She never thought it could happen to her. She had no family history, she was healthy, and she was young. But, at the age of 36, Stacey Carroll, Director of Emergency Management and EMS Coordinator at Southern New Hampshire Health, says her life was changed when she was diagnosed with an extremely rare form of breast cancer.
Carroll, who still serves in the Army, was on active duty in Iraq in January of 2011. She noticed some dimpling on her right breast and her nipple was chapped, but she didn’t think anything of it as she was in 127-degree weather, wearing body armor, and her laundry was being done by someone else.
It wasn’t until a lump developed under her right breast and advice from a colleague made her get it checked out. On July 7, 2011 she visited the clinic in Iraq and the nurse practitioner immediately told her she was leaving.
“I wasn’t ready to leave my soldiers, so I fought her tooth and nail and ended up staying in Iraq for another week before being sent to Germany. I was in Germany for about a week and then was sent to Georgia where I was diagnosed with Paget’s disease of the nipple which less than 1% of people get. I ended up with two masses in my right breast. One of them that I could feel. Then one that was up against my chest wall. If I had stayed in Iraq it could have penetrated my chest wall and I probably would not be here,” Carroll explains.
She underwent a mastectomy in Georgia and was sent back to New Hampshire where she began her treatment. Carroll went through chemotherapy, which included two different chemo drugs and an additional drug that had recently been approved by the FDA. It’s called Herceptin. “That drug is probably why I’m still here,” Carroll says.
In January of 2013 Carroll was told she had “no evidence of disease.”
Carroll explains, “Breast cancer survivors never call it ‘cancer-free’ or ‘remission.’ They call it ‘no evidence of disease.’ So, you’ll hear them say a NED date, No Evidence of Disease date, because the possibility of it coming back is dependent on what the person had. The anniversary of my NED date is January 29. I am now 8 years NED. The magic number is supposed to be 10 years, so I’m waiting.”
She adds, “Cancer has absolutely changed my life and my path. You realize how invincible you aren’t. I’m 5’3” and about 120 lbs. I believe I’m 6’4” and 300 lbs. I drive a truck, I am a big human in my mind. However, my body told me differently and it took me down a bunch of pegs. If I had to pick one thing out of this entire experience it’s perspective. The little things that bother people during their normal day usually make me shake my head and say, ‘You know what? It could be so much worse. Somebody else is going through something so much worse.’”
Because she had Paget’s disease of the nipple and is HER2-positive, which means the cancerous cells tend to grow and spread faster, Carroll has a yearly mammogram and breast MRI. She’s still on an antiestrogen medication and will stay on that for the next two years.
“I still see my oncologist, breast surgeon, and various other doctors because chemo causes a lot of problems in a lot of other places in your body,” Carroll explains.
Carroll is open about her cancer story and uses it to raise awareness and remind people to get screened.
“Whenever I go for a procedure, I check-in on social media. I go to see my oncologist just to say I’m still here and I’m still following up. Whenever I go in for my mammograms, I’m usually taking a selfie in the hospital gown to make sure that those on social media see that I’m still going and that they should still be going,” she explains.
Carroll is also part of a group called the Young Survivor Coalition. It’s designed for people diagnosed with breast cancer before age 40. She says a lot of the educational tools offered to breast cancer patients tend to be focused on older women. “They would hand you all these pamphlets with grandmothers and you’re like, ‘Great, where do I find a cute bathing suit that I can wear if I’ve had a mastectomy? I don’t want to wear a grey wig, I want to find a cool bandana to wear! Where do I find that?’ Now that I’m in my 40s I kind of serve as one of the experienced elders that’s still around. It gives these new kids that come in a little bit of hope that I’m 45 now, and I’m still in the army, and I’m still doing crazy things, and I’m living life and I’m okay, and they can be too.”
She urges anyone going through cancer to lean on people. “It doesn’t matter how tough you think you are, you need people. You need someone there that’s going to make you laugh, you need someone you know you can call and that will be there no matter what. You need to just ask for help. When people want to help, accept it,” Carroll advises.
She also wants to remind everyone to pay attention to their health. “I was not the person who you would see as being sick. You need to listen to your body. If your body is telling you something is wrong, you need to listen to it, and you need to get it checked out. And, for the love of God, get your screenings. They’re not that hard,” she insists.