Marie DeBose, 80, learned she had breast cancer at the age of 38. (Taylor Ballek | Spectrum Health Beat)
DeBose’s life changed one evening when she was joking with her husband. She reached out to slap his arm lightly. Her right arm brushed her right breast and she felt a lump. (Taylor Ballek | Spectrum Health Beat)
She was not immediately examined by a doctor. “I worked full-time, had five children, and went to school at Aquinas College at night,” she said. “It was easy to get it out of my head.” (Taylor Ballek | Spectrum Health Beat)
After alerting her doctor to her concerns, she soon had an appointment for a needle biopsy, two mammograms, and an almost certain diagnosis of breast cancer. (Taylor Ballek | Spectrum Health Beat)
The doctor scheduled a surgical biopsy to be sure. But first DeBose had to take her final exams. She told herself she would pass her exams and beat cancer. (Taylor Ballek | Spectrum Health Beat)
The biopsy came back. Spectrum Health cancer specialist F. Raymer Lovell, MD suggested a mastectomy. “At first it felt like it had sucked my life out.” (Taylor Ballek | Spectrum Health Beat)
DeBose has been cancer free for 41 years. This October, she looks forward to seeing the Spectrum Health mobile unit Betty Ford Breast Care Services visit her church. (Taylor Ballek | Spectrum Health Beat)
Marie DeBose won a battle against breast cancer 41 years ago.
To this day, she cherishes every moment she gives – and celebrates by addressing other women.
“I want to encourage women to have mammograms,” said DeBose, 80, of Grand Rapids, Michigan. “What if you have cancer? I want to convey a message of hope. “
Don’t be afraid to get checked out, she said.
When do you have cancer? Put on your best outfit and your war face, she said – because this is a fight you can win.
A busy life
DeBose learned she had cancer at the age of 38. Mammograms are not recommended until you are 40.
DeBose’s life changed one evening when she was joking with her husband and she reached out to slap his arm lightly. Her right arm brushed her right breast.
She felt a knot. It horrified her.
“As far as I knew, I had only known one woman with breast cancer in my life,” she said.
At the time, DeBose led a busy life. She was not immediately examined by a doctor.
“I worked full-time, had five children, and went to school at Aquinas College at night,” she said. “It was easy to get it out of my head.”
Master, her husband, let her get away with the head-in-the-sand approach for a few weeks.
“One night he asked if the lump was still there,” she said. “I said yes. And he asked me why I didn’t call the doctor.”
She admitted that she was scared.
“If I have this cancer, I don’t want to know about it,” she told him. “He said, ‘Marie, if it’s cancer, you have to know. And the earlier, the better. ‘”
Fast moving treatment
The next day she called her family doctor. She entered the office immediately. This quickly led to a consultation with F. Raymer Lovell, MD, a now retired surgeon who specializes in breast cancer with Spectrum Health.
The appointment included a needle biopsy, two mammograms, and an almost certain diagnosis of breast cancer.
The doctor scheduled a surgical biopsy to be sure.
But first DeBose had to drive across town to take final exams – statistics, her toughest class.
It seemed to be the longest Monday of her life.
Still, it gave her an opportunity to ponder the diagnosis. She found that her mind quickly shifted from “Why me?” to “Why not me?”
“I said, ‘Okay, Lord, I may have cancer. But I won’t die with it. I go shopping to buy some clothes. I have an operation and then I come home and wear them. And I’m going to take this statistics test tonight – and I’ll pass. ‘”
She did all of these things. And none of them came easy.
Within a few days, Dr. Lovell told her that she needed a mastectomy. “At first it felt like it sucked my life out,” said DeBose. “But I had the operation the next day and was able to concentrate on it.
“Most of all, I kept remembering this quote: ‘It is better to light a candle than to curse the darkness.'”
She learned that four of the 22 Dr. Lovell’s removed lymph nodes were positive and she needed chemotherapy.
Another candle soon lit her life: an American Cancer Society volunteer visited her in the hospital as she was recovering from her mastectomy.
“She looked beautiful,” said DeBose. “Her clothes looked good on her. And she said, ‘I had the same operation 11 years ago.’ “
She spoke to DeBose about how effective reconstructive surgery would be when the time came. And she taught DeBose how to wear a surgical bra so that she felt less self-conscious.
Like many women, DeBose was concerned not only with the disease, but also with the effects it had on their physical appearance. The volunteer filled DeBose with hope.
“I made a promise that day to myself that I would do the same for other cancer patients.”
In 1980, DeBose joined support groups for the American Cancer Society with her daughter and mother.
“These people had a lot of the same reactions to chemotherapy that I did,” DeBose said. “I felt like I had someone who could understand what I was going through.”
She viewed the months of chemotherapy as a personal challenge.
“I drove to my chemo appointments myself and then straight to work,” she said. “I haven’t missed a working day.”
She soon found the courage to talk to others about her illness.
“I just started talking to people wherever and whenever I could,” said DeBose. “I started encouraging women to take mammograms.”
Soon she felt a thickening of the tissue in her left breast, which also turned out to be cancer. She had just finished her chemotherapy in 1981 when Dr. Lovell removed her remaining breast and she began another round of chemotherapy.
Although doctors declared her cancer-free five years after her diagnosis, she continued her legal practice for decades.
To this day, she is a tireless screening and awareness cheerleader. She encourages these efforts in her own family – 19 grandchildren, 10 great-grandchildren and one great-great-grandson.
She still works in the Grand Rapids public schools and is also active in the Grace for the Nations Church, which provides various types of health services.
This October, to celebrate Breast Cancer Awareness Month, she looks forward to attending the Spectrum Health Betty Ford Breast Care Services mobile unit in your church.
The 45-foot Pink and White Clinic on Wheels uses cutting-edge digital technology to make screening more accessible to women in Michigan.
This still gives DeBose a thrill.
For them, even after all these years, it is always the same critical message: plan a mammogram and – if you are fighting cancer – do not give up hope.
Thank You For Reading!