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Doretha “Dee” Burell (Breast Cancer Survivor)

Doretha “Dee” Burell (Breast Cancer Survivor)

I was diagnosed with an aggressive form of breast cancer. I had never been sick before, other than with the common cold, and had no major health issues. I used to work in a school system. I had made it a habit to have my mammograms annually, which I would tell everyone is very important for both men and women. Get your mammograms! For 10 to 15 years, I have been getting my mammograms at the end of December. I chose the end of December because it marks the end of the year and the start of a new one.


I was okay that particular year, had my mammogram, and then traveled to Mexico for a vacation. While on vacation, my phone just continued to ring. It was a 609 number, which was the area code where I lived in New Jersey, and it was an office number from the place where I had my mammogram. At that very moment, on my first day of vacation, I thought, "Am I just going to let this ruin my vacation?" Because, honestly, I knew what it was. I knew that my family knew where I was, and the only reason I would be getting this call was that something had not gone well with my mammogram.


Fast forward, my journey has included a lumpectomy, chemotherapy, radiation, and three years of clinical trials. It was very tough. I was 50 years old when diagnosed with breast cancer. My daughter was grown, and I had a granddaughter. The first thought that crossed my mind, like most people diagnosed with cancer, was, "Am I going to die?" Emotionally, that was the most significant concern. I wanted to be here, to see my daughter grow up and watch my granddaughter grow. Hearing the words, "You have breast cancer," was devastating. I believe each person reacts differently to those words, and it was indeed very frightening. I felt a desperate need for emotional support. I needed to be around people who could support me and help lift my spirits because there were moments when I felt I was slipping into depression due to the frightening reality of cancer. My support system was, and is, my family. At that time, I was working in a school system in Princeton, New Jersey, and was very fortunate that someone informed me about the Princeton Breast Cancer Resource Center. I spent a lot of time at the Resource Center with other survivors who had experienced what I was beginning to go through. Being around a support group, I find, is essential.

Mainly because there are people who know first-hand what you are going through in a support group. Sometimes, when you are talking to someone, you dont get the level of understanding you are looking for, and I can remember a time with chemotherapy. Chemotherapy was probably one of the most challenging things I have ever experienced. I remember having chemo, and the very next day, I was okay. But maybe on day two, it hit like a ton of bricks. I couldnt even get up from the sofa in my living room and walk to the kitchen, which was not that far without being exhausted. It was fatigue that I could not understand, and people used to say eat more green vegetables and drink more water. There was absolutely nothing that I could have done to ease that fatigue from chemotherapy. 

What Kept Me Positive During the Journey

Dealing with the chemotherapy was very, very tough. But I knew that I was receiving something that was killing the cancer cells and, at the same time, also killing the good cells. It was a balance, but I chose to undergo treatment because I wanted the peace of mind of knowing that if there was a chance, I was going to give it a try. I wanted to see if it would work, and I was determined to do everything that I could. I am grateful to be here with you fifteen years later.

When you go to a physician's office, you are often treated like just another number in the deli line, but I needed someone who would be with me and care for me because you will be with that oncologist for quite some time. Even now, although I live closer to the DC-Maryland area and my oncologist is in New Jersey, because of my relationship with him, I travel once a year back to New Jersey for my follow-ups. Therefore, it is essential to have oncologists who care about what they are doing, despite the advancements in technology and the presence of other physicians.

Lessons During the Cancer Journey

I no longer accept poor treatment. I will quickly walk away from anything that does not bring peace or add joy and tranquility to my life because I realized how precious life is. Did I pay attention to that before breast cancer? Absolutely not. But hearing those words—that you have cancer—and going through the journey, you realize the true value of life. So, I have made significant changes, starting with moving closer to my daughter and granddaughter in New Jersey. I am not accepting jobs that are not fulfilling or good for me, and I have eliminated people from my life who had been there for a long time. Sometimes, when you make significant changes, people don't understand why. But I am doing it for myself, to continue living and to keep the smile on my face.

Grateful in Life

It has indeed been a journey, but I am so grateful that all went well, and I am cancer-free. I encourage everyone to take the time to learn their body. If something does not feel right, get it checked out. Especially with breast cancer, sometimes you do not always know that right away. So, the mammogram is honestly a significant factor in saving my life. I am grateful for what I went through because, to be honest, it changed my life forever.

An Act of Kindness in Life 

The day my oncologist said, "Dee, you are cancer-free," I cried. I cried because the journey was not easy, but I made it. I promised my oncologist that day that, from that moment on, I would devote my life to educating, inspiring, and motivating anyone who crosses my path. That's what being a cancer-free patient does. Stay positive, surround yourself with positive people, feel uplifted, and give it your best.

Parting Message 

My message is to live, love, and laugh as much as you possibly can and surround yourself with people who care for you and people who will be there to support you because there is never a day that I dont think about breast cancer.

I have a picture of a young lady I met in Switzerland in my home office. We traveled together and spoke on a panel for a pharmaceutical company. About a year ago, I received a text that she had lost her battle with cancer, and it touches me every time I walk into my home office. We laughed together, we were together as panelists, and now she is gone. I am not just fighting for myself; I am fighting for everyone who has been a part of my life and has lost their life, and for those out there who are going through breast cancer.

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