Kathy Hicks is the kind of person who puts everyone else first.

The 62-year-old Zeeland, Michigan, resident is raising her grandchildren—two teenage boys and a 7-year-old girl—with her husband, Don.

Her eyes light up talking about the kids’ activities, their helpfulness at home and their school performances. And then there are the challenges of keeping up with their mischief.

With all that activity, taking care of herself went on the back burner.

In fact, it had been more than 20 years since Hicks had a mammogram.

Being busy wasn’t the only reason Hicks skipped her annual cancer screening. She avoided it because her last mammogram didn’t go well.

“The tech was so rough and rude, I got scared and never wanted to have another one done,” she said.

Last fall, Hicks’ left breast grew larger than the right side, and she planned to see a doctor after the holidays. But in October she developed a fever of 103 degrees. She tried to sleep it off, but then her left breast ruptured and began oozing fluid.

“I wanted to wait, but my body had different ideas,” she said.

Left with no choice, she went to the emergency department at Spectrum Health Zeeland Community Hospital, just a five-minute drive from her house.

When she arrived, she met oncology nurse navigator Marilyn Thompson, BSN, OCN, who guided Hicks through her medical saga for the next few months.

“From the minute I got in the hospital, Marilyn was there,” Hicks said. “She reminded me so much of my mom. It was like a friendship.”

Good news, bad news

Although the large mass in her left breast initially looked like cancer, she soon learned some good news: It was a giant, benign papilloma, according to her surgeon, Amie Hop, MD.

The bad news? Hicks had a small area of invasive ductal cancer in her right breast. This could have gone undetected for years without a mammogram.

Hicks’ adoptive mother and brother died from bone cancer, so she had reason to be frightened.

Yet she found inner strength.

“Initially I was scared, but I couldn’t show it because of the kids,” she said. “I tried to stay upbeat to not get them worried.”

Hicks made daily trips to Zeeland Community Hospital’s ambulatory care center for wound treatment on her left breast.

After it healed, she prepared for surgery.

Dr. Hop removed the cancerous tumor from her right breast. And she took out the 7-inch mass from the left side, saving the damaged breast against all odds.

After surgery, Hicks went through 16 radiation treatments. Today she is cancer-free, with only a 3% chance of the cancer returning.

Now back to living life without the shadow of cancer, she finds herself especially grateful for her nurse navigator’s help in getting her through a difficult time.

“The support is the biggest thing I can provide, so she knew she wasn’t out there by herself,” Thompson said. “Her story ended very well. It could have been so different.”

‘Don’t let one experience keep you away’

Today, Hicks is a strong advocate for regular mammograms, and she plans to “hound” the women in her family to get regular cancer screenings.

“It’s not one of the most pleasant things, but you’ve just got to do it,” she said. “If you’re afraid of something, ask for a different tech. Don’t not do it.”

Dr. Hop, whose surgery practice is now entirely focused on breast care, agrees.

“Don’t let one experience keep you away,” she said. “At the end of the day, you are your own advocate.”