"The main thing from all the things I did was that you are doing something, you are being proactive, you are not waiting around for someone to come heal you, make you better. It might be a mental thing, but leave no stone unturned." ~ Judy Martin
The word "cancer" is an instant killer of all joyful thoughts. Though one can argue finding the joy in even the most devastating diagnosis can inspire both emotional and physical healing. Baylee Anniss, 24 (pictured below) is one of the most joyful and loving young woman I've had the pleasure of working with long before this project came to be. On the afternoon of Monday, February 26, 2018, I had the distinct pleasure of meeting one of the woman in Baylee's life who taught her to always laugh through life's adversities, her grandmother Judy Martin (pictured above).
Judy Martin is a twenty-four year breast cancer survivor, though amongst her family they often forget she endured and survived the disease. A woman undefined by what she has survived. Instead, it's her smile and infectious laugh, a positive attitude with a heavy dose of believing in anything being possible. While Baylee was only a year old at the time of Judy's diagnosis in 1994, otherwise unaware of her grandmother's experience with the disease, as the family rarely spoke of it, now possesses many of Judy's core life values.
Barely a year after losing their home to fire, on December 27, 1993 Judy would go in for a routine mammogram and because of the dense nature of her breasts, was often challenging to acquire clear images of her breasts. In addition, for the years prior had undergone many biopsies due to fibrosis, a common ailment in women and one which historically had not been tied to breast cancer. Having just lost her home and her experience with fibroids, would continue on with life as it was at the time.
Living with fibrosis, Judy was accustomed to feeling lumps and bumps in her breast. "I would just go for the biopsies and never gave it much thought." Though in February of 1994, while showering and doing a routine self-exam discovered a lump unlike what she's come to expect. It was puffy and not hard. It was also larger and inspired her to call her doctor in Saranac Lake who advised keeping an eye on it, though Judy had an awful feeling.
A month later the lump had grown and Judy asked to be seen by her doctor. They performed a needle biopsy where they expected to find fluid, as is often the case with a cyst and routine finding for Judy. Though during the procedure they were not able to extract any fluid and her doctor opted to call Judy's surgeon for a second opinion. It was during this time Judy felt true fear.
"White fright, it is white, the fear is so bad, it's icy." ~ Judy Martin
In these moments, one wants answers. Her physician reached out to the surgeon, whose schedule at the time was full and could see Judy for a few weeks time. She felt strongly this was not something to wait a few weeks on, especially as the mass had grown significantly over the course of a month. Judy insisted she would not wait a few weeks and remained persistent. Her surgeon made the time to see her sooner.
Judy would undergo an additional biopsy and the sample sent to another lab for diagnostics, which was on a Wednesday. The surgeon informed her and her husband they'd have answers by that Friday. What may have only been a few days, feels like weeks when you are waiting such important news. Judy and her husband kept busy. In fact, Judy was attending bridge club at her mom's when she the call came from her surgeon, who insisted, "I want to see you and your husband on Monday."
His urgency in seeing them, "That's how I knew," Judy continued. She knew it wasn't another fibroid.
Judy had researched on her own how best to manage times like this. That weekend, while Judy and her husband had no other choice than to weather the unknown, knew laughter was the best way to pass the time. She and her husband spent the weekend enjoying old movies like Lady in Red and anything with Gene Wildner. She had also bought a book recommended by her doctor, 'Dr. Susan Love's Breast Book'. Baylee recalls, "Mom keeps it in the house, it's been on every bookshelf we've ever had!"
Judy would be diagnosed with hormone receptor positive breast cancer, which for younger women who have not reached the age range for menopause have a harder road to recovery, as it's a cancer which "feeds" off of hormones. Judy was 55 at the time of her diagnosis. The older we come as women, the less active our body is as producing the hormones which feed cancers of this type.
Judy had done a significant amount of research on her own and after weighing the options chose to undergo a lumpectomy. At the time (mid-1990s) it was still a fairly new procedure and her surgeon, who she wanted to perform the procedure, had never done one before. He was extremely hesitant because historically had always performed a mastectomy in all breast cancer cases. It was safe and in his experience at the time led to better rates of survival. Judy took this into consideration and if her surgeon would not perform the procedure, there was a breast cancer center in Rochester, NY.
Though Judy was determined to retain the surgeon she felt most confident in. It took a great deal of convincing and they managed to convince him to perform the procedure, "I"ll be the best patient you ever had. You won't be sorry!" as they talked him into taking on the surgery. Her husband asked the surgeon, "Doctor, how many of these surgeries have you done?" knowing full well he'd never done one!
Judy was very brave to go ahead with a fairly new procedure and a surgeon who had never performed it. The trust and respect between doctor and patient is an important piece to the recovery puzzle. Her surgeon went above and beyond, was extremely cautious and conservative to ensure clean margins were achieved. Meaning he took necessary steps during the surgery to ensure the cancer could not return.
Due to the removal of every lymph node in the region (42 in total with five confirmed cancerous), which was due to the surgeon remaining cautious and not common practice today, Judy did have a lengthier recovery from surgery to ensure no future conditions related to edema in the area. She was ok with all of this. To this day expresses how pleased she was with her surgeon and the work he did. It's been twenty-four years and one would never know she had cancer!
In fact, during those times, Judy kept her diagnosis of breast cancer much to herself and simply lived with breast cancer, taking every step she could to see through the experience of the disease. This would lead her down a path of self discovery and connecting with her Native American heritage. From researching what was in her food, avoiding anything treated with hormones (given her cancer was hormone fed) and welcoming her sister Sarah's passion for Native American medicine.
"I was more afraid of the chemotherapy than I was the cancer," Judy shared, adding, "It kills everything to kill one thing and I knew that and was afraid I would be very ill."
Knowing how anxious Judy was to begin treatment, Sarah empowered her with methodology, prayers and totems to see her through the treatment. Whether or not it "worked" did not matter, it's about leaving nothing to chance. Judy believed (and still believes) it's important to try everything, it can't hurt you.
"When chemotherapy ended they began radiation therapy right away. It was easy though scary because you are in a room all alone strapped down to a table. When the machine comes out there's a rattling noise, you know what's coming out of the ceiling." To see her through those treatments, Judy would repeat mantras and use visualization techniques.
Judy's approach to healing herself during those months and maintaining a lifestyle which focused on letting go of anything and one who did not support the healing process are ways of life she has since passed on to her grandchildren. Baylee explained, "We were a family that grew up sort of religionless and I picked up early in my life on our ties to Native America traditions. Looking to the earth and all that is outside the body, taking a look around and finding solutions to healing in this way."
Baylee explains that in addition to learning how important laughter is to one's overall wellness, "Being able to take over power of your own body, even in the smallest of ways, something our whole family values."
Baylee and Judy at home in Saranac Lake, New York, February 26, 2018.
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