagnosed with cancer, and Greene nursed him until he died.

Last year, a friend died of breast cancer.

“She left her five babies here,” Greene reported. “I wondered about it, why in the world did God leave me here? Because the same cancer I had took them out of here, and I’m still here.”

That’s when Greene decided to talk, she said.

She began opening up about her experience as a way of God allowing her to encourage other women who are diagnosed with breast cancer.

She said she wanted to share her story with The Register-Herald readers in the hopes of reaching those who, like Greene, are diagnosed with breast cancer at a young age.

“My mom advocated for me, but not very well, because she couldn’t help me,” she said. “That’s why I say I went through his alone, because I had nobody like me.”

Now Greene hopes her story will inspire someone to look beyond the initial mastectomy and radiation and to see the possibilities that life may still offer.

“Somebody’s going to be hurt if you don’t open your mouth, and I’m just determined, it won’t be on my watch,” she said.

—  E-mail: jfarrish@register-herald.com

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