The unopened box of corn starch in Artelia Russell-Dyson’s kitchen cabinet is a reminder of surviving breast cancer.
Burns and blisters similar to those caused by sun damage are common during radiation treatments because skin cells don’t have enough time to regrow between therapies. Mixing the powder with water makes a paste that when applied to the skin helps ease the pain. When Russell-Dyson’s oncologist recommended the concoction, she was willing to try it but first she believed something else would help.
“I felt God was testing my faith, telling me not to use the corn starch and instead just say ‘Thank you, Jesus’ during my treatments,” said Russell-Dyson, who is one of more than 3.8 million breast cancer survivors in the U.S. “I completed my treatments without a burn or blister. After each treatment my doctor asked which side of my body was being treated because my skin color didn’t change once during the entire 31 days.
“When he asked if I was using corn starch or ointment to help with the blisters, I told him I was taking care of it but I didn’t go into details. I didn’t know how to tell him why I wasn’t using it.”
In 2013, at the age of 40, Russell-Dyson scheduled a doctor’s appointment to learn why she was experiencing fatigue, breast pain during her menstrual cycle, and anxiety. With a long history of cancer in her family – her mother died at the age of 46 after her undiagnosed cancer spread to her organs and bones, her grandmother succumbed to lung cancer, and her grandfather to prostate cancer – Russell-Dyson wanted to rule out the disease. Her fears were realized after a mammogram showed she had breast cancer.
The health scare could not have come at a worse time for Russell-Dyson, 48, a mother of four who lives in suburban Bolingbrook, Illinois. She and her fiancé, who had been a couple for 18 years, were arranging their long-anticipated wedding. Russell-Dyson’s healthcare team at UI Health assured her the wedding would be held on April 10, 2013, as planned.
Less than a month after exchanging vows Russell-Dyson underwent a double mastectomy. Eight rounds of chemotherapy and radiation followed the surgery.
Russell-Dyson was not immune to chemotherapy’s side effects, which left her tired and nauseous. The disease forced her to take nine months away from her job as a project manager. Cancer treatments, she said, are like riding a rollercoaster: waves of highs and lows and a feeling of apprehension, not knowing what’s around the next corner. But through it all she maintained her positive attitude.
“My husband, family and oncology team were with me every step of the way, and I’m forever grateful,” Russell-Dyson said. “God was right beside me during my entire journey, guiding me and placing the right people in my life when I needed them. I can’t take an ounce of credit for my experience or outcome.”
Today, Russell-Dyson feels a little discomfort in her right arm where her lymph nodes were removed, but she is cancer-free and has returned to the things she loves most: cooking, shopping and chronicling her life experiences in a journal. Is she frightened that one day cancer may return?
“I do have fears, but I pray and ask God to provide me with peace that surpasses all understanding and it works,” she said. “I have regular follow-up visits with my oncologist and I feel blessed to be a survivor.”