Within the small town of Lewisburg lived a big heart that everyone seemed to feel. I say feel because if you knew Barbara Porter it went way beyond just knowing her, you were her friend. When all people can say about you is, “she was a wonderful person” or “she would do anything for anyone,” you know yourself that a special person walked amongst us, even if only for 54 years, the good Lord allowing for that brief moment the rest of us could stand in her shadow.
Taken way too young, Barbara, who was better known to her friends as “Tootsie,” passed away Jan. 6 of this year after battling breast cancer for a little over a year. Yes, only a year. That’s what I thought too after hearing about Barbara’s passing. Just shy of 13 months after finding out what most women fear. But this doesn’t mean she gave up, in fact that is quite the opposite, Tootsie is an inspiration to all women. She fought hard, never giving in to cancer’s relentless attack on body and life. She died a hero, a strong, classy lady to the bitter end, laying in a hospital bed surrounded by her closest of close, and never feeling sorry for herself.
I wasn’t lucky enough to have met Tootsie, but it didn’t take long to get a sense of the kind of women she was after spending time with her family and friends one evening, an hour interview turning into almost four. I came away that night as I drove back to Auburn with mixed emotions, I was sad, so sad, for all those she left behind. A presence such as that is not easily healed. But I was happy as well, happy that she was no longer having to struggle with an illness that was out to destroy her. But in my world Tootsie is the victor, for she most certainly is living in heaven waiting for the rest of us to catch up.
It’s difficult to mention all the people Tootsie’s life touched while she was here, a loving husband (Phillip), a wonderful son (Tyler), a dedicated sister (Jennie) and a slew of “girls” she was attached at the hip.
One of her best friends, Denise Laster, better known as “Flossie” to Tootsie, has lost her “wing man,” her “go-to-girl.” Any woman that has a best friend knows that kind of relationship is special and how much it means. It’s not something that can ever be replaced. A missing will forever haunt, forever stay close to the heart of a true friend.
“Her strength was amazing,” said Denise, who also lost her own mother just weeks before her best friend. “I remember when mom died, Tootsie couldn’t make the funeral because she was so sick. All she was worried about was me and not being able to be there. Even in her toughest of times, she was thinking about someone other than herself. Her strength gave me strength.”
Denise met Barbara 26 years ago when they both worked at Logan Aluminum. “I knew the minute that I met her I wanted to get to know her better,” said Denise. “Her personality was so infectious and she had a good spirit.”
Darinda White, another of Tootsie’s friends said of her, “She made everyone feel special and important.”
Tootsie’s sister, who lives in Clarksville, Tenn., never left her side after she became sick. She stayed with her at home and in the hospital. She and Barbara had always been close growing up starting out life together, and she was where she needed to be at the end of her sister’s life. She said of her sister that even as a child she was always a giving person.
And what can be said about a father and son left without a wife and mother, especially someone like Tootsie? Sad and alone I’m sure are some of the many words to describe what they are both going through. Phillip says his wife was brave through it all. He added that’s just the kind of woman she was, never complaining. It is his hopes that despite the sadness his wife’s passing brings, it can somehow shine a ray of light in the darkness on the type of breast cancer she had in hopes of something good coming from something so heartbreaking.
“Inflammatory breast cancer is what they called it,” said Phillip. “She came home one day with a bruise and the next day she had it. Annual mammograms didn’t see it coming, and neither did we.”
Inflammatory breast cancer (IBC) is a unique type of breast cancer that often starts within the soft tissues of the breast and causes the lymph vessels in the skin of the breast to become blocked. As a result, the breast can become firm, tender, itchy, red, and warm due to increased blood flow and a build-up of white blood cells.
“If you notice something different about your breast, you need to go find out immediately what is going on,” said Phillip, who took his wife to the doctor right away. “With this type of cancer, you don’t have time to waste.”
Phillip said he knew his wife would want to bring about awareness to this cancer and that even in her death, if she could help save one person by her example, that is what she would want.
