- Associated Press - Saturday, October 11, 2014

WILMINGTON, Del. (AP) - In six months, Delaware first lady Carla Markell will mark the 10th anniversary of her breast cancer diagnosis.

“It’s interesting - it fades and fades away more into the background,” she said last month during an interview at her Wilmington home.

It all started with an annoying itch on her left breast in March 2005.

“When I first discovered it, I knew intuitively something was going on with me and I wasn’t quite sure what it was,” she said.

So, she made two appointments: One with a dermatologist and another with a radiologist to get a mammogram.

She was 44.

The dermatologist thought it was a rash, she said, but she had a feeling the radiologist would find something different.

“Inside, I knew that wasn’t right.”

The day of her mammogram, typical March weather set the stage: in like a lamb and out like a lion.

“It was one of those days where I walked into the radiologist’s office and it was a bright sunny day,” Markell, now 53, recalled. “Luckily, she was able to do the ultrasound the same day. I could tell she knew it was cancer. … When I walked out of the office it was snowing, blustering and windy. It was like the weather shifted.

“It was like life just changed.”

The following week Markell had a biopsy that confirmed the diagnosis: stage 1 breast cancer. Her cancer was contained to a smaller area.

Luckily, she said, it had not spread into her lymph nodes.

At the time, she was mom to two young children, Molly, 11, and Michael, 9, and wife to Jack, who was serving his second term as state treasurer.

“It was one of those life-changing things where it kind of makes you stop and look at things in a different way. When you hit a road like that, you just hope you can have the right health care,” she said.

She went on to have a lumpectomy in April 2005, and radiation for 30 days starting that June.

She describes the entire recovery process as “uncomfortable.” She felt like she had landed in a surreal world with no escape, with doctors constantly poking and prodding.

“I can’t believe this is my life. I can’t believe this is happening to me. I’m so young,” Markell recalled thinking at the time.

Even so, she said the medical staff were top-notch and - even better - personal. During her 30 days of radiation, she said the nurses would allow family members and dogs into the facility.

“They try to make it as human and humane as possible,” she said.

Through everything, it was important to keep her family, especially her children, informed of the entire process, she said. They knew about her strange itch, the checkups, biopsy and radiation - all of it.

“I just didn’t want them to be surprised. I just wanted them to feel like they were in the loop in every way,” she said.

“They never had this fear that something really bad was happening.”

At the initial moment of her diagnosis, however, Markell said she felt alone. Husband Jack had been traveling for work and her mother was unreachable. Once the now-governor talked to his wife, however, he immediately returned home and from that point forward, became the designated scribe at all of her doctors’ appointments.

“I was shocked” the governor recalled. “And I’d say for the first couple days, I was walking around in a fog, and I didn’t really know what to do.”

The fear of losing her, of not knowing how many days they might have left together, never left his mind.

After that, he slipped into the role of personal attendant seamlessly: researching the disease, taking notes and asking questions.

“It was scary. I was really scared, but she was really strong and I think her strength made me stronger, and, thank God, we got through it together,” he said.

The pair would walk, talk and reflect, and just try to be more present with each other, the governor said.

“Frankly, things like, if we are watching TV, me rubbing her feet. I think things like that make a difference and bring you closer together,” he said.

The governor was no stranger to breast cancer; his sister, Judy, was diagnosed a couple years before his wife.

Though heart-wrenching, it was comforting to have someone to relate to, Carla Markell added.

She particularly remembers how her sister-in law would question doctors and seek second opinions.

“I think a good doctor encourages the questions and encourages other opinions. If someone is uncomfortable with that, it might not be the right doctor,” Carla Markell said.

One of the best pieces of advice she received was from her physician at Christiana Care Health System: Treat cancer like your full-time job.

“I dropped everything that I was doing, basically. I was very good to myself. I just didn’t allow myself to take on more than I really wanted to,” she said.

“I think as women we tend to want to keep going. I know a lot of women who keep working full-time and treat it (breast cancer) like a little nothing, but for me - and I think my advice to other women - take the opportunity to slow down and take care of yourself during the process. Because you don’t want to have to do it again.”

After the diagnosis, Markell felt her roles reverse. Always a community advocate, she found the breast cancer survivor community opened their arms to her.

Markell is in remission, but still goes for her yearly mammograms and tries to eat extremely healthfully, which can be difficult because she has a bit of a sweet tooth.

“I do what’s in my control to stay on top of it and I don’t live in fear. I don’t live in fear with anything, because I think that’s a very unhealthy place to live all the time,” she said.

“I just try to stay positive and go forward assuming everything is alright.”

___

Information from: The News Journal of Wilmington, Del., http://www.delawareonline.com

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