Kokomo Tribune; Kokomo, Indiana

October 22, 2013

'You can't give up. You have to keep going.'

Uninsured single mother with breast cancer stays strong for daughter.

By Carson Gerber Kokomo Tribune
Kokomo Tribune

---- — Angie Gritton found herself once again walking blindly down the side streets and alleys of Kokomo. She’d been doing it for days, from sunrise to sunset.

Gritton wasn’t walking for the fun of it. She needed to move, to clear her head, to process the horrible realization that she had breast cancer, no insurance and a 5-year-old daughter who depended on her.

So she walked. Gritton said she walked so much that her feet were still hurting months later.

“I’ve never experienced anxiety and panic attacks like that,” she said. “I lost 10 pounds in four days.”

It all started on a run-of-the-mill morning in June. Gritton said she had just taken a shower and was dressing when her hand passed over a strange lump in her breast.

“It felt odd, but it wasn’t sore, so I thought it was something other than cancer,” she said.

Besides, Gritton was only 35 years old. Women her age didn’t get breast cancer.

She knew her family had a history of lung and throat cancer. In fact, her mother, grandmother and several aunts and uncles had passed away from those diseases.

But breast cancer? Gritton said it was something she never expected she’d get.

Still, the lump worried her. But what worried Gritton even more was shelling out a good chunk of cash to see a doctor without insurance. She’d been living without it since she was laid off from her job at St. Joseph Hospital late last year.

Gritton said she was supporting herself and her daughter off a meager unemployment check, and the prospect of a hefty hospital bill made her debate if a checkup was really worth it.

It was a friend who told her she needed to go, regardless of the price. Gritton said she knew he was serious, because he never went to the hospital.

“That worried me, because he’d be the last one to go to a doctor,” she said.

Gritton ended up visiting a gynecologist in Greentown, where they did a number of tests. She received a phone call a few days later. They had the results. She needed to come to the clinic.

“When the doctor walked into the room, I just knew,” Gritton said. “She looked like she was going to a funeral.”

The tests revealed Gritton had a large, 5-centimeter tumor in her breast. It was triple-negative cancer — a rare and aggressive form of breast cancer, especially for someone her age.

The diagnosis didn’t sink in right away., but Gritton said the reality of the situation hit her later that day. The next morning, she was up at dawn, walking.

“I stressed out,” she said. “What was I going to do? They weren’t going to do surgeries or tests for free.”

Then Gritton had to break the news to her daughter. She said her 5-year-old was familiar with cancer, since Gritton’s mother and grandmother had both had it and underwent chemo treatments.

She explained she was going to be fine and wouldn’t be as bad off as grandma. But despite her encouragement, Gritton’s daughter had two breakdowns. She was scared.

“She was afraid she’d wake up one day and I’d be dead and she wouldn’t know what to do,” Gritton said.

Gritton explained she didn’t have to worry about that right now.

But in reality, it was Gritton’s biggest concern, too. She said she didn’t know what would happen to her daughter if she died.

“Oh gosh, I had so much anxiety about that,” she said.

After time, however, Gritton said she came to terms with her circumstances. She called a lawyer and had a legal document drawn up to make sure her daughter would be alright if she passed away.

Then she called St. Joseph Hospital to find out how she could pay for chemotherapy and the two mastectomies doctors said would be required to help prevent the cancer from reoccurring.

To her surprise, Gritton learned Indiana offers free insurance to women exactly like her. Through Medicaid, the state provides women in need of treatment for breast and cervical cancer free insurance if they’re uninsured and otherwise not eligible for Medicaid.

With the medical bills taken care of, Gritton started in with chemo treatments. Soon, the side effects kicked in. She lost her hair, she felt nauseous and tired and her eyebrows and eye lashes fell out.

Overall, Gritton said, chemotherapy wasn’t as bad as she expected. What really hurt, though, were the shots to get her body to produce more blood cells and keep her immune system intact.

“That kicked my butt,” she said. “I had the worst pain in my bones. It was more horrible than anything I’ve ever felt.”

It was during the chemo treatments Gritton said she realized how difficult it was being a single mother with cancer.

“In a lot of situations, the women are married when they’re diagnosed, and they have that second source of support,” she said. “They’re getting massages when their legs hurt or someone’s taking the kids for the day. Me, there’s days when I’m microwaving frozen carrots because I can’t do anything. I just feel like crap.

“But I had to stay in a positive mood for my daughter,” Gritton said. “I probably couldn’t have done that if I’d been on my own. But I wanted her to see that you can’t give up. You have to keep going.”

And the chemo worked. Last week, Gritton reported an MRI test revealed she was cancer free. Now, she said, she faces two mastectomies and another decision — whether to get reconstructive surgery.

Gritton said she doesn’t know if she wants the surgery. After all, if there’s one thing she’s learned from getting cancer and the subsequent chemo treatments, it’s that appearances don’t really matter.

“It’s so silly that in our culture we define people by how they look on the outside,” Gritton said. “Even if you don’t want to be like that, it’s really hard to get past it sometimes. But none of that matters. Now I’m like, ‘Who cares?’ It’s so unimportant.”

And there’s another lesson Gritton said she learned: No matter your age, race or gender, cancer doesn’t discriminate. She said everyone should start self-examinations.

“Just do it. Get familiar with your body. Even if you don’t have insurance, stay on top of it, and teach your kids how to do it, too,” she said. “There’s some really young women getting cancer, and it’s all shapes and sizes.”

As for Gritton, she said she’s trying to stay positive about the future even though her form of cancer has a 30 percent chance of reoccurring in her bones and organs within the next five years. But somedays, she said, that isn’t easy to do.

“My feelings toward the future change every day,” she said. “It really does. Today, I just feel like giving up. But I’ll be better in a little bit. I’ll talk myself out of it. Every day there’s new information and new questions. But I think once my hair grows back and I don’t see reminders of this cancer anymore, I can get back to normal.”

Carson Gerber can be reached at 765-854-6739, or at carson.gerber@kokomotribune.com.