Lincoln woman pushes breast cancer awareness after beating the odds

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Dee Dee Neil with her husband, Andy, and two daughters, Mia (left) and Miranda (right)

Story and photos by Brittany McNeal, News Net Nebraska

Without a family history of either breast or ovarian cancer, Dee Dee Neil, 50, didn’t think she was at risk for either.

Like many women, she bought into the popular misconception that heredity had a lot to do with breast cancer risk.

For Neil, it took the discovery of a lump on her breast to open her eyes to even the notion of cancer. It was on a very fateful March day nearly four years ago that the notion became a reality.

According to Randall Jantzen, Community Manager of the High Plains Division of the American Cancer Society, only five to 10 percent of breast cancer cases are thought to be hereditary, resulting directly from gene defects inherited from a parent, a fact Neil had never heard.

Now she wants to make sure other women know they aren’t immune from breast cancer if they have no family history of it.

Almost four years ago, Neil’s life was chaotic. Between running from her job to picking up her two daughters and other activities in her life at the time, her thoughts were on how hectic her and her family’s lives had become and not on her own health.

“It was so insanely busy. We would say all the time this is no kind of life. This isn’t living. This isn’t what life is supposed to be, but what are we going to cut out?” she asked. “What are we going to cut out? Sleep? How are we going to do that? So there were a lot of sleepless nights, and it was insanely busy, and we didn’t know how to jump off and how to stop.”

Life was speeding by for Neil without even a hint at slowing down. Then, she discovered a lump on her breast by accident. This discovery began to slow things down and put her daily life into perspective.

Although she’d had a mammogram a few months before, Neil admits she had never done a self-exam because she’d never thought about it.

“You don’t talk about it, and who wants to say the word ‘breast’ out loud? You know, that’s all private, and it just never, ever entered my mind,” she said. “It just became a, ‘Oh, golly, I suppose I’d better call the doctor.’”

At first, Neil admits she shoved the idea of cancer aside and convinced herself that the lump was a cyst. She continued to tell herself that because she had no family history of breast cancer, there was no way the diagnosis could be bad.

“I was completely unaware about breast cancer. I thought unless you had a family history you were just lucky. It wasn’t anything to worry about or think about,” Neil said. “I had absolutely no family history. I’ve never had any issues, so I’m sure it’s just a cyst, you hear about that stuff all the time. ‘I have no family history. It can’t be cancer.’ But there was something about it that just wasn’t quite right.”

Neil waited the long Good Friday weekend before she was called in for a biopsy. Her husband came with her for the procedure. When the radiologist entered the room after the biopsy, Neil said she had no doubt: It had to be cancer.

“It was a really weird feeling, so it becomes very surreal. Everybody talking is an echo, and you’re there, but you’re not there. And you don’t allow yourself to think of the ‘what-if’s,’ but they pop in your mind, and it’s like a life goes by in like a quick 20-second quick thought that you hurry up and push out of your mind,” Neil said. “What’s going to happen to my husband? What’s going to happen to my children? What if I die? What if I need chemo?”

Easter quickly approached, and Neil found herself surrounded by family for the holiday. She hugged her family and said she enjoyed the time more than she ever had.

“This is probably the first time I’ve ever said this out loud, but I thought ‘Is this the last family get-together that I’ll have? Is this my last Easter? Is this the last time these kids are going to sit on my lap?’” Neil asked herself. “It was very relaxing in a weird kind of way and calm. I was very free with my emotions, kissing everyone. I made sure everyone knew how much I love them.”

Telling her daughters proved difficult for Neil; they were only 9 and 10 at the time. The obvious question arose: Was their mother going to die? Neil told them no, and from that point on, she says she knew she wouldn’t.

“God told me I wasn’t going to die from this,” she said.

Neil subsequently had surgery to remove the cancerous lump, and upon her recovery started chemotherapy. Like other chemotherapy patients, the treatments left her sick, fatigued and bald, but she said this didn’t keep her and her family from having a little fun.

“The kids and I said we would write a book called, ‘What’s So Funny About Cancer,’” she said. “They would want me to pull off my wig at a stop sign to freak out people in the next lane. I did, and we all laughed.”

Since receiving a clean bill of health, Neil has worked hard to increase awareness by participating in breast cancer walks and in non-profit fundraising organizations.

During October, the Lincoln Cartridge World locations that she and her husband own gave away a $5 gift certificate for every $10 donated to the American Cancer Society. Neil said it was a great way to raise cancer awareness.

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It’s now almost four years since her diagnosis, and Neil is cancer-free. And just like it is for any working mother, her life is hectic. These days she said it’s run, run, run, but the running around is much more enjoyable. And now she knows misconceptions can be both misleading and dangerous.

“Having absolutely no family history, I was just so ignorant – so ignorant – about the statistics and the warning signs and even doing the self-exams. I didn’t need to – no family history,” she said. “I thought I was the exception, but I was the rule.”