Beverly Butler, a Texas Oncology–Southwest Fort Worth patient, was diagnosed two years ago with stage III triple-negative breast cancer. Since then, she has undergone chemotherapy, surgical intervention and radiation. A retired school teacher, Beverly lost her husband to gastric cancer in 1984 and then her mother 15 years later, also to gastric cancer. As a mother of two children, Beverly decided to participate in the Genetic Risk and Evaluation Program that can detect the presence of a BRCA1 or BRCA2 gene mutation, which increases risk for certain cancers, including breast and ovarian cancers. She was treated at Texas Oncology–Southwest Fort Worth by hematologist and medical oncologist Cristi Aitelli, D.O., and radiation oncologist Harold Freeman, M.D.
Here's her full story
Consistent Annual Screenings
Beverly Butler had always been committed to her annual well woman exam, and 2014 was no different. At 64, she had been adamant about doing routine breast self-exams, and never felt any lumps. The only complaint she had was swelling and pain in her left hand and arm.
A few days after the exam, she received a letter indicating the need for further tests and a 3D mammography exam, which was followed by a biopsy and even more testing. Soon after, Butler received the diagnosis of stage III triple-negative breast cancer.
"I was devastated and afraid," she said. "The word 'cancer' meant death to me. I lost two loved ones already to cancer."
Butler said the next three days were a "blur."
"I cried, I screamed, I drove around and then I prayed," she said. "Wrong order, I know, but the human side took over. I was afraid, but finally shared the news with my children."
Marriage, Career, Family and Cancer
Butler and her husband James married in 1977, and both joined the Fort Worth Independent School District.
"I taught health and physical education, and my husband was a coach," she said.
Over the next few years they welcomed their son, Wesley, and daughter, Stephanie, into the world. In 1983, however, her husband was diagnosed with gastric cancer, and passed away the following year, leaving Butler a single mother with two children under the age of 5.
"I was scared beyond measure and devastated beyond belief," she said. "I was alone with two kids and no family in Fort Worth. I had a decision to make."
Knowing she could either move back to her parents in Midland or "tough it out," Butler chose the latter.
"My church family, sorority sisters and co-workers became my extended family," she said. "God provided a way. Through it all, both of my children graduated from college, earning degrees from Texas A&M University, Johns Hopkins University and Louisiana State University. God is awesome."
In 1999, Butler's mother also passed away from cancer, 15 years after her husband died from the disease.
"My mother was a vibrant, active woman," she said. "Losing her was another shocker because she had always been such a healthy person. Cancer slipped up on us."
Butler retired in 2007, after teaching in the Fort Worth school district for 36 years. Soon after, she became the sole caregiver to her elderly father.
Shared Faith, Sense of Calm
On October 6, 2014, Butler had her first consultation with Texas Oncology–Southwest Fort Worth hematologist and medical oncologist Cristi Aitelli, D.O., and immediately felt a sense of calm wash over her.
"When I walked into Texas Oncology, I felt so at peace," said Butler. "Dr. Aitelli and I talked, and she explained my options, and followed up with the most loving hug. It was as if we had known each other a long time."
After Butler asked about Dr. Aitelli's faith in God, she knew she was in good hands.
"When she shared that she believed in God as I do, I told her, 'well, then, let's get on with the treatment,'" she said. "I prayed for God to give me capable doctors and He delivered as promised."
From October 10, 2014 to February 23, 2015, Butler received chemotherapy every two weeks.
"My treatments usually took about 3 hours, so I just laid back and took the 'joy juice,'" she said. "I also had genetic testing because I wanted to protect my daughter."
Genetic testing can determine whether a patient carries specific inherited mutations in BRCA1 and BRCA2, human genes that produce tumor-suppressing proteins. The presence of those mutations can indicate increased risk of female breast and ovarian cancers, as well as several other types of cancer. As part of the genetic risk evaluation, Texas Oncology provides genetic counseling and discusses options with those who have a gene mutation or are at a higher risk of cancer to help them make more informed decisions.
"The lab technicians and nurses in the infusion room were great," she said. "My son would fly in town several times to meet my doctors and go to treatment with me. My daughter was also by my side. I told my kids, 'don't worry, God's got this.'"
After chemo was complete, Butler consulted with her oncology surgeon to schedule a double mastectomy and removal of lymph nodes under her left arm. Although Butler requested a double mastectomy and initially planned to have reconstructive surgery, she ultimately decided against it.
"I 'chickened out' after the surgery," said Butler. "Whether a B cup, D cup or NO cup, I'm still cute and alive."
About a month after surgery, Butler met Texas Oncology–Southwest Fort Worth Radiation Oncologist Dr. Harold Freeman who provided radiation treatment every weekday for six and a half weeks. By the end of May, Butler had also received her first lymphedema treatment.
"They wrapped my left arm and hand as if I were a mummy," she said. "I was having a difficult time because of swelling. But God gave me some great technicians at the radiation and lymphedema clinic that eased my discomfort. Dr. Aitelli encouraged exercise, nutrition and massage therapy to help alleviate some of the pain from the lymphedema."
Butler said she's recently felt strong enough to return to her bowling league – a hobby of hers.
"Even though I have to use a lighter ball, I'm still a terrible bowler who continues to have fun anyway," she said.
Giving Sunshine, Receiving Hope, Feeling Peace
Through the loss of two loved ones from cancer, and throughout her own cancer journey, Butler no longer fears tomorrow.
"When my husband died, I thought I had to be 'Superwoman' and take care of everything and everyone by myself," said Butler. "As an only child, that meant taking care of my parents, too. But God showed me I am not alone through my extended family, my 'survivor' friends, my children and the staff at Texas Oncology–Southwest Fort Worth."
"I find myself encouraging other women to speak out, get check-ups, fight and don't give in to a little pain," she said. "Most of all, however, I tell them to live each day to the fullest."
"I love my doctors who have filled me with hope," she said. "I received a sense of peace and calmness every time I went in for treatment or a check-up. My doctors are special people."
Although Butler said she is still suffering from painful lymphedema, she welcomes each day with a positive attitude, a smile on her face and her strong will.
"I meet each feeling of pain, just like I met every chemo treatment, 'head on' as if I was given a new beginning," she said. "I love talking to other patients, giving encouragement and saying 'we are going to make it!'
Click here to view the story from the Fort Worth Star-Telegram.