Saint Thomas Health Feature: Ribbons and Wings

A Young Mother Battles Breast Cancer with Winged Grace

Terrah McCann gritted her teeth and watched as the tattoo artist etched a pink ribbon on the inside of her left wrist. Just the day before, Terrah had similarly braced herself when her doctor told her, “I have some news.”  It wasn’t good. A mere week before her wedding day, 30-year-old Terrah McCann was preparing for the fight of her life.

A self-proclaimed worrywart, Terrah had followed her mother’s directive to perform monthly self-breast examinations since the age of 13. She knew that the chances of finding a lump in her breast were slim: she was young, she had no family history of breast cancer, and she maintained a healthy, active lifestyle. But one night as she was dancing with her fiancé, Allen, she felt a strange lump. Immediately, she performed the same self-breast exam that she’d done hundreds of times. And there it was. The lump.

A few weeks later, her gynecologist felt it, too. She referred Terrah to Dr. Laura L. Lawson,   breast surgeon at Baptist Hospital and Tennessee Breast Specialists, for a mammogram and ultrasound. After reviewing the tests, Dr. Lawson showed her into a procedure room a few minutes later. A small incision, a moment of suction, and there, in a specimen cup, was the lump.

For the next three days, she tried not to think about that lump while she waited for the test results. But when Dr. Lawson said that the benign lump had been sitting directly on top of cancerous cells, Terrah knew what she wanted. The chance of cancerous cells being present in both breasts was very high, and Terrah would not gamble with her life, or the lives of her fiancé and 5-year-old son, Aidan. “I want a bilateral mastectomy,” she said, determined not to let the cancer get the better of her. 

Dr. Lawson wanted to schedule her surgery immediately, but Terrah had a wedding on the horizon. “We were married on September 18th, and my surgery was on the 22nd,” she says.  At a small ceremony in the Smoky Mountains, Terrah, Allen, and Aidan enjoyed a cancer-free weekend with family and close friends. But the cancer couldn’t wait forever.  “We had planned to go on a cruise, but we ended up honeymooning at the “Hotel Baptist” instead.”

What followed was a year of chemotherapy, reconstructive surgery, and chaos. With an incredible support system of family and friends, Terrah was able to beat the cancer, welcome new cancer-free breasts, and slowly rebuild her life. “I laugh a lot more now, take everything day by day, and live for the moment,” she says, smiling. 

Terrah’s love of life and insistence on being her own best advocate guide her choices. In fact, when her hair started to fall out, Terrah asked her son to cut it all off!  “That way,” she says, “when people asked him what happened to his mommy, he just said, “I cut her hair!”

But Terrah’s passion for advocacy doesn’t stop with herself. She wants to urge young women who aren’t doing breast exams to start. “Nobody knows your body as well as you do,” she says. “A doctor may examine 30-40 women every day, but only you know what feels normal for your own breast.” She urges young women to be their own advocates. “Early detection,” she says, shaking her head, “it’s the key.”

And what about those self-breast exams Terrah performed every month for 17 years? She still does them every month. While she no longer has breast tissue to examine, she still checks the lymph nodes under her arms and the surface of her breasts for any new growth.  “Learning to trust my body again has been difficult,” she admits, “but I’m no longer the worrywart I used to be. I have a strong will to fight now.”

A few weeks ago, when her treatment was complete, Terrah went back to the same tattoo artist she visited nearly a year ago. She told him to add butterfly wings to her pink ribbon.  He scratched his head and asked her why. “Because,” she said, “it’s time to spread my wings and fly.”

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