Before Barbara passed away, family and friends by the dozens came together just a few days before hoping to move her into the new home she and Phillip built on the family farm. While Barbara was laying in a hospital bed over 75 people gathered, and in one day, moved the family from their house in Lewisburg to the new home in Quality. It was amazing, Phillip said of all those who came to help. “I can’t thank enough all the people who were here,” said Phillip. “It meant so much.”
Denise said it was like a snowball, one showed up and then it rolled from there.
“We really did think we would be able to bring her home, if not for just a little while,” said Denise. Unfortunately, God had other plans and sometimes they aren’t what we would wish for.
Barbara had planned out everything in the new house, from the kitchen counter tops and the side room pantry, down to the mud room complete with a shower, and the paint colors in every room. The new house has Barbara written all over it. Her sister and friends are still hanging photos, making beds, and putting things in their place, the place they feel Tootsie would have liked them to be.
“I just felt this is something she would want me to do,” said her sister. “We discussed where she wanted everything and well, I want to do that for her.”
What is Inflammatory Breast Cancer?
Inflammatory breast cancer (IBC) is a rare and very aggressive disease in which cancer cells block lymph vessels in the skin of the breast. This type of breast cancer is called “inflammatory” because the breast often looks swollen and red, or “inflamed.”
Inflammatory breast cancer accounts for 1 to 5 percent of all breast cancers diagnosed in the United States. Most inflammatory breast cancers are invasive ductal carcinomas, which means they developed from cells that line the milk ducts of the breast and then spread beyond the ducts.
Inflammatory breast cancer progresses rapidly, often in a matter of weeks or months. Inflammatory breast cancer is either stage III or IV at diagnosis, depending on whether cancer cells have spread only to nearby lymph nodes or to other tissues as well.
Additional features of inflammatory breast cancer include the following:
Compared with other types of breast cancer, inflammatory breast cancer tends to be diagnosed at younger ages (median age of 57 years, compared with a median age of 62 years for other types of breast cancer).
It is more common and diagnosed at younger ages in African American women than in white women. The median age at diagnosis in African American women is 54 years, compared with a median age of 58 years in white women.
Inflammatory breast tumors are frequently hormone receptor negative, which means that hormone therapies, such as tamoxifen, that interfere with the growth of cancer cells fueled by estrogen may not be effective against these tumors.
Inflammatory breast cancer is more common in obese women than in women of normal weight.
Like other types of breast cancer, inflammatory breast cancer can occur in men, but usually at an older age (median age at diagnosis of 66.5 years) than in women.
What are the symptoms of inflammatory breast cancer?
Symptoms of inflammatory breast cancer include swelling (edema) and redness (erythema) that affect a third or more of the breast. The skin of the breast may also appear pink, reddish purple, or bruised. In addition, the skin may have ridges or appear pitted, like the skin of an orange (called peau d’orange). These symptoms are caused by the buildup of fluid (lymph) in the skin of the breast. This fluid buildup occurs because cancer cells have blocked lymph vessels in the skin, preventing the normal flow of lymph through the tissue. Sometimes, the breast may contain a solid tumor that can be felt during a physical exam, but, more often, a tumor cannot be felt.
Other symptoms of inflammatory breast cancer include a rapid increase in breast size; sensations of heaviness, burning, or tenderness in the breast; or a nipple that is inverted (facing inward). Swollen lymph nodes may also be present under the arm, near the collarbone, or in both places.
It is important to note that these symptoms may also be signs of other diseases or conditions, such as an infection, injury, or another type of breast cancer that is locally advanced. For this reason, women with inflammatory breast cancer often have a delayed diagnosis of their disease.
How is inflammatory breast cancer diagnosed?
Inflammatory breast cancer can be difficult to diagnose. Often, there is no lump that can be felt during a physical exam or seen in a screening mammogram. In addition, most women diagnosed with inflammatory breast cancer have non-fatty (dense) breast tissue, which makes cancer detection in a screening mammogram more difficult. Also, because inflammatory breast cancer is so aggressive, it can arise between scheduled screening mammograms and progress quickly. The symptoms of inflammatory breast cancer may be mistaken for those of mastitis, which is an infection of the breast, or another form of locally advanced breast cancer.