WINONA – At 38 years old, Charla Watson had not yet had a mammogram.
Healthcare guidelines recommend women begin having annual mammograms at age 40, unless there is a family history of breast cancer. The Susan G. Komen Foundation recommends that women under 40 have clinical breast exams, performed by a healthcare professional, annually and perform monthly self-exams.
In 2016, Watson discovered a lump in her right breast during a self-exam. She said the small knot didn’t worry her for a couple of months. She felt it was likely a calcium deposit, and it had not grown in size. However, she confided in her co-worker, Amy Hall, who is a pharmacist, and Hall urged her to get see a doctor.
“She stayed on me until I made an appointment with my family doctor,” Watson said.
Dr. Richard Reid with University of Mississippi Medical Center’s Family Medicine Clinic in Winona sent Watson to University of Mississippi Medical Center – Grenada to get a biopsy. Watson was diagnosed as having Tubular Carcinoma, an invasive type of breast cancer that begins inside the milk ducts. Her cancer was stage two.
“I have no family history of breast cancer,” Watson said. “They thought my birth control caused it because it is estrogen-based.”
Watson was referred to Dr. Guangzhi Qu with Jackson Oncology and Associates to begin treatment. She began a rigorous protocol of chemotherapy every other week for four weeks, then took a break, and continued with four more treatments. She said Dr. Qu wanted to shrink the tumor before surgery was performed by Dr. Phillip Lay to remove her breast as well as two lymphoids.
Chemotherapy led to constant nausea for Watson. She could not tolerate bread, and bacon and grape Koolaid were the only foods she said tasted the same as before.
After 14 days, just as her doctor warned, she lost her hair. Her husband, James Watson, and twin sister, Starla Bright, helped her shave the hair that remained.
“It was during the winter, so I could wear a toboggan,” she said.
With chemotherapy on Thursday, she was forced to take off work at the Fred’s Pharmacy on Friday. Part of her chemo protocol, Watson required an injection of Neulasta 24 hours after treatment to build up her white blood cells.
However, thanks to the advice of a favorite nurse at Jackson Oncology and Associations, Watson did her best to keep to her routine. She continued to work, and she credited her co-workers at Fred’s Pharmacy and now Winona Drugs for their support during her treatment. Not only did they provide a listening ear, but they often provided transportation to the doctor.
“Sometimes, I would just have to sit down,” Watson said. “One time, I just had to sit down on the floor. Other than that, I’d just work.”
She continued driving her grandson, Colton, to school every day.
“[Colton] being there is what gave me the motivation to get up and do it,” she said.
“Six to eight weeks after surgery, I had radiation Monday through Friday in Greenwood for six weeks,” Watson said. “Then I had to wait six months to a year for a second surgery to remove my left breast and give me a muscle expander for my right breast before doing reconstructive surgery.”
Watson said removing her left breast was a precaution due to her type of cancer.
After her first surgery, Watson took a week-and-a-half to recover. After her second surgery, she took six weeks. Reconstruction was outpatient, and she got to return home the same day.
In February 2017, Watson was cancer free. She still visits her surgeon every six months and her oncologist every year.
Watson said keeping a positive attitude and maintaining a normal routine helped in her road to recovery.
“One of Dr. Qu’s nurses kept telling me to keep my routine,” she said. “I went to work every day. I took Colton to school. That helped tremendously. And keeping a positive attitude. Sometimes you didn’t want to be positive, but you did it anyway.”
Watson also had a strong support system. Her husband, James, kept the household going after her surgeries. Her sister and her mother, Mary Ann Bingham, were there for her as well.
Watson’s father-in-law, James Watson, was undergoing treatment for Multiple Myeloma and Amyloidosis, cancer of the bone marrow, at the same time, and the two often went to treatments together.
“He took me to the doctor a lot,” Watson said. “We talked a lot about chemo because he was going through it. It was good to talk to him.”
Watson said her father-in-law is now in remission.
Watson also had a friend who was also fighting breast cancer, and the two ladies leaned on each other for support during treatment.
“It is always good to have someone to talk to,” Watson said.
Today, life for Watson has returned to normal. She is diligent about self-exams, and her sister and son, Corey, had the genetic screening for breast cancer – both testing negative for the genetic marker. Due to her breast cancer being estrogen-based, Watson takes Tamoxifen to eliminate estrogen production. Its side effects have caused severe joint pain and early menopause symptoms, but to prevent a recurrence, she will take the medicine for the next 10 years.
“Make sure you have an annual checkup, regardless of your age,” Watson urged.