You may see her power-walking through the streets of her Congress Heights neighborhood. Smiling. Waving. Giving out hugs here and there. On Sundays, you will most definitely catch her at Park Road Community Church praying and worshipping God. Once a year, you will see her strutting on the Mall, donning her pink, monogrammed walking shoes for the Susan G. Komen breast cancer walk. Muriel Langford, also known as Ms. Pinkie, is a very visible woman. But the invisible side of this Washington native is the part that makes her so inspirational to women everywhere.
‘I think I feel a lump’
Langford was having typical day on her job at the US Tax Court in the summer of 2007 when she went to scratch her chest. Right then she felt something. “I went to my coworker and said, ‘You know, I think I feel a lump.’” Her colleague advised her to see someone immediately.
Langford got an appointment at Kaiser Permanente, where they ran a series of tests including a biopsy. The results came back positive for breast cancer, stage one. “I was in denial. She gave me all this information to read and she said you can have a lumpectomy or a mastectomy. I got on the train and went to work. It didn’t kick in until I talked to my supervisor. I said I just went to the doctor and they said I had cancer. That’s when I broke down. I cried and cried.” By the day’s end she had made up her mind to have a lumpectomy.
She went home to break the news to her family. “I was more scared than anything. I was the first in my family to have breast cancer. And the next thing I knew, my aunt, my cousin, and my aunt’s daughter were diagnosed with it too. But my family and my coworkers and church members were so supportive.” Her lump was removed at Holy Cross Hospital in Silver Spring.
She began her rounds of chemotherapy after surgery. “I would go at 6 a.m. and get my chemo. I would sit for hours. I would leave Kaiser and go to work. I wasn’t tired at all. After work, I would go home and go to bed. And that was my routine.” On days when she didn’t have to report to Kaiser, her daughter Regan would come by her home on early mornings to administer shots.
Round Two with a Twist
In June 2011, Langford had gone through her last round of Tamoxifen. The bills were stacking up. Her copays were stacking up too. Ms. Pinkie was ready to get on with her life. But the doctors found a mass in her lymph nodes. “I had to get the nodes removed and go through the chemo, shots, and everything all over again.”
She pressed on in spite of her current situation. The second round of chemo was harder than the first. And the cancer drug that she was prescribed this time had terrible side effects. “The side effects nearly killed me. My joints were killing me. I couldn’t sleep well. They had to give me another drug to help me sleep. I prayed that God would help me get off of this medication.”
In addition to battling cancer, Langford found out that she had hepatitis C, a dangerous virus that attacks the liver. “I couldn’t figure out how that could happen. I’m not a drug user. Never had been. I don’t drink or smoke. I was confused about how this could happen. So I had to take medications and shots just like I did for the cancer. My stomach was so bruised up it looked like a grape.” She was on medication for HCV for several months.
Breast Cancer Doesn’t Always End with Therapy
The highest risk of breast cancer recurrence is during the first two years after treatment. Recurrence can be local or distant. Local recurrence happens when the cancer returns close to or at the same place as the location where the first tumor was found. If the lump was treated with a lumpectomy and radiation the first time, then the second treatment plan would most likely be a mastectomy. Distant breast cancer recurrence, or metastatic breast cancer, is when the cancer spreads to another location in the body. Metastatic breast cancer is not curable, but don’t panic. Doctors can treat it as a manageable chronic disease and prolong the patient’s life.
What are the chances that the cancer will come back? According to the Susan G. Komen Foundation website, if a woman had a lumpectomy and radiation therapy, her chance of local recurrence in 10 years is between 3 and 15 percent. If the woman had a mastectomy, look at her lymph nodes. If the lymph nodes do not contain cancer (the more lymph nodes you have the greater the risk), the chance of local recurrence in five years is about 6 percent. The chance rises to 23 percent in five years when the lymph nodes do contain cancer.
Early Detection: The Thin Line Between Life and Death
Studies show that African-American women are more likely to die from breast cancer than their white counterparts. One cause for this grave disparity is late detection. Lack of health insurance, lack of a steady primary care physician, low income, and fear of bad news are just some of the barriers. However, chances for survival are much higher when the cancer is caught early.
“Most forms of breast cancer, when caught early, can be successfully treated and cured,” states Beth Beck, co-founder and director of Breast Care for Washington, the only licensed and FDA-accredited mammography facility east of the Anacostia River that offers patients 3-D imaging. “We have found in using 3-D, state-of-the-art imaging technology that we are able to increase the detection of invasive breast cancers earlier on in the disease process, which means better health outcomes for the patient,” states Beck.
Breast Care for Washington, located in the Conway Health and Resource Building on Atlantic Street, opened three years ago this May. “In our first three years, we have screened over 2,500 women for breast cancer and identified 27 cases of cancer, which is higher than average. We believe that all women beginning at age 40 should have a yearly mammogram.”
Breast Care for Washington is a Susan G. Komen Foundation grantee that offers routine breast screening and diagnostic mammograms, breast ultrasounds, and clinical breast exams. Most of the services are covered by Medicaid, Medicare, or private insurance.
Langford took her last dose of cancer medication on Feb. 28. She is officially a two-time survivor. She announced it at church with great joy and praise to God. Now she’s gearing up for the next Susan G. Komen breast cancer walk in Washington in September. “Sometimes I wonder if I’m doing enough for others. God has been so good to me. I pray that God continues to heal my body. I want to stay healthy. It’s so much when you’re going through cancer. I’m just thankful to be here.”
Need to get screened for breast cancer? Call Breast Care for Washington for an appointment at 202-465-7164.
Candace Y.A. Montague is the health reporter for Capital Community News.