One woman’s story of surviving breast cancer
By Courtney McDermott
Every time Shemikia Brown looks at her wrist it reminds her of her lengthy battle with breast cancer. Dangling with charms that read “Faith Over Fear,” a pair of running shoes, a pink ribbon and more, the Pandora bracelet symbolizes every facet of her journey, her own strength and resiliency and, ultimately, her survival.
In 2019 when the Jasper County native was determined to have fibrocystic breast changes, a noncancerous condition which makes the breasts feel lumpy, she was not too concerned. The 37-year-old felt fine. So, when her gynecologist suggested an ultrasound, she declined at the time.
Over time she began noticing changes. In her heart she knew something was wrong. When she returned for a routine exam just one year later, her doctor discovered a lump.
“I didn’t know what to think, but I knew it wasn’t okay,” she says. “I just followed my doctor’s orders and prayed for the best.”
Brown was referred to the Beaufort Memorial Breast Health Center for a 3D mammogram and ultrasound. The mammogram revealed suspicious tumors in both breasts, and a radiologist biopsied both sites the same afternoon.
Days later, Brown, a single parent and full-time drug and alcohol abuse counselor with the Beaufort County Alcohol and Drug Abuse Department, was at home helping her daughter with math homework when she received the call that confirmed her worst fears: she had cancer.
“I remember stepping outside to take the call and just crying in the front yard. I didn’t want my daughter to see me, so I called a co-worker so I could share the news with somebody,” Brown said. “I asked myself all the questions, like ‘Why me?’ and then realized I needed to choose faith over fear and move on.”
Brown was soon introduced to Erin A. Bulatao-Hollifield, MSN, RN, OCN, a certified Breast Nurse Navigator at Beaufort Memorial. Bulatao-Hollifield would serve as her personal guide and advocate throughout the entire treatment process, working closely with her care team and ensuring Brown had all the resources she needed so she could focus on getting well.
“Erin was especially helpful,” said Brown. “She held my hand through every step of the process.”
Her first step was a consult with Dr. Deanna Mansker, a board-certified general surgeon with Beaufort Memorial Surgical Specialists.
“Shemikia was found to have two masses in different regions of her right breast, as well as cancer metastatic to her lymph nodes,” said Mansker. “Due to her extensive disease the required treatment was a full mastectomy and axillary lymph node dissection, also known as a modified radical mastectomy. Because of her young age, she elected to proceed with a bilateral mastectomy.”
Fortunately, Brown was negative for breast cancer genes, and a bilateral breast MRI (Magnetic Resonance Imaging) and PET scan (Positron Emission Tomography) ruled out additional areas of concern.
Following surgery — a first for Brown — and consultations with Beaufort Memorial Drs. Jonathan Briggs, radiation oncologist, and Mark Newberry, medical oncologist, the care team decided that chemotherapy followed by radiation therapy would be the best treatment course for Brown.
In March 2021, she began 12 weeks of chemotherapy with a drug called Taxol, followed by four doses of Adriamycin and Cytoxan, also known as “red devil.”
“At first I had very few side effects, but the red devil was a different story,” she said.
The notoriously noxious drug caused nausea, fatigue and hair loss, but it never stopped Brown from working.
“I gave her a course of chemotherapy to reduce her risk of a recurrence of her cancer that was based on the findings at surgery,” said Newberry. “Like a lot of women who receive that regimen, she had some side effects, but was able to maintain a great attitude and made every effort to have a positive influence on her side effects.”
Following chemo, Brown completed 33 daily radiation therapy treatments with Dr. Briggs, receiving her last dose in October 2021.
“My family and my teams at work and at Beaufort Memorial were incredibly supportive,” she said. “They really helped me throughout my journey.”
Also helpful was her daily journal, in which she documented every step of her treatment, her feelings about it, and her physical side effects.
“I hadn’t journaled anything since high school, but it really helped me stay present during my treatment and helped my doctors understand how I was doing during my appointments,” she says.
“Shemikia beat breast cancer, fought with wound healing, and even had surgery to remove her gallbladder, all while working to support her child as a single mother,” Dr. Mansker said. “She remained cheerful and optimistic throughout the entire course. She is truly an inspiration to other women struggling with illness.”
One year later Shemikia Brown is cancer-free and grateful for the unexpected gifts her journey taught her.
“The whole experience was so unexpected, and it gave me a much better appreciation for life,” she says. “Today I focus on spending time with my family, making memories and being open to change.”
She is also an advocate for early detection and self-care. “If you feel something, seek help. Don’t wait until your next appointment. Just call your provider,” she adds.
“I felt heard and supported by everyone who cared for me, and that was such an important part of my treatment and recovery,” she says. “I am grateful that I am able to share my story and hope that someone else can learn from my experience.”
Have you had your mammogram? Beaufort Memorial is offering $99 screening mammograms during the month of October. Vouchers must be purchased by Oct. 31, but screenings can be scheduled any time in the next six months. Visit www.BeaufortMemorial.org/SaveOnMammos for more information or to purchase.