ETMC Athens nurse uses breast cancer, lymphedema experience to help others
By Toni Garrard Clay
When Celia Bass received a call from Dr. Ken Lemmon in December of 1997, she didn't think a thing about it. Then the manager of the intensive care unit at ETMC Athens, Bass regularly spoke with Lemmon, her own physician, about other patients.
With a family history of breast cancer, she started having mammograms in her 30s. The results were always fine.
"I was trying to do it every couple of years," recalled Bass. "I had one done that year in December, and I expected it to be normal like they always were."
When she returned Dr. Lemmon's call, it wasn't about another patient. He was concerned about the results of her recent mammogram.
"It was right around Christmas time, and we were going that evening to a big Christmas party. Then he told me they had found something suspicious."
The very same day, she met with Dr. Harold Smitson.
"He said, ‘You need to go see a surgeon today.' I was stunned. Of course, I know it happens, but when it's you, it's: ‘Oh, dear.'"
By the end of the day, Bass had met with Dr. Dan Pugh, a local surgeon, who told her a biopsy would have to be done.
"My husband and I had planned to go to Branson on vacation the next day and stay for five days, so I asked him if I could still go," recalled Bass, then added with a wry laugh, "He said, ‘I'll let you go if you promise not to worry about it.'
"I managed not to while we were there, but on the drive there and back, I worried. Along the way, I stopped to get appliqués for something I was working on. The thought kept creeping in: ‘What if you're not able to put these on?'"
Immediately upon her return, Bass had the biopsy and went back to running the ICU.
"A week or so passed, and pathology came back. When I heard Dr. Pugh's voice ... I knew. He said, ‘It's malignant, and you have to have a lumpectomy.'
"I was stunned again."
The surgery was scheduled a few days after Christmas, followed by six weeks of radiation, five days a week. Because of the relatively small size of the tumor, it was determined Bass would not need chemotherapy.
"I would go to ETMC Tyler to have the radiation therapy and then come back to work here at the ICU. Managing the ICU is the kind of job you really need to stay on top of, and I didn't feel bad enough not to work."
Bass also confessed staying busy kept her mind off things.
"My coworkers were really supportive," she said, "as well as my family and the doctors here. People were very nice about it."
Bass has been a registered nurse since 1964. She was at ETMC Athens the day it opened, having previously worked at the Henderson County Memorial Hospital.
"I've done most everything I've wanted to do in the nursing field and a few I didn't plan on," laughed Bass, who is now a case manager at ETMC Athens. "I like hospital nursing the best."
A year after successfully completing her course of radiation treatment, she noticed while on a trip with her husband that her ring finger was swollen.
"I didn't give it much thought," she said.
Not long after that, she was at work in the ICU when she suddenly realized her left hand was swollen.
"I looked at my hand and I said, ‘Oh, my gosh. I have lymphedema.' I just knew it that second."
Lymphedema is a chronic swelling in the arm or hand (or both) due to an accumulation of lymphatic fluid. It's caused when lymph vessels - which normally move the excess fluid out of the limbs - have had their flow interrupted. About 15 or 20 percent of patients who have underarm lymph nodes removed to stage or treat their breast cancer will develop the condition.
"Well, then it was every day to Tyler again to have my arm massaged and wrapped and put in a stocking," said Bass. "Treatment lasted a while, then it got better. Then it came back. By then I could wrap it myself."
To this day, her left arm and hand have a slightly larger circumference than her right arm and hand. It's something she's learned to live with.
"The lymphedema bothered me more than the cancer and the radiation," she said. "It didn't hurt; it was just uncomfortable. And having the arm wrapped and in a stocking made me so hot.
"I remember sitting in the car and crying about it. Finally, I thought, ‘What can I do? I can't change it. I'll make lemonade out of it.'"
Bass's way of making lemonade was to develop an education program about lymphedema she could present to different groups. She also wrote an information sheet to be distributed to appropriate ETMC Athens patients.
"It made me feel better," she said. "You sure don't want to volunteer for this experience, but once it's happened, you can be helpful to others."
In fact, she believes her experience has made her a more empathetic person.
"I'm more aware now of what people are going through," she said. "I can relate to getting a diagnosis like that and going through treatment."
Bass reports to her doctor for checkups every year. She's approaching nearly 10 years of being cancer free, and in between checkups, she doesn't spend time worrying about what-ifs.
"It's been a life-changing experience," she said. "Sometimes you get caught up worrying about the silly things, and I'll say to myself, ‘OK. How big is this compared to having cancer?' Hmm. Not too big."
"All of my ETMC doctors and other caregivers were excellent," Bass added. "I attribute my current healthy status to my faith in a higher power, friends and family and the medical community in East Texas."
The American Cancer Society recommends women from the ages of 20 to 39 have clinical breast exams performed by their healthcare providers at least every three years and do self-exams once a month. Ask your healthcare provider to teach you the proper way to do a thorough breast self-exam.
Women 40 and over should have mammograms and clinical breast exams performed every year, as well as performing breast self-exams each month.
If you have a history of breast cancer in your family, discuss mammography screening guidelines and scheduling with your healthcare provider.
To schedule an appointment or for more information about the mammography system at the ETMC Athens Breast Care Center, please call 903-676-2169. Women 35 and older who would like to schedule a routine screening may do so without an order from a physician.