When Kathy McPhail received the news earlier this year that she had breast cancer, she was not alone. She had a sisterhood of church friends and a support team at Cape Fear Valley Health who held her hand, sent her cards and offered to attend doctor’s appointments with her.
They were there for her not just because they had been friends for more than a decade but because they had gone through breast cancer themselves.
One of McPhail’s closest supporters, Donna Oswalt, went with her to her first doctor’s appointment. Oswalt had undergone treatment for breast cancer the previous year and was one of the first friends McPhail told when she was diagnosed.
“She knew the questions to ask,’’ McPhail says. “She had been through it and knew the terminology. I didn’t know what to ask. It was all new to me, and I was nervous.”
Friends since 2014, the pair both attend church at Snyder Memorial Baptist Church. They participate in the Singing Christmas Tree — McPhail in the chorus and Oswalt as a writer and narrator. They pray together in Bible study and Sunday.
Now, they are sharing the same experience through the Cancer Center at Cape Fear Valley.
“She’s an angel on earth — such a blessing,” McPhail says.
Oswalt says they support each other.
“The definition of the faith community is being there for each other,” she says.
While both women have known friends and family members with breast cancer, McPhail says she never expected it to happen to her.
McPhail retired from the city of Fayetteville as the risk management director after 32 years.
“I went for my annual bloodwork with my primary doctor, and everything was perfect,’’ McPhail says. “My doctor told me to keep doing what I was doing, and at age 66, that was great to hear. So when I went to my annual mammogram two weeks later and found out I had cancer, I was shocked. I was shocked to hear the word cancer.”
McPhail is thankful that the cancer was found early.
“If I had not gone for that checkup, it could have been so much different,’’ she says. “Going through radiation is not fun, but it beats something more and possibly not winning.”
McPhail says she had never missed a mammogram. When she was called back to the office because something was not right on her test results, she was told she had two options. One was to have a biopsy because, at that point, doctors could not tell if the lump was cancerous. The second option was to wait a year and see if anything more developed.
She chose the biopsy, and the doctors were able to catch the cancer in Stage 1. Early detection, she says, saved her life and lessened her treatment plan to a lumpectomy and radiation.
“If I had waited the year, it would not have been the case,’’ McPhail says. “I had surgery in June and was in and out the same day. I rested a few days, went back to regular life while I healed, and then I started radiation at the end of August.”
Oswalt has a family history of breast cancer. Her sister, mother and both grandmothers have had the disease. Her sister, Linda McGirr, a theater arts teacher at Fayetteville Christian School, was diagnosed in 2018.
“It’s in the back of your mind,’’ Oswalt says. “Always do exams, always do annual mammograms. Breast cancer does not discriminate. It could happen to anyone, but with my family history, I knew to be vigilant.”
Oswalt, 67, was diagnosed in 2021 during a routine mammogram.
“They called me back for a diagnostic ultrasound in March 2021 and found invasive ductal carcinoma,’’ she says. “There was a five-week lag when global supply issues delayed the MRI, but on my birthday, they brought me back again. That was when they found the lobular tumor, which does not show up in mammograms.”
Oswalt opted for a mastectomy of her right breast. Her last day of radiation was Aug. 23, 2021.
They both praised Marsha Nelson, MD, a general surgeon affiliated with Cape Fear Valley Health, for the excellent care they received.
“My sister saw Dr. Nelson and referred her to me. I knew that was who I wanted to go to because my sister had such a great experience,” Oswalt says.
Dr. Nelson says she tries to connect with her patients.
“From my standpoint, especially with my breast cancer patients, I spend time with them,’’ Dr. Nelson says. “All our patients need to understand the diagnosis, the options.’’
She also credits the Cape Fear Valley team for ensuring that no patient feels left out.
“All aspects of care are considered,’’ Dr. Nelson says. “Twice a month, we have a collaborative meeting with everyone involved in cancer care, including other breast surgeons, pathologists, medical and radiation oncologists, plastic surgeons and others. We discuss patients and treatment plans to come up with comprehensive treatment plans for each person.”
Dr. Nelson says the most important thing is to get a yearly breast exam.
McPhail knows that’s true.
“I’m living proof that early detection is the way to stay alive, absolutely,” McPhail says. “Thanks to finding it early, it is not necessarily a death sentence. There is hope.”
Oswalt and McPhail also feel that Erin Champion, the breast patient navigator at Cape Fear Valley, is a dedicated cheerleader in their corner.
Oswalt, a retired physical therapist, says her medical training and family history with breast cancer helped her understand her diagnosis. But she knows most women do not have that background and can get overwhelmed quickly.
Dr. Nelson says Champion is particularly qualified to help cancer patients because she is also a breast cancer survivor.
Champion says the main way loved ones can be there for patients is to show up and to listen.
“I never want anyone to feel isolated or alone,’’ she says.
McPhail says that core support from Cape Fear Valley and her friends at Snyder, as well as her faith, have kept her going. She says friends have offered rides and meals, but it’s the prayers, text messages and visits that are most important.
“All kinds of prayer, all the time,” she says.
It is a sisterhood of survivors who help take notes during appointments or who are just a phone call away during a scary time. It is a sisterhood of support.