Cancer survivor never gives up
October 15, 2010
- Mildred Battise is a breast cancer survivor and she showed that by walking in the Oct. 15 Liz Hurley Ribbon Run Survivor's Walk.
- "My thoughts went to two things. First, I am going to go bald. And, then I am going to die."
- Her journey began in an understated way. Battise's breast cancer didn't come with a lump.
- "My faith has carried me through life. Every illness, every setback, I've relied on my faith."
REDSTONE ARSENAL, Ala. -- When the call came, Mildred Battise quietly accepted her fate.
She answered the phone and heard the words - "Mrs. Battise, the test is positive. It is cancer. It has consumed the whole breast." - that froze her in shock. She stared off in the distance, her mind trying to wrap itself around the idea that this deadly disease had invaded her life.
"My thoughts went to two things. First, I am going to go bald. And, then I am going to die," she recalled.
But that only lasted for 30 minutes.
It was her husband Donald's rallying words that brought her back to reality.
"My husband sat down next to me. He said 'We will get through this. Don't give up the fight. You're going to be here a long time. We're going to grow old together,'" Battise said.
October is National Breast Cancer Awareness Month. Breast cancer is one of the most commonly diagnosed cancers among women in America.
Battise's diagnosis - ductal carcinoma in situ, intermediate grade - came on March 4, 2009, taking this now 53-year-old on a journey that showed her how her faith in God; the love and support of her family, friends and co-workers; the skills and knowledge of physicians; and her determination to live can indeed make a difference.
But that journey began in an understated way. Battise's breast cancer didn't come with a lump, often the first indication that something is wrong.
"There was never a lump," she said. "I had not had a mammogram for three years because it just was too much of an inconvenience. But my personal physician told me something was wrong."
Abnormal lab work related to a routine doctor's appointment became Battise's red flag. Looking back now, she said she also had some occasional swelling near her collarbone. She had attributed it to work stress, but now thinks it was a sign of her cancer.
An ultrasound eventually pinpointed the cancer in her left breast, lodged against the chest wall with tentacles branching out from its core.
Her team of doctors - including a cancer surgeon, reconstructive surgeon and oncologist - were all encouraging about Battise's cancer.
"They told me the type of cancer I had was good, that it was treatable," she said. "There is a high survival rate. I understood that. But I don't agree with it being good. No cancer is good cancer."
Even though her doctors were optimistic about her recovery, Battise and her family faced the tough questions of survival.
"At home, my husband is a little over protective and he loves me unconditionally. He's a retired military staff sergeant and he never gives up," Battise said. "I became depressed. But he wouldn't let me stay depressed. He knew we would get through this.
"My (grown) son Robert and daughter Tracy were both devastated. They actually thought they were going to lose me. We had a family friend who we lost to cancer over a period of three years. They thought of her and all she went through, and they were scared for me."
Battise took care of her work obligations. As the Garrison's industrial security manager and the manager for the contractor verification system, she had set up the Garrison's industrial security program. The program approves local contractors for access to the installation and last year initiated 1,200 national agency checks for security. It's not something that she could just walk away from.
"But, Linda Cook stepped in for me and she did a great job," she said. "Everyone at Garrison was so supportive of me. I was very blessed."
With other Garrison employees taking up the slack, Battise turned her focus on her battle with cancer. She had a total mastectomy of her left breast, followed immediately with reconstructive surgery.
"I was in surgery for seven hours," she said. "I was very weak afterward. My mother is a retired nurse and she took care of me for four weeks. Then, my daughter literally stopped working and took care of me. I was in a hospital bed for four months."
During that time, her muscles on the left side of her body rebuilt themselves. Muscles from her pelvis all the way to her left breast and collarbone were affected by the surgery.
"Those first four months, it was all I could do to take a shower," she said. "My family had to feed me and clothe me. I couldn't drive or lift anything for eight months. My church helped us a lot by bringing us food. They had a roster just for me of who was bringing food and when."
Although she relied on her family to help her get through those days, it was her faith that kept Battise from giving up on recovery.
"My faith has carried me through life. Every illness, every setback, I've relied on my faith," she said.
