Daly Elementary School teacher Echo Allison finds it a little embarrassing to talk about how a diagnosis of breast cancer has suddenly changed her life, affecting her family and her career in profound ways.
“It’s kind of embarrassing,” she said, “but it’s bigger than me. This message needs to get out.”
Her own faceoff with breast cancer began only a short time ago. She had gotten a mammogram in June of 2017 and it was clear. But about one year later, after seeing a public service announcement about a “funky nipple” being a sign of cancer, she went for another mammogram and in July of 2018 was diagnosed with Stage 3 cancer. It was a very aggressive type of cancer called inflammatory invasive ductile carcinoma.
“It was a shock,” said Allison. “I thought I was healthy and totally normal.”
“It gives you pause,” she said simply. “But my husband, 16 years ago, was diagnosed with Stage 4 lymphoma. So, this diagnosis didn’t scare me as much as it might some people because of what we went through. So, I said okay, we can deal with this.”
She said that medicine for cancer treatment had developed quite a bit since the days her husband was undergoing therapy. They found what they believed to be the best oncologist available at Community Medical Center’s Cancer Center in Missoula, where her husband had been treated.
Due to the cancer’s aggressive nature, Allison was started on chemotherapy treatment only 19 days after the diagnosis in July and has received five treatments so far. After a total of 20 weeks of chemotherapy, she will undergo a double mastectomy and then some radiation treatment.
Allison said that she was handling the chemotherapy well. She said it was a very aggressive treatment because it was a very aggressive form of cancer. But, she said, being young and strong, like her husband was when he was diagnosed, gives you an advantage.
The ripples outward from such a diagnosis begin immediately within the family.
“Absolutely your family is affected,” she said, “there is no doubt about it.”
She said her son Raymond was only one year old when his father was diagnosed so he may not remember much about the cancer itself, but his life was certainly affected as she became a single mom of sorts, trying to handle her husband’s special needs at the same time.
But Allison is quick to add that a lot has changed in medicine since those days and it can make facing certain kinds of cancer much less scary than it was 16 years ago.
She said it was “a little disappointing” that in Raymond’s senior year, “which should be all about him,” so much focus has fallen on her.
“He has been a great support,” she said. He is even signing up for the 5K Run later this month. He will be dressed in his pink camo outfit.
She also gets a whole lot of “amazing” help from her husband.
“Having been through it,” she said, “he advises me. He’ll say, you need to manage your fatigue; you need to prioritize, and things like that.” She said that he is ready to do any little thing for her because he knows how exhausting the treatments can be.
“He’s really been doing good,” she said. “He knows what you need to do to help yourself. I’m very lucky.”
Another “big disappointment” for Allison was losing her hair. “It’s your identity,” she said. “This was hard.”
She asked her doctor about using cold caps to help preserve the hair by slowing down the chemo from getting to the brain. According to Allison, he said, “Why would you do that? Chemo is supposed to help you. Why would you negate the opportunity for full-fledged help? Just to be vain? Inflammatory often goes to the brain,” she said. “I thought, shucks, that makes a lot of sense.”
Since some people already knew, and some teachers had already joined the Pink Ribbon team in this year’s Colors of Cancer campaign, and now an article was about to come out in the newspaper, Allison decided it was time her 4th grade gifted and talented students know what is going on. They had already noticed some things, like the wig.
“I was honest with them,” she said “and encouraged them to ask questions.”
She said the very first thing they wanted to know was what she said when she was told that she had breast cancer.
“I said, ‘wow, I’m a really healthy person and that surprises me’,” she said.
They also asked what chemotherapy was and how it made her feel. They asked why she is losing her hair. She explained how it kills blood cells and leaves you vulnerable to infection and it makes your hair fall out.
And how do you really deal with it all?
“You deal with it by keeping a positive attitude and focusing on community,” she said. “Ours is amazing. I’ve gotten a ton of support from countless people. Not just teachers and parents, but the whole community. Some people I haven’t talked to in years. It makes you thankful.”
“Attitude is a huge part of survival,” said Allison. She said her husband told her at the end and in remission in his seven-year long battle with lymphoma, ‘Why didn’t anyone tell me when I was in Stage 4, that it was close to death?’ Because that’s not what the goal was.
“’The goal was the cure, to go for the cure,’ he told her. A positive attitude is going to go a long way in anybody’s fight. And by being positive the other people feel that you are handling it,” she said.
Allison said that the community response has been humbling.
“I was born and raised here, but it is just shocking, the number of people who want to help…there are no words to say that can convey the thanks you feel for all that people are doing,” she said.
All the support from family, friends and community adds to her strength in her personal journey.
“Yes, it is a journey. It is not something you want, but you’ve got to handle what’s been given to you.” She called it a “temporary inconvenience.” She said that’s what her aunt called it, who was recently diagnosed and is still undergoing treatment. She said her aunt shared her experiences with side effects and other things and was an inspiration to her.
“It does impact things, but it is not going to be forever,” she said. An avid skier, Allison said, “For the first time in 30 years I am not getting a season pass because I’m getting to go through surgery in January, the best ski month. I am calling it a short journey, because I am going to get well. I have to handle it and then I’ll be done.”
She said her aunt was still making visits to the doctor and taking certain drugs. “I realize it’s not going to be short-short,” she said. “But what worries me is people who are going through this that don’t have this kind of support.”
That’s where Ashlee Searle comes into play. Ashlee is sponsoring the “5K Run” in the Colors of Cancer campaign as a Senior Project. Anyone can run for any color and the funds raised will go to that color. A .5K Walk is also being sponsored for those in cancer treatment and those who have survived. Organizers are urging people to register in advance. Advance registrants are guaranteed a t-shirt.
Searle is also serving as an intern for Stacey Duce at the Daly Hospital Foundation and has an application in to become a member of the board. Two seats on the board are reserved for high school students.
“I think that hospital fundraising is one of the most impactful ways we can help our community,” said Searle. “I think it will make a lot of difference in the lives of the people here. When I listen to stories like Ms. Allison’s, it really makes my heart go out to them and I just want to help.” She said the 5K Run is a fun way to help and it involves the whole community.