WINNSBORO — When one first meets Ashley Bradham, the brightness in her eyes leaves quite an impression.
If one’s gaze stopped there, perhaps they would not notice the bald head and thin figure that she carries now as a result of chemotherapy to treat breast cancer.
A cancer survivor at age 13, this spring held dreaded news for Bradham, now age 28. When just a teenager, the support of this community helped her and once more she has relied upon that support and the power of prayer.
This winter certainly challenged her faith. On the day that her father was to undergo surgery for a benign tumor on his brain, she noticed a lump on her breast.
Once she learned her father was going to be OK, she broke the news to her family. As she saw the X-rays in the doctor’s room, Bradham started crying uncontrollably even before she heard a diagnosis. As a technician, she knew what she was seeing.
“At that point I just prayed that whatever kind of cancer it was that it not be something that would take me out,” she said.
Within a week, test results confirmed her fears and she was diagnosed with Grade 3 triple negative invasive ductal carcinoma on Jan. 17. Doctors wasted no time inserting a port catheter and giving her four aggressive chemotherapy treatments.
“It has been hard, but the technology has come a long way (since I was 13),” she said.
About 15 years ago at age 13, this typical teenage girl who loved sports began having difficulty breathing that her doctors attributed to seasonal allergies and sports induced asthma. She ran the hurdles and the 400 meter relay but one day she collapsed and blacked out at track practice.
That was a red flag leading to more doctor visits and tests after doctors found a lump on her neck the size of a hard boiled egg. They found a large tumor that filled a third of her chest cavity. She was diagnosed with Stage II mixed cellularity Hodgkin’s disease, a lymphatic immune system-related cancer.
She took eight months of oral and IV chemotherapy and had cancer in remission by her 14th birthday. She graduated high school, college and earned an associate’s degree in health science so she could help others.
Pink ribbons, even pink lab coats
Yet, in January, the medical professional once again found herself on the other side of the examination table.
She said her mom has once again been her right hand man. At age 13 her mom was her main caregiver.
“Now as an adult, I care for myself, but Mom helps with paperwork and financial advice and gives moral support,” she said.
Her sister also has been right there at her side throughout, often coming by to help Ashley get out of the house when the place feels too confining.
“I have an amazing team of doctors and nurses and a great nurse care coordinator,” she said. “My family and co-workers at Moore Orthopedic and my friends have just been amazing.”
Ashley said she was so touched by all three of the Moore orthopedic offices wearing pink on her last day of work before starting treatment. One doctor even had his lab coat dyed pink and he still wears it. Others wear pink ribbons in support.
“It’s a great clinic and I love working there,” she said.
Dealing moment by moment
As part of the treatments, she received injections to boost her white blood cell counts and had chemo twice per week, a treatment that left her feeling like she had the flu. Her mom took her for chemotherapy and her dad and sister took her to get IV fluids. The infusions took hours, so sometimes her friends went with her to keep her company.
Along the way, some days were harder than others. She said she has had her moments.
“When I am having a ‘moment’ where I feel down in the dumps but not really a pity party, I just need reassurance that things will be OK and my friends are great to call upon for that,” she said.
The breast cancer she has is an aggressive form very apt to spread due to the close proximity to milk ducts and lymph nodes. Thankfully she responded well to treatments coordinated by oncologist Dr. Steve Madden.
Bradham took special combinations of chemo because she received so much of it at 13 that she is close to a lifetime dose of certain kinds. Doctors designed a personalized plan just for her and it has worked wonders. Bradham also learned through genetic testing that this cancer carries a lower relapse rate than some and that she is not a carrier for the cancer.
Bradham had surgery earlier this month to remove a tumor from her chest that was about the size of a boiled egg and she had three lymph nodes removed that all tested negative for cancer. The chemo worked tremendously. Her cancer shrank 98 percent and so the next step was six weeks of radiation therapy to get rid of the remaining 2 percent.
She attends Christ Central and said she believes so much in the power of prayer and in faith.
“It’s amazing what a person is able to do when cancer is laid on your lap. We were handed it 13 years ago and we got through it. This time around I had a major ‘moment’ but then we made out a game plan and I was like, ‘just bring it,’” she said with a smile. “My faith in God has been renewed through all of this. I do rely a lot on faith. That is how I got through cancer the first time, to remember who truly is in control. God’s been good, very good.”
She said she was a workaholic before the cancer and she hopes to work more on that work/life balance in the future.
“Now we are nearing the end of the tunnel and there is light in sight,” she said. “We can’t control the future but God is in control, so what will be, will be. I know I just need to lean on him (and this community) to get through this.”
She said people hear about her case history and learn that she, in fact, had not been doing monthly self exams as health professionals recommend. Ashley said people fuss at her when they hear that part of her story and she understands the concern.
In fact, now she is a poster child for the need for all women to do monthly self breast exams as a cancer screening tool. That subject is not something she shies away from, nor is cancer in general. She chose not to wear a scarf or wig when she underwent chemotherapy this winter.
“The only time I wore a hat (was a stocking cap) to keep my head warm,” she said.
What warms her heart is her new calling as an advocate for cancer screenings and self examinations. On her Caringbridge site and her Facebook page, she encourages people to do the monthly breast self exams.
“Hopefully my situation can be used so others can promote good health habits and avoid some of the struggles I faced (from not doing the self examinations),” she said.
Back seeing patients
This May Bradham finally has been cleared to return to work as an X-ray technician. For a while there was concern about the levels of radiation she’d be exposed to, but she was cleared. She loves the people she works with and the support they have shown her. They worked with her to organize a benefit walk when it appeared she would not be able to return to work or have health insurance, but since that no longer is the case, they canceled the benefit plans.
“It would be different if I were unable to work or have insurance,” she said. “But I can continue to provide for myself.”
Since that is the case, she wants people’s generosity to be directed toward others who are in greater need than she.
This year at Relay for Life she said as they walk the laps for caregivers and survivors, she will feel extra blessed. Thanks to her faith, her family, doctors and this community, she looks forward to celebrating her next birthday and many more in the years to come.