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“I thought I was just sailing into my sixties,” said Sharon Blackledge.
For Sharon, now a 71-year old resident of Trenton, MI, taking care of herself and her health had never been much of an issue.
“I never had to take anything except occasional medication for acid reflux.”
So, when Sharon began to experience some spotting in November of 2008, despite having already gone through menopause, she was understandably concerned.
“I would talk to friends going through something similar and they said it was normal,” recalls Sharon. “So I didn’t think I had any reason to be worried.”
Nonetheless, Sharon decided to meet with her Henry Ford gynecologist, Munther Alaiwat, M.D.
Dr. Alaiwat initially diagnosed Sharon with a bladder infection, explaining that they have been known to cause such spotting.
Even after the bladder infection went away, the spotting continued.
When Sharon returned to Dr. Alaiwat, he performed a dilation and curettage procedure (D&C) — a procedure to remove tissue from inside the uterus — which would help determine the cause of Sharon’s spotting.
Two days later, Dr. Alaiwat reluctantly shared the results of Sharon’s D&C with her.
“He called and said, ‘I didn’t want to make this phone call, but it is cancer,’” recalls Sharon.
Sharon had been diagnosed with a rare endometrial cancer called uterine serous carcinoma. Fortunately, Dr. Alaiwat already knew what her next step would be.
“He told me, ‘I only want you to see one man and he just came back to Henry Ford,’” said Sharon.
After having just returned from Saudi Arabia, where he was helping to open women’s health clinics, Henry Ford gynecologic oncologist Adnan Munkarah, M.D., immediately met with Sharon to discuss her diagnosis and determine a treatment plan.
On New Year’s Eve, Dr. Munkarah performed a complete hysterectomy, in hopes that the cancer was contained to Sharon’s uterus. However, only a few days later, Dr. Munkarah removed 27 lymph nodes from Sharon and discovered that nine of them were cancerous, requiring radiation and chemotherapy.
As upsetting as that news was, Sharon’s mind was elsewhere.
“All I could think about was the Disney trip we had planned in February and how I was going to have to disappoint the grandkids,” recalls Sharon.
When she shared this concern with Dr. Munkarah, he quickly assured Sharon that she had no reason to fret.
“He made it so that I could go,” said Sharon. “He even gave me his personal phone number just in case I needed him while we were on vacation.”
Prior to leaving, Sharon received both radiation and chemotherapy and, fortunately, responded very well to both.
“She was not afraid to share her fears or her concerns,” said Dr. Munkarah. “That trust brought a certain level of peace and comfort into our relationship that was key to her care.”
Following that vacation, Sharon was able to enjoy several more with quarterly checkups interspersed in between.
Unfortunately, during a visit in 2011, an enlarged lymph node was observed. Following a needle biopsy, Sharon was diagnosed with cancer yet again.
Once more, Dr. Munkarah assured Sharon she had no reason to panic.
“She was ready to fight again,” said Dr. Munkarah. “Throughout her battles with cancer, she has always kept a very positive attitude.”
Through robotic surgery, 12 lymph nodes were removed, from different areas in Sharon’s body, and cancer was found in only one of them.
Given how well she had responded to chemotherapy the first time, Dr. Munkarah suggested that Sharon continue with that treatment plan.
“Luckily I knew what to expect physically and mentally the second time,” said Sharon. “It was still very scary, but I knew I had beaten it before so I had fewer questions and more hope.”
By March of 2012, Sharon had completed her chemotherapy regimen and, other than routine observations, had returned to a normal life.
Over four years later, Sharon was receiving her annual mammogram when Dr. Alaiwat expressed concern over “fibrocystic changes” in her breasts.
“I remember thinking to myself, ‘there’s no way this can be happening,’” recalls Sharon.
Unfortunately, a diagnostic mammogram and needle biopsy proved otherwise. Once more, a reluctant Dr. Alaiwat called Sharon to let her know that she had been diagnosed with triple-negative breast cancer.
“I was tired and felt like giving up at the thought of going through surgery and chemo again,” recalls Sharon. “But, I kept going for my family. I knew that if I could handle this before, I could definitely handle it again.”
In October of 2016, Henry Ford breast cancer surgeon Erica Proctor, M.D., performed a lumpectomy — a breast conserving surgical procedure in which only a portion of the breast is removed.
Although it was only stage 1A breast cancer, Henry Ford oncologist Haythem Ali, M.D., advocated for an aggressive approach to treatment, consisting of six chemotherapy treatments and 30 radiation treatments — five times a week for six weeks.
“That was a lot harder than the first chemo,” recalls Sharon. “Nothing tasted good.”
Although tough times may have been more frequent this time around, they were always fleeting, especially given the confidence and trust that Sharon had in her cancer team.
“She trusts us and we don’t take that too lightly, yet, at the same time, she knows that we will always be there to care for her,” said Dr. Munkarah.
“She was determined to do as much as possible, including still hosting Thanksgiving and Christmas,” recalls Norris, Sharon’s husband of over 50 years. “We wanted her to take it easy but, in some ways, it’s good to keep as busy as you can.”
By the time summer had arrived, Sharon had more reason to be excited than most — Dr. Ali had told her that she was finally cancer free, again.
Beating cancer three times has helped Sharon appreciate how precious life is. She spends more time with friends and family, relaxes at the lake and prioritizes her health more than she ever had.
Survivorship also helped Sharon appreciate how important it is that she will be as much of a part of her children and grandchildren’s journey through life as they were for her battle against cancer.
Not to mention, her trials with cancer grew her family in a way that she did not expect.
“We’ve gone through a lot of things together,” said Dr. Munkarah. “She has become family.”
For anyone going through an experience similar to Sharon’s, she strongly advocates that they don’t skip screenings or ignore anything that may feel unusual.
“It does not hurt to get checked out,” says Sharon. “It’s worth it to have your sanity and not be paranoid.”
“It may be easy for cancer to knock you down, but it’s important we’re thankful for all the little events and victories. Plan for tomorrow, but live for today.”