Patti Gates makes time for many things in her life – family, friends, work – but what she doesn’t have time for is cancer.
“There’s no time to worry about what can take your life away when you’re too busy living your life, said the 50-year-old Mundys Corner resident.
“I just never really had time for cancer.”
In December 2015, Gates went in for a routine mammogram. A few days later she received a phone call advising her to to go back for a second mammogram because of some calcifications discovered in her right breast.
Calcifications are very common and usually benign, so Gates was told not to worry. However, after having a second mammogram done, she received a follow-up phone call, this one more ominous.
“They said that I was wanted for another evaluation and recommended getting in touch with a surgeon and getting a biopsy,” Gates said. “That’s when I met Dr. (Gerard) Garguilo.”
Because of the location of the biopsy, Gates had to undergo surgery.
“My problem was that I didn’t want to tell anybody,” Gates said. “It was just a biopsy at this point, so I didn’t want anybody to worry that something major was wrong.
“So I had to find someone to take me without spilling the beans to anybody,” she said.
Gates went to her appointment with a close friend. Her biopsy sample was then transferred to the Mayo Clinic, a nonprofit medical practice and medical research group based in Rochester, Minnesota.
“The Mayo Clinic found a 3-millimeter tumor in the calcifications,” Gates said. “So it was cancer.”
As Gates received the diagnosis that no one wants to hear, she said that she immediately looked beyond the negatives and found peace with it.
“I don’t know if I’m strange or what,” she said. “But it was never really a death sentence. I just tried to stay positive. It was more like a life sentence.”
“You can do everything right, but you still have problems,” Gates said. “Sometime learning how to handle the problem is the biggest obstacle.
“The hardest part for me was probably telling my mom,” she said. “No kid ever wants to break their mom’s heart.”
In March 2016, Gates had a lymphoscintigram done to identify the sentinel lymph node, which is the node closest to where the tumor is located.
Gates said the imaging technique helps to locate cancer cells that already had spread.
Gates followed her lymphoscintigram with another procedure in April. This time she had four lymph nodes removed.
The nodes were all free of any cancer, which meant the disease had not spread throughout her body.
After being referred to an oncologist, Gates found out that some guidelines had recently changed and she would have to undergo chemotherapy, which she refused.
“I refused to do the chemo because it was just changed, and for 30 years it was OK and people survived on the old guidelines,” Gates said, “so that’s what I stuck with.”
Gates skipped chemo and went directly into radiation treatment. The treatments were adminstered for 33 consecutive days at the John P. Murtha Regional Cancer Center in Johnstown.
“I went every day for 33 days at 7:40 in the morning so I could still make it to work on time,” she said. “They were wonderful down there. The whole radiation team was super nice, and I got to know everybody there.”
While Gates was thankful to have beaten cancer, she said that she felt guilty after finally defeating the disease.
“There were some really sick people there, and I always felt guilty because I never was,” Gates said. “Aside from some family and co-workers and a couple of close friends, no one even knew that I was diagnosed.”
Gates, the mother of two, said she has yet to tell her children about her illness.
“I guess I’ll have to now,” she said. “It just never felt that serious. You see some people with cancer and it looks like a horrible serious thing, and I just never had any of that.”
Gates now has to go in for routine exams and take a chemo pill for the next five years.
“It seems like I will always do that. I’m not sure if there is an end to that,” she said. “I go every three months to see the surgeon who did my initial surgery, and then every six months I go see the oncologist to have blood work done.”
Gates also has an annual bone scan to make sure that her bones are doing well, because the chemo pill that she is prescribed can cause osteoporosis.
Continued support from her family and friends helped Gates as she dealt with breast cancer. She said the support is greatly appreciated, because that wasn’t the first time that she was diagnosed with cancer.
After having her daughter in 2005, Gates was diagnosed with cervical cancer. She had a hysterectomy done and then was prescribed estrogen, which is what Gates believes led to her breast cancer years later.
“I had to take estrogen every day, and that is what my breast cancer was, an estrogen-based cancer,” Gates said.
Now a two-time cancer survivor, Gates lives every day to her fullest. She continues to hike and bike to stay healthy and that is where she can be found on most weekends.
“That’s what I do to get through,” she said. “It’s good therapy and it’s healthy for you.”