Grateful Breast Cancer Survivor Celebrates 50 Years of Being Cancer-Free

Written By:Amanda Dobbs

In 1966, the Beatles were dominating the pop music charts, President Lyndon Johnson was in the White House, and Phyllis Foltz was a 30-year-old mom raising two small children. Although she was busy with life and her infant son, she noticed a lump in her breast that didn’t feel normal, and she decided to ask the family doctor to take a look. “He actually took the lump out in his office, which is unheard of these days,” says Foltz, “and he said, ‘Well, I don’t think it’s anything to worry about, but we’ll send it off and see what they say.’” About a week later, she was due to return to get her stiches out when she got a surprising call from the physician. “He said, ‘We want you in the hospital this afternoon. We are taking your breast off.’”

The pencil eraser-sized lump they found had come back from the lab as “abnormal,” and Foltz was scheduled for a mastectomy within hours of being told of her diagnosis. “I sat down and cried a while, then I called my husband and cried a while, then I called his mom and cried a while, and that was my morning,” she says. “Then I had to be at the hospital at 1:00 that afternoon.” She found a last-minute babysitter for her kids, and headed in for surgery. On November 11, 1966, Foltz’s right breast was removed, and she started on what is now a 50-year-long path of cancer survivorship.

“Back in those days, that was all they knew,” she says of her initial cancer treatment. “My lump was small. It would have probably been a lumpectomy with a little bit of chemo or radiation these days.” Although her surgery was successful, she found that support resources for people recovering from cancer were very limited. “They did not have groups to help you get through the process. You just were on your own,” recalls Foltz. “I went and got measured for a prosthesis, and I had to sew my own pocket into the bra.” Even more of a challenge was the fact that 50 years ago, cancer carried something of a stigma. “You didn’t even talk about it, and that was it,” she says.

With time and help from her family, Foltz recovered, and she spent the next two decades living life with a prosthesis – and without her cancer returning. However, Foltz faced another cancer scare in the mid 1980s. “They actually did find something in a mammogram in my left breast,” she says. “It was way, way down in deep.” By then, more modern diagnostic tools had been devised, and a less-invasive procedure allowed her doctors to determine that no further treatment was needed. But new advances in screening and treatment weren’t the only thing that had changed since her initial diagnosis; attitudes about cancer were different, too, and Foltz felt more comfortable talking about the disease and her experience. “I worked in a school office as a secretary for 26 years, and women would come in and fuss about the mammogram, and I would get on my soapbox and say, let me tell you about the alternative,” she says. “What’s a few seconds of pain if what they find can save your life?”

Today, Foltz still encourages people to get screened and helps support those she knowswho are facing the disease. She also raises funds for the American Cancer Society through a Relay For Life team founded in honor of a member of her Sunday School class who lost her life to colon cancer. “I am a pretty resilient person,” says Foltz, of her experience with cancer, but she emphasizes that it’s important to know your body and check in with a doctor when you think something may be wrong. “If I would have gone on and thought ‘Oh, that’s nothing,’ I wouldn’t be here today,” she says.

She also looks back over her life and her 5 decades of survivorship with a deep sense of gratitude. “God gave me these 50 years to see my children grow and become wonderful adults and be very successful,” she says. “What more can you ask for?”

"God gave me these 50 years to see my children grow and become wonderful adults and be very successful. What more can you ask for?"

Phyllis Foltz

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