Breast Cancer Survivors Tell Stories of Hope and Support

YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio — Last summer, Lori Sweeney’s doctor “saved my life,” the Lisbon resident says. 

Every time she went to her doctor for a six-month check up on her thyroid disease, her doctor asked if she had gotten a mammogram, Sweeney recalls. 

“This time, she looked at me and said, ‘Did you get that done?’ and I said, ‘No.’ She said, ‘I’m calling the hospital right now and you are getting that mammogram.’ She saved my life.”

In short order, Sweeney was diagnosed with breast cancer. 

Sweeney had worked 29 years as a personal banker at Huntington National Bank and was an active volunteer in her community. As a member of the Lisbon Area Chamber of Commerce, she was in charge of the Johnny Appleseed Festival and Christmas parades. 

With a son coaching high school baseball, she was always on the sidelines helping him and she served as treasurer of the Lisbon Little Blue Devils football team. At the time she was diagnosed with breast cancer, Sweeney was not working. 

“It was a blessing,” she says. “I was able to concentrate on myself, my health and my family, and I took care of it.” 

Lori Sweeney’s doctor “saved my life,” she says.

She began her treatment elsewhere before coming to the Joanie Abdu Comprehensive Breast Care Center in Youngstown. While the end goal is to be free of the disease, the journey is different for everyone. 

Marilyn Fielding, a Brookfield resident, was diagnosed with breast cancer a month ago. She got her mammogram in the Abdu Center’s mobile mammography van when it visited Mercy Health in Howland. She subsequently received a phone call and was told she needed an ultrasound and a diagnostic test. 

Hearing the words “you have breast cancer” was “one of the most shocking things I’ve ever had to deal with,” Fielding says. “You don’t expect that. I have dense tissue in my breast, so in the past, a few times they would have to do the test again. That’s what I thought at first.” 

The cancer the testing found was the size of a marble, Fielding says. Had she not gotten the mammogram and waited another year, it could have been worse. 

“I had a mammogram last year and there was nothing wrong,” she says. “This is just 12 months later and now I have cancer? I started getting mammograms when I was 40 and I’m 70 now. You start to cry because you think this is the end of the world.” 

Marilyn Fielding was diagnosed after receiving a mammogram in the Joanie Abdu Comprehensive Breast Care Center’s mobile mammography van.

For more than 20 years, Fielding was a special education teacher and worked for Potential Development. While she served then as a mentor for children with autism, she is now educating her friends and family about the importance of regular mammograms, she says. 

For Linda Simplican, her first personal experience with the disease came when her son died of cancer at 33. She has gotten a mammogram every year since she was 40. The tests always came back fine, that is until April 11, 2016.

 “I got a letter saying they needed to do more testing,” she begins. “I still didn’t get too worried or excited. I didn’t tell my family and thought they’re just checking it out, no problem.” 

After she returned for a compression mammogram, Simplican received another letter and a phone call from her family doctor, she says. 

After learning she needed a biopsy, Simplican still did not get overly concerned. 

“I would never have felt the tumor because it was deep and the mammogram is what showed it,” Simplican says. “I believe a mammogram can save your life.”

Simplican’s daughter, Carrie Rayl, says she was a typical 46-year-old living her life with her two kids and her husband in Columbiana. Rayl’s oldest was a senior at Youngstown State University and her youngest was a senior in high school at the time she was diagnosed with breast cancer, shortly after she started working for Mercy Health as an occupational therapist assistant. 

In January 2017, it was time for her yearly mammogram. She decided to go to the Joanie Abdu Center because of her mother’s good care there, she says. 

“I’m 46 and I had a benign tumor in my right breast when I was 21, and it was nothing. And I had another area in my left breast removed a couple of years after that, and it was nothing,” Rayl says. 

Two days after getting her mammogram, Rayl got a phone call from her doctor saying they saw something on her mammogram the required addition at testing, she recalls.

“I was at work,” she says. “It was 8 a.m., I was walking in and my doctor was on the phone, which never really makes you feel very good. I got teary eyed, talked to a coworker and I said, ‘Geez. My mom just got over this breast cancer and I’m not going to borrow trouble.’ ” 

Rayl moved through the tests quickly before she got the final answer, as she tried to stay positive. She was at her niece’s basketball game when she got the call from her doctor saying it was cancer.

With her family history, cancer has become a scary thing, Rayl says. Still, she stayed positive and didn’t lose her faith. 

“It’s so much of a waiting game,” she says. “That’s tough. So, here you are. It’s Jan. 21 and I don’t go in to see the surgeon nor get scheduled until March 14, when my actual surgery was.” 

Mother and daughter Linda Simplican and Carrie Rayl are both breast cancer survivors. The two were diagnosed less than a year apart and went through treatment at the Joanie Abdu Breast Care Center.

If people let cancer sicken their mental state, they can go crazy, Rayl says. As she was going through the motions, she still went to work, but had to pretend things were okay. 

“I had my surgery, I had all of the tests and felt confident it wouldn’t be in my lymph nodes,” Rayl says. “I only had one lymph node removed and it had cancer in it, so I was unlike my mom. That changed everything.”

Jamie Milligan was diagnosed with breast cancer in October 2017. Before being faced with the disease, she spent her leisure time working out and with her daughter, competed in bodybuilding competitions and was employed as a bartender at the Upstairs Restaurant in Austintown. 

“I felt a lump,” she says. “I had my mammogram and I honestly never thought it would be cancer. It was a Monday and they didn’t like what they saw, so they asked if they could do a biopsy.” 

Because she ate a healthful diet and exercised daily, Milligan, who was 39 at the time, never suspected she would be diagnosed with breast cancer. 

She received the phone call while she was at work and heard the words, “You have breast cancer.” 

Milligan took it hard, but still finished her shift.

In the past year, Milligan has undergone multiple surgeries and treatments, including two hip replacements due to the cancer spreading to her bones. 

In the last three months, the cancer spread to her liver. 

“As soon as I walked in [the Stefanie Spielman Comprehensive Breast Center at Ohio State University], the nurses were wonderful and compassionate,” she says. 

“My oncologist was wonderful from the get-go and I said this is where I need to be. I didn’t even think about the drive at the time,” she continues. “I was thinking about my life.” 

Milligan is still undergoing treatments and traveling back and forth to the Spielman Center. She says she is fighting every day for her 12-year-old daughter, Ava. 

“Everything I do is for her.” 

Pictured above: Between making regular trips to Columbus for treatment, Jamie Milligan makes time to watch her daughter Ava’s softball games.

Copyright 2024 The Business Journal, Youngstown, Ohio.