‘Breast cancer didn’t break my spirit’

Survivor says joyful outlook helped her through difficult journey

The day Cassundra Mayo discovered a lump in her left breast; it did not even cross her mind that it could be cancer.

“I was lying across my bed talking to my sister on the phone and said ‘Oh, there’s a little knot right there.  Hmm, better get that checked out,’” said Mayo, who works in meter services at Southwestern Electric Power Co. (SWEPCO) in Shreveport.

She made an appointment the next day and had a mammogram followed by an ultrasound.  The latter showed she indeed had a mass in her breast; however, it did not have the obvious characteristics of being benign or malignant and the radiologist at her doctor’s office recommended a surgical biopsy.

Mayo was 34 at the time and living in Arlington, Texas, with her two sons and husband of 10 years.

Cassundra Mayo, who works in meter servicing at SWEPCO, was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2002 at the age of 34. Despite the challenges she faced physically and emotionally, she maintained a sense of joy she says helped her through her treatment.  Photos by Henrietta Wildsmith.

“After that appointment, I got in my car, and I was driving home. The first thing that came to my mind was that my youngest son had asked me to have lunch with him at school, and I had not done it yet,” she said. “And right then and there, I said ‘Lord, you’ve given me this family; these two boys. I want to be here to raise them. It wasn’t a big booming voice in my car, but God spoke to my heart right then and there, and I knew I was going to have to go through something, but I knew I was going to get through it.

“From that moment, it was just as clear as me sitting here talking to you.  You’re going through something, and we’re going to get to the other side.”

At her initial appointment to discuss the procedure, the surgeon asked to extract cells to test.

“ It wasn’t a big booming voice in my car, but God spoke to my heart right then and there, and I knew I was going to have to go through something, but I knew I was going to get through it. “

Cassundra Mayo, breast cancer survivor

Mayo told him no. When he pressed for the reason she was opposed to it, she told him in her mind sticking the needle into the lump exposed the rest of the breast tissue to what was in the lump.

He reassured her it did not work that way. However, she stood by her decision, saying, “Once you take it out, you can poke it and prick it, jump up and down on it if you want. But as long as it’s in my breast, you cannot extract cells from it.”

On Feb. 16, 2002, Mayo had a lumpectomy to remove the tumor. It was the size of a green pea.

“I remember waking up in recovery, and my mother, father and husband were there. The doctor told me it was cancer that had been removed and that he was fairly confident they got all of it,” she said. “I said OK. I thought I was alright until I looked over and saw my daddy crying. When I saw that, I lost it.”

Following the surgery, Mayo went to an oncologist, who told her because of the type of cancer they found – infiltrating ductal carcinoma – he wanted to hit it hard. He recommended six rounds of chemotherapy and 35 radiation treatments.

“Because of my age and the type of cancer it was, he didn’t want to take any chances that there were any microscopic cells anywhere else in my body,” she said.

She had a port surgically implanted in her chest and her chemo treatments began.

Cassundra Mayo underwent six rounds of chemo and 35 radiation treatments.  She said chemo was difficult but she was able to remain active throughout her treatment.

“Wow, it was difficult, but I was blessed because I watched a lot of other people come into that doctor’s office who were wiped out after chemo,” Mayo said.

She recalled seeing one particular woman – an airline steward – wheeled in for treatment by her mother because she was too weak to walk.

Mayo, however, remained active throughout her treatment. She would go in on Fridays for chemo and be at the ballpark the next morning to see her youngest son play t-ball.

“God was gracious to me in that battle,” she said.

Despite the challenges she faced, Mayo kept her spirits up.

“One day, I was signing in to have bloodwork done following chemo treatment, and the receptionist at the front desk said ‘Ms. Mayo, I don’t know how to say this, but every time you come in here you are smiling.  I hate to tell you, but you have cancer.’ “

Taken aback, Mayo replied, “Ma’am, the joy I have cancer didn’t give to me and cancer can’t have it.”

She kept that mentality even when her husband left her three days before her last chemo treatment.

“I made a conscious decision that I was going to have peace and joy, and I believe God blessed me tremendously because of it.”

While chemo was difficult, Mayo said radiation was worse.

“The chemo makes you sick and weak, but I had anti-nausea medicine through the IV before my chemo and prescription medicine to take home. I was consistent in taking it around the clock once I had chemo,” she said.

But the radiation side effects were unlike anything Mayo had expected.

She was marked with tattoo dots and zapped with radiation on those spots five days a week for seven weeks.

“After the third week, I was burning from the inside out. It was like being cooked in a microwave,” Mayo said. “A radiation burn is like nothing I’ve ever felt. It was painful.”

At one point, she told her nurse she didn’t know if she could continue.

However, the nurse encouraged her to stick with it; she only had a couple weeks left. 

“It was pretty rough,” Mayo said. “I was struggling with trying to keep my spirit up for my boys,” she said.

But Mayo drew strength from her family.

Her younger sister quit her job as a NICU nurse in Shreveport and moved to Texas to be closer to Mayo during her treatment. Every time she had a chemo treatment, her parents drove in to help with her sons, cooking and cleaning.

After losing her hair to chemo, Cassundra initially wore a wig or a scarf.  One day she was deciding which to wear when her son said, “Mom, you look good with no hair. You look like one of those models.” She never wore either again and has been rocking this same style ever since. 

“My family was just phenomenal,” Mayo said.

Once she completed her treatments and her divorce was final, she followed her family back to Shreveport.

“Support is so important, and it’s difficult for the people who love you to be that support system,” she said.

Her sister told her there were many days she came to visit and knew she would lose it if Mayo told her she wasn’t doing well.

But that was never the case. Mayo always had a smile on her face.

“That’s life for me; you have ups and downs. You have to take the good with the bad,” she said. “My personal phrase is always be in a forward motion. If you just keep pushing in a forward motion, then you can get through it.”

Mayo said from that moment in her car when God spoke to her heart, it has been a journey.

“To this very day, I truly believe that had I been consumed with anger and bitterness from my divorce and woe is me, or allowed fear to take hold, that it would have been a different result,” she said.

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