Breast cancer survivor Alice Sims’ Pell City home will become a place of celebration and hope Saturday, as she, her friends and family and all who have an interest in fighting breast cancer will gather.
For three years running, Sims has borne a bald head this time of year to commemorate the experience breast cancer has had on her life.
Sims’ journey with breast cancer started six years ago, and like most people, she wasn’t looking for it.
She found her cancer because of a friend who insisted that she finally have a mammogram.
The friend, Gertrude Garrett, was a customer at the Talladega Sherwin Williams store where Sims works.
“She kept insisting that I have a mammogram, and one day she sat at the counter and said that she wasn’t leaving until I made an appointment,” Sims said.
So Sims finally followed through, had the mammogram and her doctors found a lump.
“It was so deep that it was questionable whether it was in my chest or in my breast,” she said.
A biopsy followed the mammogram, and just before Christmas that year, Sims learned she did, in fact, have breast cancer.
All she could think of, she said, recalling this time in her life, was the way the disease had affected her aunt 50 years ago.
“She lived with us when she had breast cancer,” Sims remembered. “I remembered her mastectomy and her going through radiation. Back then, they were still testing it. All the radiation did was eat her skin up; her incision got larger every day and finally, she hemorrhaged and bled to death.”
With her aunt’s horrible experience still fresh in her mind, Sims faced the inevitable herself.
“All I could think of was my aunt with her rotting flesh,” Sims said.
But, for Sims, the answer was getting the cancer that could kill her taken from her body.
“I could not wait to have this thing that could kill me taken out,” she said. “I think I would have done it myself if I could have.”
Sims had lumpectomy surgery in January 2003.
Four weeks later, she started chemotherapy.
“I did worse than some, and better than some through that,” she said. “Everyone is different.”
Sims was given three treatments a week, and it was her daughter, Ana Berry, who stepped in to become her caregiver.
Doing her own research, Berry found out that one of the chemotherapy treatments could be tolerated more closely together than every third week as were being done if certain conditions were right.
Sims took the information to her doctor, who said she had heard of the study, but had never tried it.
“I told her that I had never had cancer, so we could give it a shot according to the study,” Sims said. “We did, and I qualified, so I gave myself a shot every day and was then able to do the chemotherapy every week.”
After that, nine weeks of radiation treatment followed.
“You burn from the inside out; it hurts,” Sims said.
At one point, the radiation treatments were halted for a week because Sims’ burns became so intense.
It was about this time that Sims asked her doctor if she could return to work at least part-time, and it was allowed, as long as she felt up to it.
But then, Sims started having more problems with her right breast, which was the one the lumpectomy had been performed on.
“There was swelling, skin breaking and oozing and the doctor said that it had to come off,” she said.
She took the news as well as she could, comparing her impending procedure to her doctor as one similar to a man having to have a testicle removed.
“He put his arms around me and said if one of his testicles looked like and hurt like my right breast did, he would gladly remove it,” Sims recalled. “And he told me that he was done having children and that his wife loved him.”
Two weeks later, Sims called her doctor and gave him the green light for the surgery.
And not just for her right breast, but to remove both breasts.
“I didn’t want to be afraid at Christmas time that I would get cancer as a gift again,” she said. “And also, if my quality of life was that I would be in pain every day, I was having no part of it.”
Sims’ outlook on life following the surgery is realistic.
“I am still a woman and I still have people who love me,” she said.
Sims has even been able to inject humor into the story of her breast cancer.
“When I am asked out on a date, I ask if I have to wear breasts,” she said. “If the guy can laugh at that, then he is OK.”
Sims said while she did have them, her crying days are over.
“For me, laughter is the best way to cope,” she said.
She’s back at work full-time, and enjoying her work and her friends and customers.
“I can poke fun at my situation because I am alive to do so,” she said. “Some of my friends and family are not able to, and some are.”
Explaining that she has “always been a little off the wall,” Sims said when she found the national organization Be Bold, Be Bald three years ago, “It just felt right for me.”
The first year she participated in the event, Sims actually shaved her head as she will do today in preparation for Saturday’s event at her house. The second year, she chose to wear a bald cap.
“But I have really never been one to do things halfway, and that year, I just didn’t feel like I had given it my all,” she said.
So this year, it’s back to the head shave.
“Until the day I die I will shave my head once a year to raise awareness that research and early detection are the keys,” she said.
For both men and women, Sims has joined those who stress making yearly check-ups a must.
“Cancer does not discriminate,” she said. “And you do not have to have cancer to fight it. Research is what made the radiation process go from rotting your skin to what it does now. The strides made that I have seen in people in just the short time since I was diagnosed are astounding.
“Some people can actually go to work after chemotherapy treatments. Their nausea and bowels are under control. It’s amazing.”
Having cancer brought with it a scare like she had never in her life known, Sims said.
“You go from angry to your pity pot, back to anger and then back to your pity pot,” she said. “The trick is to stay angry and keep moving forward.
Sims said someone once told her that cancer is a murderer.
“But it will not be my killer,” she said.
She has a warning for those undergoing chemotherapy.
“Chemo can mess with your mind,” she said. “You are taking something that is a medicine, but it can make you feel like you are dying.”
There were times, Sims said, she felt like stopping the chemotherapy treatments.
“But my daughter wouldn’t let me, so now she is still stuck with me,” she jokes.
For Saturday, the plans are to have lots of cake and plenty of pizza on hand for the occasion.
“It will be a lunch thing at my house, and starts about noon,” Sims said. “I hope it gets bigger and bigger every year,” Sims said.
Sims said she isn’t a “mushy” person, at least until she gets started on the subject of cancer research.
“I just hope every year for a cure,” she said.
Any who want to be part of Sims’ party may contact her at 256-362-4981. You can also find her on the web site beboldbebald.org and enter her name in the search box for information.