A Daughter of Bexar County Fights for Her Health
Commissioner Tommy Adkisson
October 23, 2003

Many of us remember the fine service to our County of former State Representative, District Attorney and Criminal District Judge Jim Barlow and his wonderful wife, Virginia.  Their daughter, our Criminal District Chief Coordinator, Melissa Barlow Fischer came to Commissioner's Court with a compelling personal story of her struggle to fight cancer.  Like my previous article in which I candidly shared an important but far less significant health concern, I truly hope that you will take this to heart in order to better help your family and friends.  On a personal note, we all wish Melissa a successful treatment and return to full health.

"I want to thank you, members of Commissioner's Court, for recognizing that October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month.  Breast Cancer is the leading cause of cancer death in women ages 15 to 55.  This year alone, over 200,000 women will be diagnosed with breast cancer, and 11,000 of them will be women under the age of 40, like me.  80% of these women have no family history.

Six months ago, I never would have believed that I would be spending the majority of 2003 battling breast cancer.  I had a brand new baby and I was in relatively good health.  After a routine mammogram on Good Friday, I was told that the results were abnormal and I needed to see a surgeon.  On May 6th, I had a biopsy done, and on May 7th my surgeon called me at work with the news that it was cancer.  I had my first surgery on May 19th, to remove the lump and several of the closest lymph nodes – the most likely ones to be affected if it had spread.  Four days later, I received the bad news that the lump was larger than they expected, 3.5 cm, there was evidence of more cancer in that breast, and 2 out of the 3 lymph nodes they removed had microscopic cancer cells within them.  I needed more surgery.

On June 10th, I had my second and most drastic surgery, a double mastectomy and the removal of 28 more lymph nodes.  I wanted to remove any possibility of more breast cancer by removing all breast tissue, and it was a good thing that I did, because there were 5 more cm of pre-cancerous tissue, in addition to the cancerous lump that was first removed.  The good news was that none of the lymph nodes removed this time showed signs of cancerous cells.

I started chemotherapy on July 9th.  I have completed 5 out of 8 treatment cycles, with my 6th treatment scheduled for tomorrow.  I will be completely finished in the middle of December.  Last month I had a third surgery to remove a lump that was found in the tissue under my arm and luckily it was a benign cyst probably caused by scar tissue from one of the other surgeries.

After the first of the year, I will undergo radiation therapy for about 6 weeks, and then to cap it all off, I want to have reconstructive surgery in the spring.  Over the past 6 months I have come to realize that so many women are affected with this disease, there are breast cancer survivors all over the county and in almost every county department.  Personally, I know of survivors from my own office, the civil district courts, the probate courts, the sheriff's office, the tax office, the adult probation office, and the district attorney's office just to name a few.

I'm sure you have heard this before and this is the crux of my message today:  the key to survival is early detection.  This goes not only for breast cancer, but for most potentially fatal diseases.  This brings me back to the beginning of my story.  My cancer was found as a result of a routine mammogram.  The doctors don't even recommend women get a mammogram until the age of 40, and over 80% of women diagnosed with breast cancer under the age of 40 found their lump on their own.  I had my first mammogram at 37 because I was then trying to get pregnant and my doctor sent me for a  litany of tests, and I suggested that I get a mammogram because I had never been comfortable with the competency in doing a self breast exam.  That first test was normal.  Then this year, at 38, I received my letter from South Texas Radiology reminding me that it was time form my annual mammogram.  I set the letter aside, undecided if I was even going to do it this year, because I was not yet 40 and last year's was fine.  Then Billy Berchelmann, a friend of all of ours in the criminal courts died of cancer.  Then the husband of one of the interpreters who works for me died of cancer.  The week of his funeral, I found that reminder letter buried under a pile of work on my desk and called to make the appointment.  I am convinced that that action saved my life.

My point is this:  Be pro-active in your health care.  Make and keep your annual routine appointments and check-ups.  Know your body and listen to what it is telling you.  There is no excuse to not take responsibility for your own health.  I know mothers who would never dream of missing one of their kid's vaccinations, yet they will skip that yearly pap-smear just because it is inconvenient to them.  Just yesterday, a friend stopped by my office to thank me for giving her this very speech several weeks ago, when she was overdue to have a breast lump examined that they had been monitoring for a while.  Sure enough, it had changed and they removed it last week.  She is still waiting on the pathology results.

We all have busy jobs and busy lives, but we have to make time to take care of ourselves or else none of that will matter.  I know that if anything happened to me there would be many competent, qualified individuals ready and eager to take my job.  But no one can take my place in the eyes of my daughters.  If you can't take care of yourself for yourself, do it for the people you love.

Illness is scary business, and you may wonder how you would cope with treatment if it were to happen to you.  But the reality is that early detection and treatment is a lot better than the alternative.  That's my story and my message.  Thank you for your time."

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