Surviving, persevering after life-altering diagnosis
July 15, 2010
"You have breast cancer."
These are dreaded words heard by more than a million women worldwide each year. In the United States in 2008, 40,480 women died from breast cancer. A U.S. Army Space and Missile Defense Command/Army Forces Strategic Command employee was one of the ones who survived.
Juanita Sales Lee learned in May 2008 that she had an early stage, grade three, infiltrating ductal carcinoma aggressive type growth in her breast. It was discovered during an annual mammogram, which Sales Lee had been receiving every year for 15 years.
"The tumor was in the back of the breast. Even though I occasionally self-examined, I didn't feel it," she said.
Treatment for Sales Lee consisted of both chemotherapy and radiation. Each of the eight sessions of chemotherapy lasted for three to four hours on alternating weeks.
"The chemotherapy was harsh. It destroys all white blood cells, healthy as well as cancerous," Sales Lee said. "Chemotherapy is one day each week with no therapy the next week to allow for white blood cell regeneration."
Sales Lee's white blood cells, however, did not regenerate as they should.
"It left me vulnerable to infection. I was hospitalized - twice," Sales Lee said. "Chemo knocked me down, but not out. At times, I didn't have the energy to walk or talk. Eating and drinking were a challenge."
Sales Lee, who has worked at USASMDC/ARSTRAT since 1991, said her coworkers helped her throughout the ordeal.
"Rachel Howard helped me when I was at my lowest, and many coworkers wrote to me, and gave me cards, food, encouragement and prayers," Sales Lee said.
Sales Lee credits her faith, her family and her friends for helping her to overcome her ordeal.
"My 90-year-old father was my most ardent cheerleader. My husband was and is still helping me to survive," she said. "My youngest son came home for five weeks to help, and became my chauffer on many occasions.
"When I heard the diagnosis, I felt my world, my life was shattered," Sales Lee said. "I was afraid wondering about the cancer and death possibilities ... recurrence of the cancer."
Sales Lee has some clear, straight advice for other women faced with a breast cancer diagnosis: "With new treatments and processes, cancer is not a death sentence. Research your type of cancer to gain understanding; this will assist with understanding the proposed treatment and making an informed decision. Save your energy for battling the disease. Accept help."
Sales Lee has always believed in helping others and giving back to the community. Even though she still receives quarterly checkups to ensure she is cancer free, she is now trying to help others in a new way - she spoke at the Huntsville Botanical Garden's Hope in Bloom on National Cancer Survivors Day in June.
"I was taught to give back," Sales Lee said. "Coming from the black/African American tradition, we were taught that we are our brothers' and sisters' keeper. If someone is in need of assistance, we were taught to provide whatever assistance we could.
"Luke 12:48 speaks to a situation when someone is given much, much is required of that individual in return," Sales Lee said. "It's a force in nature that those who have should be willing to share. I believe and live this. Even though I'm not rich in the monetary sense, I am rich in blessings. I choose to share the blessings I've been given with others. That's why I give back."
Sales Lee is a member of the Madison County Volunteer Lawyer Program, board member of the American Cancer Society, is involved with several other organizations, and has served as president of the Federal Bar Association. She has received the Department of the Army Meritorious Civilian Service Award, the Department of the Army Commander's Award for Civilian Service, Special Act or Service Awards, the Federal Women's Program Outstanding Career Achievement Award, and the Order of Samaritan from the University of Alabama, School of Law, among others.