Breast cancer isn’t all about lumps, and Alison Tarbell Irwin wants us to know it. SELF magazine’s October 2012 issue discussed that Ali, now 37, discovered a dimpling in her breast — thanks to an article in SELF.
“I was standing in line at the grocery store and read this article that puckering skin on your breast could be a sign of cancer,” she said.
The teacher at Emerson-Gridley was diagnosed Nov. 2, 2010 with stage 3 breast cancer. But it still was not a lump — more a thickening of the skin that led to further testing. A mammogram, sonogram — both things the the 35-year old mother of two had never had on her breasts before — proved it was cancer.
Ali’s sister, Julie, had accompanied her to the office visit thanks to Ali’s mom. Ali said the diagnosis was unreal.
“I walked into a room where pictures of my breast were on the wall, and doctors pointed and said that the spots looked like cancer,” she said. Within days, a biopsy confirmed it, and Alison sought a second opinion at Cleveland Clinic.
“When I met my breast surgeon, she said the first thing we’re going to do is save your life. The second thing we are going to do is make you look as beautiful as you do today,” Ali recalled.
After eight rounds of chemotherapy, Ali had both breasts removed. “Being so young and a single mother — all I thought of was ‘Oh my God, my kids.’ I didn’t ever want to worry about this again. I wanted to be as aggressive as I could,” she said.
The surgeons installed tissue expanders to enable Ali to have breast reconstruction surgery. She had 28 radiation treatments and six months of saline injections. In 2011, she had silicone implants.
All of this followed a traumatic divorce in which Ali said she had just started over. But she had to start over again when the estrogen-linked cancer resulted in a complete hysterectomy in July 2011 — just months after the April mastectomy.
Radiation followed. In all, Ali missed almost a year of teaching, but she thanks all the teachers and staff members at Emerson-Gridley who donated their own paid sick days to her.
After everything that Ali had been through, she wanted to know why. Genetic testing did not reveal gene links, no family links — nothing to any type of cancer.
“I firmly believe it was the stress of my divorce,” she said. “Trauma and stress can be triggers that alter the immune system.”
The surgeries continue. Nov. 20 will include nipple reconstruction in Cleveland. After enduring so much in such a short time, Ali shares “I miss my ovaries more than my breasts.” On bad days, hot flashes and menopausal symptoms are frustrating, but Ali makes sure to tell others to act early and aggressively if anything shows up.
“We can’t just assume we are too young to worry about it,” she said. “Mammograms don’t start until age 40, but you have to be in tune with your body. If something doesn’t look right, get it checked.”
Ali credits the local Linked By Pink organization for helping her get through the ordeal. Her picture and survivor story appear in the November issue of the 2012 Linked by Pink calendar. Her parents Dave and Nadine Tarbell are proud of her, and the entire family wants everyone to know that BreastFest 2012 takes place Saturday — Oct. 20 at The Avalon Hotel, 16 West 10th St. during National Breast Cancer Awareness month.
The group celebrates the five-year anniversary of the Linked By Pink calendar, for sale for at the event, that features survivors stories. BreastFest 2012 includes music, food and much more and promotes awareness and survival.
Read more about Linked By Pink in a story I wrote for Her Times right here. Thanks to Ali for sharing her story.
Pam Parker is the editor of Lake Erie LifeStyle, Her Times and House to Home at the Erie Times-News in Erie, Pa.