September 1, 2008, my husband Doug and I celebrated our one-year anniversary. That October, we made arrangements to visit his parents in West Virginia and took my parents along to meet his parents for the first time. The first night we were there, we were getting settled in to get rest and I confronted my mother about a lump I had found in my right breast. I had noticed it for the past three months and noticed it had grown. Her response, after being a breast cancer survivor for twenty plus years, “Carmen, you need to see the doctor as soon as we get back home.” Monday, October 27, 2008 at 9:15 am, I had an appointment with my gynecologist about the lump I had found. He scheduled an appointment with the breast care center the next day. Tuesday, October 28, 2008, I went to the breast care center for my 10:15 am appointment. I was at ease, and before I knew it, the mammogram was over. Thank God! I moved my things into the ultrasound room. As the time would have it, it went by fast. The ultrasound was completed. Or, so I thought. A few minutes later, the Radiologist, who read the ultrasound, saw something of concern.
One of the nurses came back in the ultrasound room and talked to me about getting a biopsy. She and the ultrasound tech talked about what the procedure entailed. I just knew something wasn’t right. Next thing I knew, I was calling my mother (who called my sister). They got to the breast care center as soon as the biopsy was completed. My sister got in touch with my husband Doug. I should have called him first, but I did not want to break the news to him. Just weeks before this “chapter” my husband was given orders to deploy to Afghanistan.
At 1:50 pm I met with the oncologic surgeon at the breast care center. He examined me further by palpating under my arms, around the neck, and my other (left) breast. Everything checked out great. As for my right breast, he was deeply concerned. He told me, “This doesn’t look good. I’m just going to be straight with you.” I had prepared for that, as the Radiologist had mentioned some things prior, and as I had seen on the ultrasound screen. “Thursday, October 30, I want to see you back here so we can discuss surgery options (lumpectomy or mastectomy with reconstruction). We will also know for sure what we are to expect with the pathology report on your biopsy. It will tell us more.” He concluded.
“One in eight”, is what they say until Thursday, October 30, 2008, 1:00pm, at the age of 33, I became one of the statistics with, a Grade 3, ER/PR positive, HER 2 negative, Invasive Ductal Carcinoma diagnosis. A week later, my husband, family, and I met with the oncologic surgeon for a surgical consult. We concluded a bilateral mastectomy would be the best choice. That same week I had an appointment with a plastic surgeon, to discuss my reconstruction options. The end result was to have a Bilateral TRAM breast reconstruction. The following week I had my medical oncologist consult to discuss chemotherapy. Tests that I had previous, showed it would be in my best interest to undergo chemotherapy. All of my consults were completed. It was time to get on with the “roller coaster ride”.
On November 19, 2008, at 6:00am, I underwent a bilateral mastectomy with immediate breast reconstruction. It was a thirteen hour procedure and took me several weeks to recuperate.
January 15th, 2009, began the first day of my chemo treatments. A few weeks before my chemo therapy treatments began, my husband left for training for his deployment to Afghanistan. Thankfully, they allowed him to come home on the weekends during the first rounds of my chemo. Then he was transferred to another base before flying over the pond. Toward the conclusion of my treatments (due to severe complications), and literally an act of congress, my husband made it back home to take care of me. After overcoming the after-effects of chemo, it was then, God gave me a whisper, “Enjoy life & enjoy time with your husband, whatever it may be.” This chapter began one night in August, 2009, while Doug & I were watching “Deer Thugs” & “Hank Parker 3D”. After deep interest & the idea of “exploring something new”, I looked at Doug, who was in deep thought about the upcoming deer season, and said, “I want to kill something.” He looked at me with this glare. “WHAT!”, he said. I said, “Boo, I want to go on a hunt & kill a deer or a hog.” He said, “Fine, we’ll go get you a rifle tomorrow.” Just a few weeks later while we were at the land preparing the food plots for deer season, Doug mentioned, “Time to go put you on a hog?” No rifle this trip, just the 9mm in hand. We approached some hogs coming in their usual tract. “BAM!” She was down. One shot to the head ~ I DID IT!! She was small, but she was my FIRST HOG!! I never landed my “first” deer my “first” year of hunting, but I’m told, “Most usually don’t get their first kill, their first year.”
After hunting season, I began to focus more on my health and being more conscious of continuing my self breast exams. One year passed…”Clear”. Two years passed…”Clear”, until November 28th, 2010, at the age of 35, and in the middle of deer season.. After feeling a lump just a few weeks after my “two year anniversary” since my breast cancer diagnosis , I consulted with my oncologic surgeon. He felt the lump and ordered an ultrasound. There I was in the dimmed ultrasound room…again. Clearly remembering in my mind what the cancer looked like two years ago, there it was in black, gray, and white…again. I could not believe what I was seeing. The Radiologist looked at me with a saddened face, and said, “Carmen, we are going to set you up for a core biopsy.” Another “battle scar” was bandaged up and I went home. I knew what I was going to be facing, yet, again. At approximately 5:00pm, the phone rang. It was my oncologic surgeon. In a saddened voice, he said, “I’m sorry.” I yelled out, “Not again!”. He responded, “Carmen, you’re going to beat this. I don’t know why this is happening to you. I am going to order a PET-CT scan just to be sure it isn’t anywhere else. Call and see if they can get you in as soon as they can.” At that moment I could not think of anything to do, but to run outside in the driveway and yell, “No! Please God not again!” Who I was yelling at, I still do not know. At the age of thirty-five, I was undergoing another breast cancer diagnosis.
