Director of a Mississippi breast care center fights cancer

TUPELO, Miss. (AP) – Cancer has been a part of Breast Care Center director Melissa Cole’s entire adult life, but her years of experience came to an end last November when an abnormality was found during her routine screening mammogram.

“Of course, with a background in oncology, you’re always a little cancer paranoid,” Cole said. “However, you still never think it’s you, and when you do, it’s a very surreal experience.”

Cole’s mammogram had been postponed for six months, along with all non-essential medical visits during the pandemic. After additional imaging and a biopsy showed that the malignancy was invasive lobular, Cole met her surgeon, Dr. Danny Sanders, and his team to help her decide next steps.

The Amory resident worked in radiotherapy oncology for over 15 years before joining the Breast Care Center five years ago. With her background in oncology and her role as director, Cole found comfort in knowing her team’s expertise and standard of care.

Still, she realized she had no control over the situation. She found that having questions was a normal part of coping with what was happening to her.

Every step on her path to recovery was an emotional roller coaster, but Cole was determined early on that she would try to make her journey positive. She found support in many different directions, from her family, friends and acquaintances to the colleagues and caregivers who treated her.

Cole said her family has shed many tears and shared many conversations over coffee. As an only child, she has a close relationship with her mother and her husband has provided wonderful support throughout.

Through her work, Cole’s two children also grew up with cancer. When she told her 16-year-old son Jack about her diagnosis, he had two questions: One was if she was going to die.

“My answer to him was, ‘Of course I will at some point. I really hope this doesn’t cost me my life,’ Cole said.

The other question was whether her diagnosis meant that his sister or he could have cancer. Knowing that family history plays a big role in cancer, Cole went on to genetic testing and found that she carried no genes.

“I thought it was really interesting that he had that insight enough to ask, but my kids got through that well,” Cole said. “I just tried to protect them from the ugliness of it.”

In December 2020, she had a double mastectomy. The trial showed Cole that every case is different and that, in working with a healthcare team, she needed to have faith in her caregivers and be confident in making decisions that could affect her longevity.

The transition from seeing patients to being a patient gave Cole a newfound appreciation for the journey someone with cancer takes. Her personal experiences have only fueled her passion for the work she does and she is looking for new ways to help others.

“I don’t think the journey ever ends, and that’s something I really have a different understanding of now than when I was caring for cancer patients,” Cole said.

She has discovered that grace is a gift that comes at unexpected times.

“I think I’m still in the middle of my story,” she said. “I got that diagnosis and I wanted to deal with it with so much grit, grace and gratitude.”

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