And, Battise's sheer determination, a strength that she learned in her four years of service as a Soldier, helped her along the journey to recovery.
"Never give up," she said. "I went to basic training late. Everyone else was 18 or 19, and I was 25. I learned in boot camp that no matter what I wouldn't give up. And, like with breast cancer, once I got my bearings, I didn't give up. I knew what I needed to do - to fight, to get stronger, to get better."
Throughout her ordeal, Battise also had the strength of the Garrison employees backing her and willing her to get better.
"I am so blessed and so thankful," Battise said. "Alvin Odoms (the director of the Garrison's Directorate of Planning, Training, Mobilization and Security), Ruby Childers and everyone else I work with were there for me through this whole process. They called and checked on me and came by to see me. It was hard not to survive because they wanted me back."
In August 2009, she came back to work half days, with her husband, who is the Garrison's facility mail officer and Freedom of Information Act officer, driving her to and from work. She went back to full days in December 2009.
"When I started driving again in December, I was so happy. It was very hard to give up my independence," she said.
Battise grew up in Triana, a town west of Redstone Arsenal where the water system was poisoned about 40 years ago by DDT released into the Tennessee River by Olin Chemical Co.
Although the town's residents benefitted from a cash settlement related to the DDT poison, the town is known for having high rates of breast and ovarian cancers, and low birth weights. Battise wonders if her breast cancer is related to DDT poisoning she may have been exposed to as a child.
Although she has not had to undergo chemotherapy or radiation, Battise does take a daily dose of an anti-cancer drug. She also must visit her oncologist at the Huntsville Cancer Center every three months for a checkup.
"My doctors and the staff at the Huntsville Cancer Center have really impressed me," Battise said. "They have always been very accommodating to me."
Battise showed some of her gratitude Oct. 15 when she walks in the Survivor's Walk as part of the Liz Hurley Ribbon Run.
"A few years ago, my sister had a friend who passed from breast cancer. She organized our family and we've walked in the Liz Hurley Ribbon Run as a group," Battise said. "So, I had walked before never thinking that one day I would be walking the Survivor's Walk and being grateful for my own life."
Battise doesn't mind sharing her story with others. She is also still participating in ways to give back to her community, such as being her neighborhood's block coordinator for the Children's Leukemia and Lymphoma Society.
"My father always told me you have to give back," she said. "He would say 'If you have a dime, and someone needs a helping hand, you give them half of your dime.' He also told me to always look for the best in people. I wish I could do more for people."
Even though she is now considered a breast cancer survivor, Battise appreciates the continued support of her family, friends and co-workers. One such show of support came this past weekend when co-worker Blake Stewart's wife -- Andrea Grisham-Stewart, an engineer at the Aviation and Missile Research Development and Engineering Center -- ran in Battise's honor in the Oct. 10 Chicago Marathon. For the past 10 years, Grisham-Stewart has run the marathon in honor of a family friend who has survived cancer.
While much of the local community focuses its support of breast cancer awareness on the Liz Hurley Ribbon Run, Redstone Arsenal is also showing its support for the month's recognition through activities coordinated by Fox Army Health Center. Those activities include a Breast Cancer Awareness Walk tomorrow beginning at 7:30 a.m. at the center's flagpole and continuing around the Fox fitness trail. Other activities for the month include: Lunch and Learn about "Hormones and Your Health," also tomorrow, from noon to 1 p.m.at the center's Wellness Classroom; Lunch and Learn about "2 E's (eating/exercising) to Preventing Breast Cancer," Oct. 20 from noon to 1 p.m. at the center's Wellness Classroom; and a Lunch and Learn about "Breast MRI: Roles and Intervention," Oct. 28 from noon to 1 p.m. at the center's Wellness Classroom.
On Saturday, as Battise completes her Survivor's Walk she will be thinking about a weekend of fun with her husband, snuggled up in front of the family's television watching football.
"I'm a Tennessee Volunteers and a Tennessee Titans fan. My husband likes Georgia and the Atlanta Falcons. We have a lot of fun together watching football," she said, with a smile.