In 1985, when Eileen Bigsby was diagnosed with breast cancer for the first time at the age of 32, “people didn’t really talk about breast cancer” and the care was “less high-tech” than it is now. She had to undergo several needle biopsies as she watched the lump in her right breast expand in size over several weeks. Her doctors kept telling her they weren’t worried.
When she finally got a surgical biopsy on the walnut-sized lump, she found out she had cancer, and the next day she had a single mastectomy. The procedure was grueling, and she had a number of reconstructive surgeries in the years and decades to follow.
“I was in the hospital for nine days because I lost a lot of blood,” she said. “I was off from work for months.”
Unfortunately, this was not Eileen’s last experience with breast cancer. Six years later, she was diagnosed again after a routine mammogram showed calcifications in her other breast. After doctors found the cancer was in two lymph nodes, they recommended a mastectomy of her remaining breast and four months of chemotherapy.
“That surgery wasn’t quite as rough as the first,” she said. “But losing my hair 30 days into chemotherapy all at once was pretty hard. I would basically lock myself in the bedroom to be near the bathroom for the first 24 hours after each treatment because I was so sick.”
Throughout her treatment, Eileen tried to keep a positive attitude for herself and for her two daughters, Elizabeth and Emma, an actor best known for starring on Netflix’s Orange Is the New Black.
“I always felt that that was what was going to get me on the road to recovery, and I had to be there for my daughters,” she said.
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Now 67, Eileen has been cancer-free for nearly three decades. She’s fastidious about her health and screening. Years after her diagnoses, she found out she was a BRCA gene mutation carrier. So is her daughter Elizabeth, who is now aggressively monitored for breast and other cancers. (Emma’s genetic testing was interrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic, but she plans to undergo it.)
Eileen is grateful that research has come so far since her first diagnosis (and that it had even advanced in the years between her diagnoses) and that it has enabled her children to know their own risk of the disease.
“If it wasn’t for research, I believe my whole ordeal may have turned out very differently,” she said. “It’s so important to me that we continue to fund research.”
Read more stories from BCRF’s Research Is the Reason storytelling initiative here.
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