It was November 2007. Mandie Bignell was 32 and in her second trimester carrying her second child. She was trying to enjoy her family vacation at Disney World when she found a lump in her breast.
“I went home and saw my OB,” Bignell said. “I thought I drank too much caffeine.”
After a mammogram and a biopsy, Bignell got what she described as “the worst possible news.”
“Of course I shut down,” Bignell said. “I thought, ‘how can I have cancer? I’m pregnant. I can’t even take an aspirin, how could I do chemo?’”
Doctors advised Bignell to terminate her pregnancy, but instead she fought even harder. Guided by her oncologist Dr. Thomas Sunneberg, who told her “we’re going to beat this,” Bignell underwent a mastectomy and four rounds of chemotherapy. On April 21, Conner Jayden Bignell was born by C-section. He was a healthy 7 lbs. 6 oz.
“I wanted something meaningful, that’s why I chose ‘Jayden’,” Bignell said. “It means ‘God heard us.’ There are no words to describe it. I had no idea how he was going to turn out. It’s a true miracle.”
After 12 more rounds of chemotherapy, Bignell was given a clean bill of health in July 2008 and in March 2009 she had breast reconstruction. In less than two years, Bignell’s life had changed forever with her second son and a new lease on life.
“I just thought, ‘I can’t let them get me,’” Bignell said. “I have a child and another one on the way. In worst case scenarios you have to fight and keep the faith.”
Bignell also credits her doctors with being compassionate and providing the best care possible. She refers to Dr. Sunneberg and his nurse staff as angels. While Dr. Sunneberg was protecting Bignell, Dr. Tucker and her nurse practitioner, Michelle Spinner, were taking care of Bignell’s baby.
“Michelle called me on a Saturday and said, ‘we have to get you on this medicine or you’re going to loose this baby,’” Bignell said, choking back tears. “She met me at the grocery store to pick it up.”
Family and friends supported Bignell, taking her to appointments and making her feel confidant overall.
“I was loosing my hair and I didn’t feel pretty,” Bignell said. “But my husband thought I was just as beautiful as always.”
As uplifting as Mandie’s story is, it’s a scary realization that breast cancer can affect anyone. No matter your age or condition, women need to know their body and they need to schedule their yearly screenings.
The government suggests that women under 40 do not need yearly mammograms. However, that does not ease womens’ minds. Dr. Tarek Eldawy, an oncologist at Sacred Heart Cancer Center, helped break it down.
“Mammograms in women younger than age 40 who are not high-risk are not recommended, as the women’s breasts are generally very dense when they are younger,” Eldawy explained in an e-mail interview. “The denser the breast tissue, the harder it is to diagnose any problems through a mammogram.”
However, a family history of breast cancer presents some grey areas.
“Women over the age of 25 with a strong family history of breast cancer or genetic predisposition are recommended to have an annual mammogram,” Eldawy said. “To qualify as strong family history, it must be a first-degree relative who was diagnosed with breast cancer before the age of 50, or was diagnosed with triple-negative breast cancer before the age of 60.”
While most studies have contrasting numbers, generally three to seven percent of breast cancer cases occur in women 30 and under — a small, yet scary number.
“Women under the age of 30 make up a very small percentage of the diagnoses of breast cancer that we see here at Sacred Heart,” Eldawy said. “I have been here for five years, and I have only treated two breast cancer patients who were under the age of 30. Because young patients don’t expect to have breast cancer, they are normally diagnosed at a later stage than older patients — with half of all young breast cancer patients diagnosed at stage two or stage three in one study from Finland. Because of the late diagnosis, the survival rates in younger patients tend to be worse.”
That’s why Bignell insists that women “just grab’em.” She’s always checking on her mother and friends to make sure they’ve had their annual mammograms.
Bignell is a great breast cancer advocate. Not only because she is a survivor, but because she is a part of the Krewe du Ya Yas, a non-profit organization that helps assist the Pensacola Health Department and surrounding hospitals provide early detection mammograms to women who have little to no insurance.
The Krewe du Ya Yas is also one of the top teams for the Making Strides Against Breast Cancer event to be held Oct. 29. This is the ninth year for the walkathon. It is free to register, but donations are gladly accepted. Donations benefit the American Cancer Society. Last year, 10,000 walked the walk and $480,000 went toward breast cancer research and advocacy. Cancer survivors receive a free t-shirt and survivor sash, and anyone who raises over $100 will receive a t-shirt as well.
Lori Perkins, a staff partner for MSABC, has been working for the American Cancer Society for six years. Like so many others, her dedication to the cause stems from loved ones. Her mother is a 10-year breast cancer survivor, and her best friend was diagnosed at age 30.
“There are not many days when I don’t have pink on,” Perkins said. “I’m always looking for involvement and raising money. My brain is on pink mode all the time.”
This year’s walk begins and ends at Cordova Mall. You can register at 7 a.m. or online. The walk is from 8 to 10 a.m. Participants are encouraged to sport a lot of pink. New to this year’s Making Strides event is the Florida-based “Put on your Pink Bra” campaign. Show your support (pun intended) and wear your ostentatiously decorated pink bra over your clothing.
During the month of October, it’s hard to know what event you’re going to when the whole community is a sea of pink. Even the notes of this story were written with a pink ink pen with the word ‘hope’ on the cap. The pink bras are meant to make MSABC stand out from the crowd.
“It’s a bold, new approach to distinguish Making Strides from other events,” Perkins said. “It’s not just another pink ribbon.”
As for Bignell, life is starting to get back to normal. She just got her real estate license and her family is on another Disney World trip. Evan, her firstborn, is in kindergarten and Conner knows all of his ABCs and the presidents.
Hearing her sons laughing in the background is another reminder of how precious life is and why it’s worth fighting for. That’s why on top of Bignell’s busy schedule, she is fully involved with MSABC and Krewe du Ya Yas.
“Don’t give up,” Bignell said. “We are working so hard to find a cure.”
MAKING STRIDES AGAINST BREAST CANCER
WHAT: MSABC Walk Pensacola
WHEN: Saturday, Oct. 29, registration 7 a.m., walk 8 – 10 a.m.
WHERE: Cordova Mall
COST: Free to register, but donations welcome
DETAILS: makingstrides.acsevents.org, Lori Perkins 475-0850