Doctor's wild hunch led to teacher's early diagnosis

After teaching autistic children for 35 years, Gail Carter was clear about what age she wanted to teach in Phase II of her career: second graders, who like her beloved former students with autism, were “still in that very angelic state” of life.

“They have not come to where deceit is a big factor,” smiled Carter, 60, who began teaching the grade at St. Mary’s Academy in 2009.

“They still genuinely love you,” she said. “If they love you, they’re complimentary, they attach themselves, they share love, and they will tell you, ‘Ms. Carter, I love you.’ They still want hugs; they want to hold.”

Children are best medicine

Because of this precious bond, Carter moved heaven and earth to be with her 7-year-olds every school day following her diagnosis of breast cancer in September 2011. She asked her oncologists to schedule her chemotherapy treatments for the latest possible time slot, and requested that they take place on Fridays – in case she needed the weekend to recover.

But in her boldest attempt to stay on the job, Carter asked if her originally prescribed four doses of chemo could be divided into 12 less potent weekly doses – so the cocktail of medication would less likely put her out of commission. Her doctors agreed.

“You hear so many hideous stories about the effects of chemo on the body,” Carter said. “I did not want to be down, so I asked my doctors, ‘What is there in the 21st century that can keep me up on my feet?” she said, noting that the plan worked.

“I sat down all day the first time waiting to be sick, and all the next day waiting to be sick. And I didn’t feel anything,” said the teacher, who amazed her colleagues by continuously showing up on Mondays with her trademark energy and smile.

Doctor ‘just knew’

Acknowledging that not all cancer patients are able to tailor their treatment to the extent that she did, Carter said her particular case has been filled with miracles, beginning with the manner in which she was diagnosed. As Carter was awaiting her annual checkup with her family doctor, the physician spotted her at a distance and later told Carter that her first thought was, “I wonder what type of cancer she has.” The remark was based on nothing more than a gut feeling.

“(My doctor) made that comment to me just by looking at me; it’s just what she felt when she saw me,” said Carter, whose previous mammogram had come back negative.

“Her comment made me start thinking another way, so we decided to do an ultrasound of some fibroid tumors that I had on my ovaries, and we also decided to do an ultrasound on the breasts,” Carter said, noting that the scan revealed “a little tiny beginning of a spot of cancer” on the top of her right breast.

“It was only nine millimeters, but it was the most deadly type, the fastest growing, the most rapid one to spread and the most likely to return – it would not have been detected through a mammogram,” Carter explained.

“I felt I was in the right place, at the right time and I was gonna be OK because it was almost like there was someone there watching out for me,” she said. “If it had not been caught then – if I had waited a year to take my next mammogram – it would have been in a much more advanced stage.”

Ask the hard questions

Fortunately, doctors were able to remove the tumor, still encased in its shell, via a lumpectomy, and followed up with chemo and radiation. Because Carter was identified as having a protein biomarker called “HER2” – which causes cancerous cells to multiply more rapidly than those who do not have it – she will continue to take a maintenance dose of chemo every three weeks through early 2013.

Carter said she still is shocked by her diagnosis, having no family history of breast cancer in an immediate family that includes four sisters.

“I went against all the odds of what they expected of a person like me,” she said. “They did not expect me to do so well. There has been no indication that I have ever had chemo. My energy level has not been affected. I have never been sick,” she said, advising women to explore their treatment options by asking as many questions as possible.

School steps up

In addition to reaping the advantages of an early diagnosis, Carter said she continues to be bolstered by the St. Mary’s Academy family, which includes Cheryl Scott, a 30-year breast cancer survivor who volunteers on campus in Catholic Charities’ Foster Grandparents Program. An oncologist – the mother of a St. Mary’s faculty member – provided Carter with the comfort of a second opinion, at no charge, to ensure she was getting the best possible care. The oncologist told Carter she is seeing women as young as 23 with advanced breast cancer, which calls into question the protocol of beginning mammograms at age 40.

“I decided that I was going to be OK, from day one. I wasn’t gonna have a pity party,” said Carter, who since her diagnosis has watched her daughter get married and become pregnant with twins.

“You know what the bottom line is? You can survive this!”

Beth Donze can be reached at This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. .