‘Scary’: Breast cancer survivor and doctor says early detection was key

CHARLOTTE — Wednesday is PINK DAY at Channel 9, and we’re partnering with Atrium Health to share important stories for breast cancer awareness.

A cancer diagnosis is shocking and scary for anyone, just as it was for Dr. Jennifer Callaway. The emergency medicine and wound care doctor at Atrium is used to being on the other side of a medical diagnosis. But she found herself in her patients’ shoes during the pandemic and now, she’s on a mission to share her story.

“My girls are currently 7 and 9 so they were 5 and 7 when I was diagnosed, I was 41,” Callaway told Channel 9′s Elsa Gillis. “You don’t think that you’re not going to be around to see them graduate from high school, get married or have those big milestones in life.”

But because of early detection and regular check-ups, those milestones are on the horizon for Callaway.

“February 2020, I went in for my regular routine screening pap smear,” she remembered.

That would start a year of unexpected diagnoses -- first, cervical cancer. She underwent a radical hysterectomy and thankfully, the cancer hadn’t spread, so she was on the road to recovery.

“It was really a just a big turning point in the whole process, thinking ‘now I can really focus on recovering from all of this,’” Callaway said.

A week later, COVID-19 hit Charlotte, but she made sure to keep her regular mammogram appointment that summer.

“I thought ‘wow, if my pap smear caught cervical cancer I really better be sure to get all of my screening tests and not delay,’” Callaway told Gillis.

It’s a good thing she didn’t put it off. Doctors detected an early form of breast cancer.

“There was a little bit of disbelief,” she said. “It was almost surreal to think ‘gosh we just went through this, how is this happening again?’”

But a mastectomy and two years later, Dr. Callaway is cancer-free.

“I know how scary it is to receive that diagnosis,” she said. “But the earlier you find something, the better your outcomes are going to be.”

Now, she’s passionate about spreading that message to everyone, especially those in the Hispanic community.

“I know from my family’s standpoint -- my family is Cuban -- in the Hispanic culture, there’s a little bit of a stigma about getting screenings such as breast cancer,” she said. “Almost a feeling like it’s better not to even know than to have to face a diagnosis like cancer.

“In the minority population, and particularly in the Latina population, breast cancer is generally detected at a more aggressive or later stage and Latinas are about 30% more likely to die from breast cancer than non-Latina counterparts. So it is crucial and vital to get scheduled screening tests,” she said.

(WATCH BELOW: ‘Full of blessings’: Local teacher and breast cancer survivor shares her story of hope)