Breast Cancer Profiles – Look For Small Blessings
‘Look for the Small Blessings’
By Whitney Bermes
When you’re sick, it’s easy to think about nothing but yourself, to feel pity, to feel bitter, to feel angry. But cancer survivor Maureen Exley, 60, is adamant that that’s not the way to heal. “You just cannot sit and feel sorry for yourself,” she said. “You’ve got to get past (your disease) because it will eat you alive, physically and mentally.”
Exley was diagnosed with stage-three breast cancer in 2000. She initially went to the doctor after her nipple on her left breast retracted while she was in the shower, something she thought was odd. Exley made an appointment to see the doctor a month later. But the doctor took one look at her and knew they needed to move quickly.
Within a week, Exley had an appointment with another doctor in Billings, a biopsy was done and the results were back – cancer. She remembers telling the doctor jokingly, “I’m going to start smoking again.” “Then I just fell apart,” recalled Exley, whose own father died of leukemia when she was 19. “All I could think was, ‘I can’t die. I have two young children.’”
Scheduled to be one hour, Exley’s surgery to remove her cancer instead took seven hours. “There was cancer all over the place,” she said. Six months of chemo and 14 weeks of daily radiation followed. But that didn’t keep Exley down. “I worked full time through all of this,” she said, working as a music teacher in the Bozeman School District. “You just gotta do what you gotta do,” she said. “In a way, it was good because I wasn’t thinking about how sick I was.” Exley mentioned the fatigue and nausea that treatment left her with, but losing her hair – which she described as “big Jersey hair” that “entered the room before I did” – was one of the more difficult aspects of her sickness, she said. “It’s a big part of your identity, your hair,” she said. A year later, Exley had her second breast removed. She eventually got reconstructive surgery. All told, Exley had five surgeries. While she’s been in remission for more than a decade, Exley said she and other cancer survivors never truly feel cured. “You get paranoid,” she said. But she has much to be thankful for.
Her daughter recently graduated from law school in Nevada, her son graduated with high honors from Montana State University and she adores her job as a victim witness advocate for the Gallatin County Attorney’s Office. “I value things a lot
more,” she said, from her family and friends to the mountains outside of her office window. For women who have breast cancer or are going through other health issues, Exley said it’s important to have a creative outlet. For her, it was painting or making cat-nip filled toys. Reach out to family and friends for support, she said. And, most importantly, “appreciate
the small things in life. Look for small blessings,” said Exley, who has a “wall of thanks” in her office where she hangs
thank-you notes, Christmas cards, and other mementos as a way to remind her of her own blessings. “Look for small blessings,”
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