As Federal Way resident Debra Sweat describes it, her brush with breast cancer more than five years ago is not “sensational.”
While it wasn’t a desirable diagnosis, leaving her both determined and uncertain at the same time, it also wasn’t that much of a surprise.
“I’ve been getting mammograms since I’ve been 33,” she said. “My mother had breast cancer, and my grandmother had breast cancer, so it was kind of like waiting for the axe to fall.”
When she learned she had a cancerous lump, doctors first conducted an MRI to determine if it had spread. It hadn’t. Doctors then tested her to see if she had the gene mutation for breast cancer. She didn’t.
Based on that information, Sweat chose her treatment route — a lumpectomy, where just the tumor is removed, plus seven weeks of radiation. She said if she had tested positive for the gene mutation she would have opted for a double mastectomy, where both breasts are removed, but fortunately she did not have to choose such a drastic treatment.
Now in remission for five years, Sweat said she is back to her regular breast health exam regimen — an annual mammogram, as opposed to receiving one every six months.
Overall, Sweat said her cancer diagnosis and treatment were fairly straightforward.
“I didn’t like the diagnosis, but I knew what I had to do,” she said.
Even the radiation treatment was fairly tolerable, Sweat said, although she admits she was exhausted by the last three weeks or so.
“Mostly, it was just a pain having to go every day,” she said, adding she sat in waiting rooms with other women who had lost their hair because of chemotherapy treatment, and she felt bad because she had all of hers.
Sweat said she was also fortunate in that she didn’t have to give up her active lifestyle. In addition to working at Valley Cities Medical Center, she also leads her two dogs in agility competitions. In fact, within a week of her lumpectomy, she and her dogs participated in a national agility competition.
And three years ago, she joined Gamma Delta, the Federal Way chapter of the Phi Beta Psi National Sorority, which as chapter Secretary Patty Law said, does not have any college affiliation at all — it is an organization with a national project of raising funds to benefit cancer research.
While other chapters donate a portion of their funds raised to the national project, Law said 95 percent of all Gamma Delta’s annual funds go to the national project, and each year Phi Beta Psi’s grant advisory board awards six grants to doctors specializing in cancer treatment with the understanding the funds must directly go toward their studies. Law said, of the doctors selected, two are researching breast cancer.
Because Phi Beta Psi’s dedication and grants to cancer research have become so well known and sought out, the national sorority was this year invited into Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center’s “President’s Circle,” and at the sorority’s national convention this year in July, delegates awarded $499,000 to nine cancer research doctors for their studies, including a $54,125 grant to Fred Hutchinson’s Dr. Kevin Chung for his breast cancer research.
Law said Gamma Delta’s mission since its establishment in 1977 has been to dedicate most of its fundraising money to support the sorority’s national mission of cancer research because most of the members feel strongly about the cause.
“They’ve either had cancer or lost members of their family to cancer,” Law said, adding her sister had breast cancer, while her first husband died of pancreatic cancer. Plus, shortly after her marriage to her second husband, he was diagnosed with stage three colon cancer.
Law said Phi Beta Psi National Sorority chapters are all non-profit, and 100 percent of the funds raised either go to the national project or to benefit projects in their communities. She said everyone, from chapter members to those serving on the various national boards, are all volunteers.
“We’re a good group of volunteers,” Law said.
She said the Gamma Delta chapter typically raises $10,000 and hosts five events annually, along with individual efforts to raise money. Fundraising activities have included bazaars, swap meets, dinners and silent auctions, bowling and golf tournaments, vintage fashion shows and luncheons. Members also volunteer for CenterStage Theatre and support local non-profits.
Sweat said by joining Gamma Delta she feels she is contributing in the fight against breast cancer.
“I feel like what I’m doing counts,” she said. “The fight against cancer is huge, period, and I’m not one to sit and do nothing. I need to keep busy all the time. Actually, the truth of the matter is, breast cancer got in the way of me.”
To learn more about Gamma Delta, call 253-719-8444, or visit www.phibetapsi.org. People are welcome to attend one of Gamma Delta’s monthly meetings.