One June morning in 2004, April Webb of Clinton was dressing for work when she found a painful lump in her right breast.
She was only 38 and in good shape physically, so she wasn’t too worried, but instinct told her to ask another woman for advice.
Webb called her mother-in-law, Pat, who didn’t mince words.
“Go to the doctor immediately,” Pat Webb said.
Webb’s doctor wasn’t overly concerned.
“It’s probably a cyst,” he said.
Webb’s instinct kicked in again and she remembers talking her doctor into ordering a mammogram.
“The results came back suspicious,” Webb said.
Next came a biopsy, which confirmed she had “intraductal carcinoma of the breast.”
Her doctor said it was “a garden variety breast cancer,” which could be dealt with by having a lumpectomy to remove just the two-inch tumor.
“I had a lumpectomy within two weeks of diagnosis,” said Webb. “I was told I’d need chemo and radiation too, but I waited six weeks after surgery.”
Meanwhile, Webb returned to her job as a deckhand for the Clinton-Mukilteo ferry run.
In August, six days into her first chemotherapy regimen, Webb found another lump under her right arm.
“I called my surgeon in a panic and told him I’d found another lump,” she said.
“Calm down. Cancer doesn’t spread like wildfire,” he told her as he ordered another biopsy.
A few hours after the biopsy, Webb received another call.
“You were right and I was wrong,” the surgeon said. “The lump is cancerous and I recommend a radical mastectomy as soon as possible.”
A radical mastectomy involves removing all of the breast tissue, underlying chest muscle and axillary lymph nodes.
At the time, Webb had a four-year-old daughter with special needs, and it was Shelby she thought of first when she made a difficult decision.
“I didn’t want to fool around,” Webb said. “I decided that not only did I want the right breast removed, but the left one too. I wanted to do whatever I could do to kick it so I could be here for my husband and daughter. I knew I’d be changed, but I just wanted to live.”
In October 2004, Webb had both breasts removed. Over the next year, she’d also undergo chemotherapy and radiation treatments. Her blonde hair fell out, the chemo made her sick until the dosage was adjusted, and the radiation burned her skin. She took time off from her job to concentrate on healing.
“One day I came home from work and my hair was falling out in big clumps, so I took my clippers and buzzed it all off,” Webb said.
Her daughter came in the room and saw her mom’s shaved head.
“Shelby, who is non-verbal, smiled and patted me on the head,” Webb said. “It was a super-beautiful little blessing that got me through a very hard moment.”
There were other blessings along the way that Webb now recalls with profound gratitude. Friends, family and her church rallied around her during that challenging year.
When she shaved her head, fellow crew members on the ferry offered to shave their heads in solidarity. She declined their kind offer, but was touched by their support.
Her dad, Clarence Wallace, did shave his head in her honor. Her sister, Terrie Wallace, organized a garage and bake sale to help with medical expenses.
Her daughter’s speech therapist Tonah Potter drove her to weekly treatments. Co-worker John Norby also gave her rides.
“I had a lot of friends and an amazing community that I never want to move away from,” Webb said. “The support and prayers were pretty overwhelming, but in a good way. What got me through was tons of prayer and my faith in God. I leaned on my spirituality pretty hard.”
Webb waited until 2007 to have her breasts reconstructed, which she described as a painful process. In the meantime, she wore prosthetic breasts and said she actually enjoyed the freedom of going braless around home.
Nine years later, Webb is cancer-free. Daughter Shelby is in high school. Her husband Brian grows nutrient-dense food to keep his family healthy. Webb has returned to her job on the ferry.
Every year during National Breast Cancer Awareness month in October, she is reminded that in spite of her ordeal, she is a survivor, and other women have not been so lucky.
“Being a survivor is not really triumphant when you think of the other women who haven’t made it,” Webb said. “While we’re closer than ever to curing this disease, I still grieve for the lives lost.”
“When I get tired and grumpy, I stop myself and remember that I’m still here and not to sweat the small stuff,” she said. “I’m so thankful for my daughter and my husband who gave me a reason to live.”