Both Lauri Himmelman, 55, and Sandra Hardy, 67, were initially told not to worry.
Himmelman, a landscaper who lives just outside Boone, had suffered from cramps for months and the feeling that she was "carrying a brick around" in her lower abdomen. Her physical revealed a mass, but it was thought to be a benign tumor.
"I was worried it was ovarian cancer," she said, "but that was ruled out because my C-125 levels (a blood test that is used as an indicator of cancer) were normal."
Hardy, who was born and raised in Charlotte and lives in south Charlotte, found out she had suspicious cells in her lymph nodes when she went in for a routine mammogram.
"They thought I had inflammatory breast cancer," Hardy said, but a biopsy revealed, to her relief, that she did not have breast cancer.
I have just completed my sixth and final cycle of chemotherapy for my own (ovarian) cancer. I am happy to report that my post-chemo CAT scan showed no signs of cancer. I will write another column about the next part of my journey, a double mastectomy and reconstruction surgery scheduled for mid-December.
For Himmelman and Hardy, both fellow patients of mine at the Blumenthal Cancer Center, the diagnoses they ultimately received illustrate how difficult cancer can be to spot and identify.
Himmelman's hysterectomy, intended to simply remove what they thought was a benign tumor, was supposed to take two hours but ended up taking all day.
"I knew as soon as I woke up from surgery and saw the clock that I had cancer," she said. She was right. She was diagnosed with a rare form of ovarian cancer, clear cell carcinoma, and was told it was already at Stage 3.
Hardy was diagnosed with peritoneal cancer (a cancer of the abdominal lining) that had spread up to the lymph nodes in her arm.
Both the location of the cancer cells and the fact that breast cancer cells and ovarian cancer cells are very similar made it difficult to initially diagnose.
Madeilene Mangabu, 55, has her daughter, Christine, to thank for catching her cancer. She came to visit Christine and her family from the Congo (formerly Zaire), where Mangabu worked as a seamstress in Kinshasa. She had been suffering from headaches for quite a while so Christine insisted that her mother get a full checkup in the U.S.
The checkup led to a diagnosis of breast cancer, and Mangabu is thankful because she doubts "it would have been caught in the Congo."
Her initial plans to visit for a month have been indefinitely extended while she gets treated here, at the Blumenthal Cancer Center, because, as she said, "there is no comparison between the care I'm receiving here and what I would get in the Congo."
It has been a bumpy road for all three women.
Himmelman has lost 20 pounds and has twice had her treatments delayed because she was too weak to stay on schedule. She has suffered mouth sores, an infection in her toe (due to her diminished white blood cell count) and spends the five days following each treatment curled in a fetal position.
Hardy has just completed her sixth and final cycle. Her type of cancer responds well to chemo, but it often recurs, so she will be checked frequently. She cites her bone pain as the worst part of her treatment.
Mangabu, who doesn't speak English, must rely on her daughter or a translator to be understood. "But everyone is so nice and patient," she said.
And all three women have rave reviews for the support they've received from friends and family.
Himmelman's sister encouraged her to view her chemo as an elixir, rather than poison, and made her a bracelet that reads, "Lauri's elixir." Hardy, who has been married for 46 years, says her husband, Jack, has been "the best caregiver."
And Mangabu, no doubt speaking for all three women, says the care she's received at the Blumenthal Cancer Center has made her treatment as bearable as possible.