Photo | Lagniappe
The Mobile City Council proclaimed Oct. 8, 2018, “Councilwoman Gina Gregory Day.” Gregory was diagnosed with breast cancer in March and has been documenting her treatment on social media.
Breast cancer never crossed the mind of Mobile City Councilwoman Gina Gregory. Even when her doctor felt a lump on her left side during a routine exam, she didn’t think anything of it.
When a surgeon later told her the lump was not a cyst, she still wasn’t worried.
“I guarantee you, I never thought I had breast cancer,” she said. “That was the furthest thing from my mind. Nobody, really, in my close family had breast cancer, but as I’ve learned that doesn’t matter.”
Gregory was diagnosed with the disease in March and has been documenting her treatment for the last seven months while continuing to represent the city’s seventh district.
“It has been surreal, really, and still today it’s hard for me to believe I have breast cancer, but I do,” she said in her ninth floor office in Government Plaza last week. “Going through the chemo has certainly made it real.”
The first steps were a whirlwind, Gregory said. Following a biopsy and MRI showing the location and mass of the tumors, it was time to talk about treatment and recovery.
“My husband and I were still just — I think we were glassy-eyed, like, ‘are you kidding, this cannot be happening to us,’” she said. “The surgeon said ‘well, you’ve got to get an oncologist on board and figure out where you go from there because you’re going to need chemo, you’re going to need this, you’re going to need that’ and we’re like, ‘slow down, slow down, we’ve got to let this all sink in.’”
Todd Golomb, Gregory’s husband, had a hard time putting into words how he felt when she was first diagnosed. He said he was surprised and disappointed the cancer wasn’t discovered earlier.
It also wasn’t the first health scare for the couple, as Golomb had issues with his heart.
“She was in my shoes,” he said. “I had already experienced not knowing what the future held with my heart.”
The issues seemed to be tougher on the spouses than on the one receiving the diagnosis, Golomb said. When his irregular heartbeats frightened her, he was at ease. With the cancer, the opposite was true.
“I stepped in her shoes,” he said. “They were a hard set of shoes to step into.”
After getting a second opinion, Gregory decided to have both breasts removed through a bilateral mastectomy.
“Because the cancer I have is what they like to call ‘very sneaky,’ meaning it’s hard to detect, obviously, we decided a bilateral was the best move for us because I didn’t want to be back in a couple years with cancer on the other side,” she said. “For me and for a lot of women who get a tumor on one side, there is a good possibility you’ll get a tumor on the other side and since mine was so hard to detect, I just didn’t want to be back in two years with cancer on the other side.”
There was good news at first as a flurry of scans found no traces of cancer anywhere else in Gregory’s body.
“You know, it was an alphabet soup of scans. Trying to keep up with all of them is difficult,” she said. “It’s PET scan, CT scan and heart this … I did all the tests and didn’t show cancer anywhere.”
While on the operating table undergoing the mastectomy, Gregory’s fate would turn when doctors biopsied samples of her lymph nodes.
“They took out 20 total; nine were cancerous,” she said. “So, from my underarm, all the way up to almost my collarbone, they took out lymph nodes … there’s nothing there because they took out so much.”
Following the 10-hour surgery, Gregory knew she’d need chemotherapy.
“We went in with the idea that I would have the mastectomy and take oral medication for five to 10 years and it’d be good,” she said. “Well, no it didn’t happen.”
Chemotherapy started with 12 weeks of a drug called taxol.
“I tolerated that pretty well,” she said. “I did get a rash on that. There was some fatigue, some dizziness that got worse over time because it’s cumulative.”
As expected, Gregory also began losing her hair. She began wearing a wig.
After the taxol regimen, Gregory was introduced to the “red devil,” or adriamycin cytoxan (AC). With AC, the nausea got worse — so bad that she’d wake up in the morning, move to the couch and limit the number of times she’d move throughout the day. She also lost what was left of the hair on her body, including her eyebrows and eyelashes. She said she has had to get used to wearing false eyelashes for the first time ever.
