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October 22, 2012

‘There’s nothing good about cancer’

CORBIN — By Jeff Noble / Staff Writer

Like October, the month known for the color and intensity of the leaves falling from the trees, Dr. Connie Howard is peaking.

She’s been to the mountain tops. As a passionate hiker, Howard climbed the highest peaks in the Rockies, in the Smokies, and across America. But there’s no more awesome sight than the views provided from the high points of her native southeastern Kentucky.

“To me, Blanton Forest is the most beautiful place in the mountains,” said Howard, a native of Wallins Creek in Harlan County, and Professor of Public Health at the University of the Cumberlands in Williamsburg.

Her students affectionately call her, “Professor Howard.”

Howard’s life has seen some dizzying highs. And, in the spring of 2011, some sickening lows.

In April of that year, Howard had a biopsy, and a few days later was told she had cancer. The next month, she was diagnosed with one of the most aggressive cancer cells, HER2 NU.

According to the U. S. National Library of Medicine’s website PubMed Health, HER2 refers to a gene that helps cells grow, divide and repair themselves. When cells (including cancer cells) have too many copies of the gene, they grow faster. Women with HER2-positive breast cancer have a more aggressive disease, and a higher risk that the disease will recur than women who don’t have HER2.

“Shock, numbness and disbelief was how I felt. It was almost beyond words. It floored me. Heart disease is rampant in my family, and I have no history of cancer in my family. I lived healthy, and took care of myself. I figured I’d die of heart disease, not cancer. But I found out that 80 percent of people who have cancer have no history of the disease in their family. There’s always that question, ‘Why me?’” Howard noted during an interview Tuesday morning in her office on the UC campus.

She was told the cancer was small and contained, and that she had no lymph node involvement. But Howard was also told, “you might have (to undergo) a little radiation.”

“When I found out it was HER2 NU, I just cried and cried, because I knew it would change the game plan. It would be treated aggressively, with chemo. And I’d lose my hair.”

But knowledge is power. Howard’s a planner by heart, and admits she was “running wild” on what to do. She read up on the cancer she had, from cover to cover, and discovered there were many types of breast cancer.

After reading what she was dealing with, Howard took action. Fast.

“I sat down with my oncologist, and we worked out a treatment plan. That’s when I began focusing on treating this thing and getting my life back.”

As of last Tuesday, Howard’s had a total of 61 treatments — a year and a half of them. She’s been treated with the drug Andrimycin, has undergone 33 radiation treatments, and 25 Herceptin treatments, with three more of those left to go.

“The treatments were rough. But I did them, because there’s nothing good about cancer. I set goals from treatment to treatment, just to remind myself that my life is in my hands,” Howard pointed out.

And she continued to work on campus, teaching young and inquisitive minds like she has for 36 years. When she battled breast cancer, the students responded in kind.

“They would bring in bandanas. They sent cards, emails, they made shirts, and when I came in to work with a little bit of hair and without a bandana, they were thrilled. They witnessed recovery in progress. For my students, it’s been a great experience for them to see me go through this. It shows that cancer is doable, and it is not a death sentence. They’ve walked the journey with me,” said Howard.

Like many cancer survivors, she said that early detection is the key. Howard’s cancer was caught early, and had it been ignored, she would have died because the cancer is aggressive and spreads early. She urged women to get mammograms done every year on time, especially when a woman turns 50. And she also noted there’s encouragement for women who have HER2 cancer — a biological target cell therapy now available, where the treatment goes directly to that specific cancer cell.

Howard’s resumed her life, but now her life is different.

And she’s making that long, hard climb to the top again.

“Emotionally, I don’t sweat the small stuff anymore. I feel like I love deeper, I laugh louder, and I especially have that deep appreciation for life. I had it before, but the cancer experience kicked me in the butt. That gave me a deeper appreciation of life and living,” she said.

On Aug. 23rd, the Tri-County Cancer Coalition gave Dr. Howard the 2012 Brenda McKeehan Celebration of Life Award at the Cancer Survivors Dinner, held at The Arena in Corbin.

In May of next year, Howard will reach another peak in her rich, full, colorful life. She and her best friend of 25 years will drive to Waynesboro, Va., where the Blue Ridge Parkway meets Skyline Drive. And they’ll hike the Shenandoah Valley section of the Appalachian Trail. All 107 miles of it.

Looking at the fountain near the O. Wayne Rollins Center where her office is located, Howard said, “I’ve always been a hiker. And when I was told I had cancer, I decided I was going to get over this. Now, I’m going to push the buttons and do all the things I want to do. I’m going. I’m going to finish it. And then I’ll plan and do another thing I’ve wanted to do. It’s time. I’m going to make time.”

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