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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 have 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 a habit of having 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 is the end of the year and the start of a new year.


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


Fast forward, my journey has been lumpectomy, chemotherapy, radiation and three years of clinical trials. It was very tough. I was 50 years old when getting diagnosed with breast cancer. My daughter was grown up, I had a granddaughter, and the first thing I thought of, like most people diagnosed with cancer, Am I going to die? Emotionally, that was the biggest thing on my mind. I wanted to be here, I wanted to see my daughter grow up, and I wanted to see my granddaughter grow. To hear the words, you have breast cancer was very devastating. I think each person reacts to those words differently, and it was, in fact, very frightening. I felt the need for emotional support. I needed to be around people that could support me and help lift my spirits because there were moments. Sometimes you feel like you are going into depression because of the word cancer, which is very frightening. My support system was and is my family. At that time, I was working in a school system at Princeton, New Jersey, and I was very fortunate to have someone to inform me about the Princeton Breast Cancer Resource Centre. I spent a lot of time at the Resource Centre among other survivors who had experienced what I was beginning to go through. I find it essential to be around a support group.

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 chemo was very, very tough. But I knew that I was getting something that was killing the cancer cells and also at the same time killing the good cells. So, it was a balance, but I chose to do that because I wanted to have the peace of mind just knowing that if its there, I am going to give it a try, I am going to see, and I am going to do everything that I can, and I am grateful to be here with you fifteen years later. 

When you go to a physicians office, you are mostly being treated like a number at 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 in 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. So, it is essential while having technology and physicians to have oncologists that care for what they are doing.

Lessons During the Cancer Journey

I no longer accept poor treatment. I will quickly walk out and away from anything that does not bring peace or add peace, joy, and tranquility to my life because I realized that life is precious. Did I pay attention to that before breast cancer? Absolutely no. But when you hear those words that you have cancer and go through a journey, you realize that life is so precious. So, I have made some significant changes, starting from moving from New Jersey to being closer to my daughter and granddaughter. I am not accepting jobs that are not fulfilling or good to me, and I have eliminated people in my life who had been in my life for a long time. But sometimes, when you make significant changes, people dont understand why. But I am doing it for myself to continue to live and 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 on that day that, walking from this very moment, I would devote my life to educating, inspiring, and motivating anyone who crosses my path. That is what being a cancer-free patient does. Stay positive, stay around positive people and 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 travelled together, and we would speak on a panel for a pharmaceutical company. About a year ago, I got a text that she had lost her battle, and it touched me every time I walked 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 that has been a part of my life and has lost their life and people out there who are going through breast cancer. 

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