Melissa Woolly recalls her journey battling breast cancer as she nears completion of treatment
A regular doctor’s appointment flipped Melissa Woolly’s whole world upside down. She said she still remembers the phone call she got after the appointment.
“I was actually here in my office and my doctor asked me, ‘Are you by yourself?,’ I was like, ‘Yes, but my husband's only a couple of blocks away, can I go there?’,” Woolly said.
Her doctor stayed on the phone with her while she drove to the Ardmore police station to see her husband, who is employed by the department. “I just remember trying to breathe and my husband was like, ‘It’s going to be okay, we’re going to get through this’ trying to reassure me,” Woolly said.
Woolly, who serves as the Executive Director of Heroes with Hope, a local nonprofit, was diagnosed with breast cancer in June of 2019. One of her biggest concerns after the diagnosis was what she was going to tell her kids, two of which still live at home.
“I started thinking ‘How is this going to impact my family? How is this going to impact my kids? What do I tell them? How much do I tell them? I know as soon as they hear the word cancer they’re going to think the worst,” Woolly said.
From the very beginning, Woolly and her husband decided to be completely honest with their children about what was going on. Her children became a part of the process and a part of Woolly’s care. Her nine-year-old daughter was eager to help administer medication and help change the dressings on her wounds.
“I think involving them made it easier for them to understand what was going on,” Woolly said. “It wasn’t like this big secret, I think involving them made it easier for them. They didn’t have any unanswered questions about what was going on.”
Woolly had her initial mammogram, an ultrasound and a biopsy in June after she was diagnosed. Sept. 25 marks the one-year anniversary of Woolly’s first major surgery: a bilateral mastectomy. A bilateral mastectomy is the surgical removal of both breasts to prevent or treat cancer.
Woolly elected to start reconstruction surgery immediately following the bilateral mastectomy. This meant she would endure six more reconstruction surgeries within the span of about a year, with her last and final surgery occurring about four or five weeks ago.
“Kudos to my doctors, both of them worked very well together. My plastic surgeon, I saw him at minimum once a week. He has been phenomenal,” Woolly said. “He said ‘It’s going to be tough’ and he wasn’t kidding. It’s been tough. It’s almost like every time I feel like I’m a little bit healed up then here we go again, but I would not have changed it.”
All the while, Woolly was still out going to community events and organizing various programs and fundraisers as the director of Heroes with Hope. The reconstruction surgery required fat to be transferred from other areas of her body, often leaving her sore all over.
“There’s a lot of days that I could be like ‘Oh I can’t do this, oh woe is me’,” Woolly said. “I’m sore today, but I can’t dwell on that or I would’ve missed out on a lot of life and God has given me more life.”
Because she decided to start reconstruction surgery immediately, it sped up the process and she is nearly done with treatment. Women have different options after reconstruction is complete whereas some will have nipple implants and others will tattoo on nipples, or flowers to cover the scars.
Woolly said this will be one of the last steps, and she plans to do some sort of tattooing to cover her scars in November. Woolly said it’s a strange and exciting feeling nearing completion of her treatment.
“I’ve built such a relationship with my surgeon that it’s almost like I’m losing a friend. I’ve literally seen him once and sometimes twice a week,” Woolly said. “It’s also going to be a huge celebration. I’m very thankful because it could’ve turned out so much different as it does for many women. I’m very thankful and appreciative.”
A self-described headstrong person, Woolly said she initially wanted to keep her diagnosis secret. But then she came to a realization. “How am I supposed to help anyone else that may be in the future going through this, through my faith, if I don’t share my story?” Woolly said.
Woolly said the biggest thing she had to learn was to let people help her. “That’s my personality — I’m very strong willed and I can do this, I don’t need your help,” Woolly said. Her husband and close circle of friends stuck by her throughout all of her doctor’s appointments and the good and the bad.
Woolly said one of her friends told her “‘You’re not going to do this alone’”— and she didn’t. Woolly never went to a doctor’s appointment alone, even though there are times when she could have. It got to the point where her doctors knew her friends and family on a first name basis.
“I think that is so important to have that support group,” Woolly said. “Let people be there for you, let your friend come over and clean your house, let them cook dinner for you and deliver it, let them come over and sit on your porch with you and drink coffee, just let them be there. It’ll lift your spirits, it’ll encourage you.”