“Listen to your body”: Breast cancer survivor shares her journey

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By Kaitlin Hoskins, News Editor

Ponda Jones, a local mother and wife, joined the ranks of nearly 300,000 women and men nationwide, when she was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2021.

Jones, 53, has always been aware of the potential for breast cancer — though none of her immediate family members had developed the disease — and has taken measures to be vigilant. She, like countless other women, see her gynecologist yearly and she also receives a yearly mammogram. Jones also performs her own self-checks in the shower, like doctors suggest, and one of those checks saved her life.

While performing a self-check in July of 2021, Jones noticed a large lump in her right breast and its size concerned her.

“It came up so quickly,” Jones said. “I mean, you shower every day and one day it was just there. I just knew that something was wrong.”

Jones immediately called her gynecologist to report her findings and she hoped to have an exam done quickly.

“They said I needed to wait until my yearly visit, which was four months away. I told them no. I told them that it was quite large and I needed to go in.”

Jones’ doctor scheduled an ultrasound and a mammogram, and she waited on the results. When the doctor called with the results of the imaging, he said it was a significant growth but recommended waiting six months and coming back again.

Jones disagreed with her doctor and urged him to act quickly. He referred her to a surgeon who also recommended she wait six months.

“Once again I said ‘no,’” Jones said.

She wanted a biopsy and the doctors refused, stating that the lump was too large to get an accurate reading. That gynecologist and that surgeon are no longer Jones’ doctors.

Jones left her visit with the local surgeon and the next morning was at her general physician before the office even opened.

“She [Jones’ doctor] agreed that it wasn’t something we needed to wait six months and relook at it. She gave me the number to the Breast Care Center in Birmingham with Dr. April Maddox. I called them the next day, they got me in within two or three days. [Maddox] did an exam, ultrasound and biopsy in the same day.”

Two days later, Jones had her answer. The lump was a fast-growing but low-grade cancerous tumor.

Due to the fast growth rate of the cancer, Jones’ new doctor ordered additional tests and a full body MRI to make sure the cancer was not spreading to other parts of the body. To Jones’ relief, it was not spreading.

Maddox recommended that Jones undergo a full mastectomy of her right breast, but Jones talked through her options and elected to undergo a double mastectomy and reconstruction surgery.

“I just couldn’t worry about the other [breast] or it coming back for the rest of my life,” Jones said.

Two weeks later, Jones was on an operating table for 11 hours at Brookwood Baptist Medical Center in Birmingham undergoing the double mastectomy and first round of reconstruction surgery. Jones was in the hospital for three days before being discharged to her home for a lengthy recovery process.

The recovery was rough, but Jones said the fear leading up to the first surgery was unbearable.

“I was so worried. You ask your loved ones to make you all these promises that they aren’t going to make you. You can’t think. You’re just crazy. I would ask my husband to promise me he wouldn’t quit riding horses. He wouldn’t promise me. He would just say ‘you’re going to be okay.’ I thought I was having heart attacks because I was panicking. They had to give me something for panic attacks before the surgery because I was just so afraid. They did EKGs and my heart was fine. It was just panic attacks. I had convinced myself that with an 11-hour-long surgery, I wasn’t going to wake up. I was convinced I was going to die.”

But Jones came through the surgery with no complications and she woke up.

“The first thing I said to Chad when I woke up from surgery was ‘I woke up,’” Jones said tearfully. “And he said ‘babe, it’s not in your lymph nodes.’ He was holding my hand and he just said it. That was a saving grace.”

A month into recovery, the surgeon called Jones and wanted her to come back in for another surgery to remove some additional skin because they were not pleased with the margins when they removed the large lump.

“Recovery was hard,” Jones said. “I had [drainage] tubes for a total of three weeks. My husband had to empty those out like every hour. After the tubes were removed I still couldn’t get around.”

Jones’ husband Chad took his wedding vows seriously, never leaving her side.

“Bless his heart. He brushed my hair and put it up in ponytail every day.”

During the surgery, her surgeon took the muscle called the latissimus dorsi from her back and brought it around, under the skin, and moved it below her armpits to the front of her body to help make a new breast shape. Due to the muscle movement, Jones’ often had painful back spasms during recovery. She still gets them on occasion.

“For months I had to have help getting in and out of the bed,” she said.

When Jones was awake and in pain, Chad was there with her. He had her medicine regiment on the refrigerator and made sure she was taken care of.

Jones, who at the time of her double mastectomy had not yet gone through menopause, received some news a couple of months into her recovery.

“I went to the oncologist and they did all the genetic testing and found out the type of tumor…” Jones said. “My tumor was an estrogen-fed tumor. So, now, I had to undergo a hysterectomy. It was my third surgery in three months.”

After all was said and done, Jones returned to the oncologist for more testing and she was told that after all her surgeries, she has a less than one percent chance the cancer will return.

“I will take those odds,” Jones said. “But I still do go every three months to my oncologist for an exam and bloodwork. And every six months I have a scan.”

Jones will continue that schedule for the next several years, to ensure that in the unlikely case that the cancer might return, it is caught quickly.

In May of 2022, Jones underwent her permanent reconstruction procedure.

“They had to remove the expanders and do some nips and tucks and some liposuction in my back, so I wouldn’t look so disproportional in my back,” Jones said. “That recovery was tough also. I was out of work for a month and took several more months before I could really lift my arms.”

Jones, who has worked at Ford Insurance Agency for the last six years, said her coworkers checked in on her during her recovery and that they welcomed her back when she returned. A graduate of Etowah High School, Jones worked as a district manager for Dress Barn for over 20 years prior to working at Ford Insurance.

Now, Jones is living life and enjoying every minute of it.

“I know it is a cliché to say that,” Jones said. “But you truly do appreciate every minute. I don’t want to say that I took things for granted before breast cancer, but I think I did. Because now, I don’t take anything for granted. I live like there might not be tomorrow.”

Jones’ journey was not easy, but she wants people to know her story so they can better advocate for themselves.

“When they wanted to wait, I just couldn’t. I knew that it was cancer. I knew that I couldn’t wait. Had I waited six months, it would have been in my lymph nodes,” Jones said. “You have to know your body. You have to listen to your body. You know it best. And If something doesn’t feel right, go get it seen. Get it taken care of. Don’t ignore anything and don’t put anything off.”

Jones credits her good outcomes to her stubbornness and how supportive her husband Chad was and the support of her friends and loved ones. More important than those things, she credits God and prayer.

“Breast cancer is hard, but prayers work,” Jones said. “I had a lot of people praying and I was praying.”

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