“So, the AC was really the tougher one,” she said. “You can only have it once in a lifetime because it’s tough on your heart. I mean, I could have heart damage because of this.”
Despite being on a heavy dose of chemotherapy, Gregory made it a point to attend as many City Council meetings as she could. Golomb said she only missed one.
“For her, she felt like it was a blessing from the very beginning,” he said. “It gave her a lot of strength.”
Regardless, Gregory found it tough to proceed as normal at the meetings. The best course of action, she said, was to listen more.
“Well, I had said to myself during all this treatment that I probably should sit and listen rather than speak,” she said.
“I brought crackers with me and made sure I had antacids in my purse if I needed them, but it wasn’t too terribly bad.”
With the stronger chemotherapy, she balanced her schedule the best she could. She would do AC treatments on Tuesdays so she’d feel better by the time the next council meeting came around.
“I knew I’d be feeling good the Tuesday I would be coming in for the treatment and then I’d have a full week of recovery. And really, by the Tuesday of recovery week, I was feeling OK.”
Determined to be present, she explained, “I didn’t want people to think ‘Oh she’s the sick girl. She’s sick and can’t do her job’ because I knew I could get over it,” she said. “I knew I could do what I needed to do.”
As for her colleagues on the council, Gregory said they’ve been great from the start.
“From bringing me food after I got out of the hospital to coming to visit and pray with me; they have been really supportive,” she said. “Nobody has said anything, you know, if I needed to duck out. There’s been nothing but support from everybody.”
Tough times among the seven members of the council can prove what the public may not see, Gregory said.
“I think no matter what people think, or think they see, we are really a good family here,” she said. “We all get along well personally. We like each other, you know, and I think it’s really important people understand that.”
The council’s support of Gregory was recognized during the Oct. 9 meeting, a full week after her last chemotherapy treatment, when the six other members of the council, along with some staff members from USA Mitchell Cancer Institute (MCI), surprised Gregory with a resolution. The other councilors were all secretly wearing pink shirts with the slogan “Team Gina” on the back.
“I was just going along and I guess it shows how gullible I am,” she said. “I saw the guys wearing pink shirts and I thought ‘they just didn’t have anything pink on, that’s nice.’ When they turned around with their pink shirts on, I about lost it.”
Documenting her journey
The former television news reporter and public relations specialist was not shy about her diagnosis. In fact, she has made a point of sharing it on social media as a means to inspire others impacted by the disease.
“Because I’m not shy and used to putting it all out there and with my public life now in City Council, I just thought having a voice would help other women and other families,” she explained. “For so many years when someone had breast cancer it was hidden, it was secretive, or you were ashamed and it doesn’t need to be that way.”
Gregory hopes her experience will be helpful to others.
“So somebody like me, who’s not afraid to put it out there and show what we’ve shown, I think it’s important to show you can get through it, and here’s what it looks like,” she said.
Gregory said women have been reaching out to her about their own experiences with the disease since she opened up. She said she has learned a lot from other women about how to deal with it and what to expect.
Still, the journey is not over. Gregory will finish reconstruction surgery on Nov. 2 and then will begin radiation treatment. After radiation, it’s hopeful the cancer will be gone, she said.
As for how the process has changed her, Gregory said she’s still evolving from it.
“In a lot of ways it’s probably shown me that I’m stronger than I thought I was,” she said. “I’ve always been a strong person and a believer in God and that he’s always in my corner and I’ll be OK, but I think it has strengthened my faith.”
Local cancer statistics
The rate of breast cancer in Alabama is lower than the national average. Nationwide, the rate is 124.7 cases per 100,000 females; in Alabama it’s 120 per 100,000. The rate in Mobile County is below the state average at 118 cases per 100,000, while the rate in Baldwin County is slightly higher at 122 per 100,000.
MCI Researcher Casey Daniel, Ph.D., surmises the Baldwin rate might be higher because the population is older.
Of MCI’s 6,000 total patients, 5,325 have a cancer diagnosis. Of those, 1,550 patients, or 29.1 percent, have breast cancer, according to information provided by MCI.
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