By KEVIN CHIRI
Tammany news bureau
SLIDELL – There are a lot of words used to describe breast cancer survivors.
But unless you have ever gone through the tortuous rigors of chemotherapy, radiation or a mastectomy with breast reconstruction, the words pale in describing how strong these women truly are.
Slidell’s Peggy Cromer knows all about it. She is a two-time breast cancer survivor who went through six weeks of radiation following the first discovery of cancer in 2002. Then she faced it a second time in 2011 when the cancer came back, leading to a double mastectomy, followed by four excruciating months of radiation and chemotherapy.
Peggy, wife of Louisiana Rep. Greg Cromer, has a simple way to describe her thoughts when remembering the treatment.
“I only know that I never want to go through that again,” she said.
Peggy had a strong suspicion that she might face breast cancer in her life since her mother was diagnosed with it at the age of 45.
“I was one of those women who started getting mammograms when I was 25. Every time they said, ‘looks good,’ I was relieved. But I always had an idea it would happen and in some ways I guess I was a little bit prepared,” she said.
It was a routine mammogram that detected the very small spot in her breast in 2002 and led to the first round of radiation, something that looked like a walk in the park compared to the second discovery of cancer nine years later.
“It was such a small spot, probably only like the head of a needle,” she said. “I didn’t have to have surgery and they said we could do it all with radiation.”
That still meant six weeks of treatment, five days a week, but she felt she dodged a big bullet since she was not told she needed a mastectomy, something her mother had to go through many years earlier at a time when doctors had not yet learned how to perform breast reconstruction.
“My mother had to undergo a double mastectomy and had no way to have breast reconstruction,” she said. “We are fortunate that health care has come so far now and you have that option.”
Peggy said she was more aware of the possibility of breast cancer recurrence following the first encounter.
“After I finished radiation for the first spot I was much more perked up to hear what they said after my mammograms,” she said. “They say that after five years of no new problem you have beaten it. But that didn’t happen with me.”
It was 2011 and Peggy said she detected something that concerned her during a self-exam.
“I kept feeling something, but I was certain it was my muscle,” she said. “Finally I went in for an extra check-up and they told me, ‘that’s not your muscle. It’s a golf ball size mass.’ And that all formed within six months of the last mammogram.”
She made a keen observation about mammograms and the news that is given.
“When you have a mammogram and they say they don’t see anything it doesn’t always mean you don’t have cancer. It only means they don’t detect any,” she said. “It might be there and they just didn’t find it.”
After learning of the new mass and a major surgical procedure ahead, Peggy said there was a family cruise planned so she and Greg decided to not tell their two children or the others on the vacation.
“I had a cabin where you could look out a window onto the deck. I looked out one day and there was Greg crying, with my daughter hugging him. I thought he must have told her,” she said.
Instead, Greg tried to keep the secret and explain why he was crying by telling his daughter, “I love my family so much!”
Peggy did get a laugh out of the way her husband tried to keep the secret, but sensing there were a few questions about his story they told the kids and still managed to make the best of their cruise.
In April of 2011 Peggy had to undergo surgery to remove the mass, then a double mastectomy, including breast reconstruction surgery.
“This entire thing was so traumatic to go through, but there is nothing you can do but ‘man up’ and go through it,” she explained.
Especially shocking to her was the look of her body after breast reconstruction.
“It really looks awful, but what you don’t know is that it will eventually heal and look much better,” she said. “But they don’t tell you that well enough. I remember standing in the shower and crying and crying.”
The chemotherapy and radiation, however, are where the terms “strong women, courageous and brave” really come from, Cromer said. The treatment is so difficult to get through that she began having “anticipatory nausea” simply knowing the daily routine was approaching—a common side-effect for many women who must take the brutal treatment for weeks and months.
“There is so much more, both mentally and physically, to getting through radiation,” she said. “People who go through it only say ‘I was so sick,’ but it is really the hardest thing you can imagine.”
She said her mother also had “anticipatory nausea” after several rounds or radiation, beginning to throw up and get sick before the treatment began.
“It feels like someone has put a fist in your stomach. You want to start throwing up before you even get there,” she said. “Then there is the entire atmosphere of going to the hospital to get the treatment. You see these nurses putting on gloves and covering up—all to protect themselves from the poison they are about to give you. Then you see this big bottle of red liquid they call ‘the Red Devil.’ That is the radiation and you know they are literally putting that inside of you to kill parts of your body.”
Peggy said the whole scenario was so upsetting one day “that I got violently sick and they had to move me out of the main room. It’s more than the physical aspect of what they are putting your body through—it affects you mentally to know what you are going through, and knowing how long you have to keep doing it.”
Peggy spent most of her life as a homemaker and working as a court reporter for nearly 25 years before she had to retire at the age of 48 due to hearing problems that resulted from wearing the court reporter headphones for years. Today, now at the age of 59, she has hearing aids in both ears, but is otherwise healthy and still cancer free.
She grew up in Bogalusa, one of four children in the family that included two sisters although neither of them ever got breast cancer. Her father had his own trucking company and her mother worked as a radio dispatcher for the company.
When she graduated from Franklinton High School in 1975 she went to Sullivan Technical Institute in Bogalusa, first to become a secretary, but then to become a court reporter.
“My parents did not go to college and they were happy for us to graduate from high school, so there was really no talk of college,” she remarked.
What she did remember is the way her father “promised to buy me a car if I graduated from high school,” which actually meant he co-signed for her to buy a used car.
She initially met Greg in 1980 and while he was interested in dating her, “my roommate liked him more than I did.” But a year later he came around to Hammond where she was living and asked her out.
“At first I was dating two other guys, but after we dated for three months Greg told me I had to pick him or one of the other guys,” she recalled. “I went down a list of husband qualifications. Would he take care of me if I got really sick? Would he be a good father—those kinds of things. And I ended up picking him.”
The couple ended up eloping in August, 1982 and Peggy remembers Greg calling his mother from their honeymoon hotel and saying, “Mom, say hello to Mrs. Cromer.’ Apparently Greg had never told her what they were going to do.
Peggy’s health was always excellent until the day in 2002 when her mammogram led to the first round of treatment. After the more difficult round of chemo, radiation and surgery in 2011, she has a bit of advice for women.
“First of all I would tell women to not panic until you are sure there is something to worry about,” she said. “But after going through all that I did I think the thing I most learned about myself is that I am stronger than I thought I was.”
Peggy showed that strength several years ago at the annual Slidell Memorial Hospital Women’s Health Alliance luncheon, held each year in October to highlight Breast Cancer Awareness month.
The luncheon includes a fashion show with women who are breast cancer survivors and in 2011 Peggy walked the runway with a pretty outfit and a scarf covering her bald head. It was still so soon after her chemo was finished and her hair had not grown out.
“I walked to the end of the runway and suddenly took the scarf off to show my bald head,” Peggy said. “I know Greg was crying and I think there were a few more people crying too. But sometimes I think a woman is prettier with no hair—you focus on her eyes and the rest of her face.
“You have to be strong to get through this, but I don’t think I could have done it without my family, especially Greg, who never missed one of my chemo treatments,” she said.
“Thankfully I’m still hearing the right words when I get my mammogram,” she added. “Now I try to talk to other women who are going through this or need to go through it. I tell them that it is awful, especially breast reconstruction, but it will get better. You need to know that.”