Facing Breast Cancer Head On
In honor of Breast Cancer Awareness Month, throughout October we’ll be posting a series of stories about breast cancer prevention, treatment and survival.
When Laverne Hendricks’ annual mammogram showed a small lump in 2013, she’d been half-expecting the diagnosis for decades. Her sisters, both heavy smokers, had died in their 50s, one from breast cancer and the other from ovarian cancer.
To better her own odds, Laverne, 72, had gotten mammograms each year at the Mills-Peninsula Women’s Center in San Mateo. Still, with every screening the retired nurse wondered, would this be the year?
“When it finally happened, I wasn’t shocked,” she says. “I thought, let’s get going with treatment.”
Thanks to her diligence, Hendricks’ breast cancer was caught early, in stage 1. Her doctor, Brian Henderson, M.D., at Mills-Peninsula Health Services, told her she wouldn’t need chemotherapy. She was an ideal candidate for a lumpectomy followed by high-dose rate (HDR) brachytherapy, in which a catheter is placed into the breast tissue so radioactive pellets can be inserted and removed twice a day for five days. HDR spares patients five to six weeks of treatment with traditional external radiation.
Treatment went better than she ever expected. “Within 30 minutes of recovering from surgery, I was dressed and walking around, waiting for my son to pick me up,” she recalls. “It was so successful, I never took any pain medicine.”
But what matters most to her, looking back, is that she was well-informed, and treated with intelligence and respect. “The staff was so great about explaining everything before I went through it. That meant a lot to me,” she says.
Hendricks and her late husband, Donald, believed firmly in the value of education. Now, she says proudly, one grandson is a cadet at the Air Force Academy.
Her love of education has taken her in new directions since her husband died in 2006. She started traveling, visiting Jerusalem, Egypt, Italy. She perfected her recipes for pies, pickles, jams and BBQ sauce, already famous in her family, to win awards at the San Mateo County Fair. And, after a lifetime of sketching, she took up impressionistic painting.
“I’d never held a brush in my hand,” she says, chuckling. Just a few years ago, her painting of sunflowers growing outside a country cottage won second place at the San Mateo County Fair.
Today her treatment is over and Hendricks is cancer free. She still drops by the Cancer Center occasionally to say hi or drop off a treat. However, she spends most of her time thinking about what new challenge to take on next.
“Most of my early paintings are copies of someone else’s work. That’s how I learned,” she says. “Now I want to do my own. It’s time to establish my own style.”