Saturday, following the biopsy my oncologic surgeon confirmed the pathology results from my biopsy. Just what was to be expected: same form of cancer as the one two years ago. My oncologic surgeon assured me, “Everything was going to be okay, but we need to make sure where this cancer is coming from and the PET-CT will show that”. A mass prayer chain continued and expanded on a whole new level.
The weekend had passed and it was time for my PET-CT scan. The report showed that prayers were answered! The cancer was contained! Everyone was celebrating. Was this a miracle? I like to believe it was.
The same week I had a breast MRI to get a baseline before my surgery. A week later I had a lumpectomy. Just another “battle scar” you can barely see. All margins came back clear. Two weeks later, I consulted with a radiation oncologist. He went over the process of the radiation treatments and what to expect. Quite a breeze, compared to chemo. My radiation treatments began in January. After three months (with a few breaks), the radiation was completed in April. Before we knew it, deer season was upon us and it was time to get out in the woods, again.
Saturday morning at 9:16am, November 12th, I was in the stand with the love of my life, hoping & praying he would be there with me at my first “deer” kill. Doug spent most of the morning calling in the deer. Nothing. He said, “They just aren’t moving for some reason. I am going to head back to camp. Just stay here until about 10:00 & meet back up with me.” Patiently waiting, hitting the doe call, I saw something out of the corner of my eye. I felt my heart pounding in my ears. It was a BUCK. Not a DOE, but a BUCK. I picked up the rifle & got sighted in on the target. Leaning up on the edge of the seat, the stock of the rifle tucked in the pocket of my shoulder, the trigger was pulled. “BAM!!” Clean shot to the lungs. DIRT NAP! HE WAS DOWN!! Little did I know my better half was only about 15 yards away “taking care of business”. He thought, “No way could she have shot something. She must have shot herself.” I called him on his phone, “BOO, I GOT HIM. HE TOOK A DIRT NAP.” I didn’t know whether to get excited about killing the deer or upset because he wasn’t there with me in the stand. When I saw Doug come around the corner, the look on his face was priceless. He was so proud of me.
The following year, in March 2012, I dropped my second hog. From here on, my body began to change from weight-loss, and it was playing a toll on the reconstruction surgery. By the time the summer ended, it was time to go on with another defining surgery to repair some areas from the reconstruction. My plastic surgeon was able to fit me in for the surgery right before deer season. Three weeks after my surgery with surgical drain tubes still intact I was sitting in a deer stand. That same day, around 2:00 pm, I dropped my second buck.
Before we knew it, turkey season was upon us. That season I got my first turkey at ten yards. I can’t take full credit, because my husband will be the first to tell you that he “called it in”.
Many have asked, “What made you want to hunt?” I simply respond, “Cancer.” My life has changed so much. Life is so bountiful with “explorations”; we just have to discover them.
My advocacy for breast cancer had been strong beginning with my grandmother and my mother. Then, it got stronger when I was diagnosed with breast cancer. I was active in different organizations supporting breast cancer funding, and then, it took a different direction. My desire to hunt, shoot and help organizations fund care for indigent patients who have breast cancer found its way to TA TA BANG! BANG!. My husband and I formed this clay shooting event with the idea of involving reputable businesses and companies of the hunting and outdoor industry and with the intent of the funds being granted to local non-profit hospitals for indigent patients. Now, it has formed into a sporting clays event, with multiple side target games, and a grandiose raffle, silent auction and live auction event. On Friday, April 26th, 2013, we held our first annual TA TA BANG! BANG! at Beaux Eden Plantation, Fort Valley, Georgia. Our first year we raised enough funds to grant 280 screening mammograms to “local” non-profit hospitals, along with PET-CT scans and breast MRI. We are honored to say we were the “first” to grant 70 screening mammograms to one of the local community hospitals who had never received screening mammogram funding for indigent patients.
My first battle with breast cancer, God taught me: “I am weak, but He is strong.” (II Cor 12:9) My second battle with breast cancer, God taught me: “His grace is ALWAYS sufficient.” (II Cor 12:9)
Cancer, to me, was nothing more than a “stormy blessing”. God knew I could handle it and used me to share the testimony. Today, I continue to give our Father God the Glory for these “blessings” in my life. I am blessed He chose me to share His “amazing grace” with you. Want to know more…go to a TA TA BANG! BANG! event location near you, and you will see what HE has done!
Aim. Shoot. Blessed.
Carmen W. Neil (Two-time breast cancer survivor at the age of 33 and 35)
Owner/Founder TA TA BANG! BANG!
President/Founder Shooting Sports for Cancer, Inc