The former First Lady of the Muscogee Creek Nation, Frances Tiger, knew what the symptoms of breast cancer are from being her mother’s caregiver during her journey with breast cancer. At the age of 60 in November 2014, Frances noticed a dimple and a lump the size of a pencil eraser in her left breast. She went in to see her OB/GYN and her doctor couldn’t find the lump, but Frances refused to leave until her doctor felt it. “I knew my body and was brave enough to not take ‘No’ as an answer. It saved my life.” Her doctor eventually felt the lump and ordered a biopsy. Frances was in her car before going into work the morning she got the call. The nurse told her she had breast cancer and it was rare and a very aggressive kind of breast cancer, Triple Negative Stage 2A. Frances sat alone in her car trying to grasp and understand the news she just received. She told her husband, three daughters and son, she had their total support.
At the time of her diagnosis Frances was the First Lady to her husband, George Tiger the Chief of Muscogee Creek Tribe. When treatment began, Frances was very private and hesitant to talk about her breast cancer. “I faced every day with a positive outlook. I never gave up.”, Frances explained. One day she received a call from a tribal elder, “I have had you on my heart today and I wanted to talk to you. God sent me a message to tell you to share your story, you are a voice for Native American Women.” Frances took the elder’s words to heart. She began to share her 18-month cancer treatment on Facebook. “When you get a cancer diagnosis, your life changes from the way you know it, to doctor appointments, chemotherapy, radiation, surgery and being home to recover. Frances shared it all on Facebook.
Frances was the guest speaker for the Muscogee Creek Pink Party and touched many lives. “There were hundreds of people there and many were crying.” Women who had never had a mammogram were inspired to be screened, others were inspired to share their story as well. “God blessed me to speak about my journey. I never asked ‘Why?’”. Frances received an outpouring of support from Facebook friends. They sent prayers, messages, cards and gifts in the mail. Frances participated in genetic testing to see if there was a genetic link to her mother’s breast cancer. The test results showed that the breast cancer she had was not related to her mother’s and her cancer would not be genetically passed on to her children.
Before her first chemotherapy treatment, Frances, her daughters and granddaughter cut their hair and donated it to Locks of Love. It was something they did together and to give Frances love and support. Frances did not begin to lose her hair until Day 21 after chemo. The American Cancer Society was a great resource during this time, Frances found it very comforting to know there was an organization to support her with a new wig and cancer education for her and her daughters.
Today, Frances’ hair has grown back and she is doing well. She is very active, and campaigning for her husband’s bid for Muskogee Creek Nation National Council. She attributes her health to her support system, “I cannot thank my family enough, George, my husband, Angela, Mollie, Kendra, Kenneth and Gina for their words of encouragement and endless nights of support. Most of all, thank you to the Creator, He carried me through.” Frances would also like to thank all of the Facebook friends who supported her when she needed it most. The advice she would like to share with other American Indian and Alaskan Native Women is, “Don’t be afraid if you find something. Go to the doctor and get checked!”
Thank you Frances Tiger for sharing your breast cancer survivor story to encourage others to get screened.
It was a late Friday afternoon before the Fourth of July weekend when Gerlinda Morrison, age 42 and member of the Crow Tribe, was fixing the fence with her husband. The phone rang and she put it on speaker for her husband to listen. It was her doctor on the phone to inform her she needed a follow up on her recent mammogram. “We were like deer in the headlights,” she said. Her family had just lost her mother-in-law to breast cancer after a long courageous fight. Gerlinda went through the holiday weekend and did not tell anyone about the terrifying phone call she received. Her daughters rodeoed and the family enjoyed celebrating the Fourth of July.
The follow-up included another mammogram in Billings. The results from that mammogram were not good. The doctor said, “I think you have breast cancer, you need a strong support network, we need to take care of this as soon as we can.” “Where did I go wrong?” she asked herself. Gerlinda is the kind of friend who reminds her friends and family to make healthy choices. She works hard to be the healthiest she can be; exercises at least 4 times a week, maintains a healthy weight, breastfed all three of her babies, takes vitamins, eats her fruits and veggies, she does not drink alcohol and had no family history of breast cancer. A biopsy was scheduled for the first week in August. Gerlinda did not know how to tell her family.
She finally told told her older sister and her sister told her mother who then, told the rest of her siblings. Gerlinda comes from a large family, seven children total. In the Crow Culture, out of respect, women do not tell their brothers about personal health issues, especially something as personal as breast cancer. She took her time to tell her daughters, “I wanted to have hope in my voice when I told them and to be strong for them. I prayed about it. I needed God there with me.” The girls all reacted differently with anger, sadness and optimism. Her youngest daughter said, “I will pray for you Mom, you got this.” When Gerlinda told her close friends, it was just as hard. “I could not say cancer, I said the ‘c-word’. I asked them to say the word cancer with me.”
Gerlinda came out of the double biopsy and saw all of her family in the waiting room, even her brothers. “At that moment, when I saw everyone had my back, I knew I was going to be alright. My siblings and family are my strength.” She was optimistic and told her family not to be sad, it still might not be cancer. However, the biopsies confirmed two early stage (in situ) breast cancer sites that genetic tests showed were not inherited. Her family wanted to help and knew she would need financial assistance.
Financial complications did arise, which pushed back treatment until October. The family held a fun run with proceeds going towards helping Gerlinda during treatment. Self-advocacy took on a whole new meaning for Gerlinda, she was fighting for her life. She was accepted into the Montana Breast and Cervical Cancer Program and qualified for Medicaid. The surgery went well and she was discharged on a Sunday afternoon. They gave her a prescription for pain medications but the Indian Health Service pharmacy was not open to fill that prescription. The money her family had raised from the fun run paid for the prescription and two days of lodging and food in Billings. Her doctor wanted her close by in case of complications.
It has been one year since Gerlinda’s surgery of removing both breasts. She is doing well and can be found loving life and cheering on her girls. Her oldest daughter Charine shared, “I see my Mom living her life happier, healthier and loving. She tells everyone to get their yearly checks and gets on every one of our family and friends to be healthy.” There are two pieces of advice Gerlinda would like to share with other American Indian and Alaska Native Women: 1. Listen to your body, nobody knows it better than you. 2. Be proactive in your healthcare you deserve.
Thank you Gerlinda Morrison for sharing your breast cancer survivor story to encourage others to get screened.
In 2011 at the age of 64, Elnora had a suspicious mammogram that required follow up with a biopsy. The results were negative but required another mammogram in 6 months, this time the next mammogram and biopsy came back cancerous. She was diagnosed with Invasive Duct Carcinoma Stage 1. “I didn’t have time for breast cancer”, Elnora declared. Although she was optimistic with her diagnosis, she still didn’t tell anyone. The IHS Women’s Wellness Program reached out to Elnora and encouraged her to tell her son. In doing so, he became her biggest support system. The breast cancer diagnosis led to a PET scan, which found 2 other primary cancer sites in her thyroid and lungs, that showed no symptoms. Elnora endured three different cancer surgeries in one year.
Elnora’s running club, Cherokee Runners, offered support and walked with Elnora in her first Relay for Life. The Cherokee Cancer Support Group was also a strong support system that reached out to Elnora and offered financial support during treatment and emotional support that contributed to her healing. Today, Elnora is cancer free and volunteers with the Cherokee Cancer Support Group. The advice she shares with other American Indian and Alaskan Native Women is, “Get your screenings, my cancer was found early because I did screenings on time. I am also thankful for breast cancer because it helped find other cancers in my body.”
Thank you Elnora Thompson for sharing your breast cancer survivor story to encourage others to get screened.