Breast cancer survivor: Dawn Hensley

By R. Hans Miller, News Editor
Posted 10/7/21

To look at her now, many might not guess that Dawn Hensley is a breast cancer survivor. Sitting in a chair at Serene Beans in downtown Katy with her silver and brown hair flowing halfway down her …

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Breast cancer survivor: Dawn Hensley

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To look at her now, many might not guess that Dawn Hensley is a breast cancer survivor. Sitting in a chair at Serene Beans in downtown Katy with her silver and brown hair flowing halfway down her back, her makeup in pristine condition and a broad smile on her face, she appears perfectly healthy. And she is – now.

That’s the first message Dawn said she wants out about her breast cancer journey.

“Most importantly,” Dawn said, “I want people to know that they can survive a cancer diagnosis. They are stronger than they think and (they should) always be positive.”

Dawn said she started on the road to a diagnosis of breast cancer in April of 2015 when she’d gone for her annual exam. That exam lead to a hysterectomy in May and during one of the follow-up appointments on that procedure, her gynecologist asked her if she’d had her annual breast exam. She hadn’t, so the doctor encouraged her to schedule it. She followed up and scheduled her breast exam for July 7, she said.

“And I knew immediately that something was not right,” Dawn said.

The doctor ordered an immediate ultrasound and mammogram which wasn’t unusual for her, she said, but usually, it was just one or the other. After the ultrasound, medical staff scheduled her for a biopsy because an abnormality had been found in the ultrasound that was outside of Dawn’s usual results. The concern was enough that the biopsy was scheduled for 9 a.m. the next morning on two tumors that had been identified.

“I had the results by that Friday,” Dawn said. “Which was the tenth of July and I’ll never forget it because it was two days before my birthday, so my birthday present that year was that I was diagnosed with breast cancer.”

Doctors told Dawn that she had stage two cancer but was almost at stage three.

According to the M.D. Anderson Cancer Center, that means that Dawn had cancerous tumors but the cancer had not begun to spread aggressively – known as metastasizing – as yet when it was identified.

Medical staff at Memorial Hermann in Katy took excellent care of Dawn, she said. From the start, her physician ordered all of the necessary bloodwork, determined that the cancer was not yet as aggressive as it could be and developed a treatment plan.

As part of that plan, Dawn opted to have a full mastectomy to ensure that her cancer was completely removed. She said being 47 at the time and having had a hysterectomy, it seemed like the wisest choice to ensure her health in the future.

“I was just, ‘Let’s just get them off – get rid of them. I don’t want to take a chance,’” Dawn said.

She had her surgery Aug. 13 of 2015 and stayed in the hospital for one night for observation. Some of the tests came back from the tissue that had been removed and two of her five lymph nodes that were tested came back with cancerous cells, she said. That changed her treatment plan and she ended up having to have chemotherapy instead of just radiation therapy which had been the original treatment plan.

Complications also arose with the breast reconstruction that had been planned, Dawn said. Tissue expanders had caused problems with her chest as it was healing and new tissue expanders were needed. On Sept. 10 of that year, she went in to have the tissue expanders replaced and to have the port put in for the chemotherapy.

“I started chemo and I did two different cocktails of chemo,” Dawn said. “The first one was every two weeks for eight weeks – so two months. It was the strongest. It was the aggressive one. It was the one that really triggered (the side effects). They call it the ‘red devil.’”

According to Dr. Constance Porter, a breast cancer survivor and doctor with the M.D. Anderson Cancer Center, the proverbial “red devil” is doxorubicin which has a wide variety of side effects including hair loss, rashes, mouth sores and others.

Boredom was another side effect, Dawn said. She was often bored at home though her husband, Dwain Hensley, was there to support her during the first few weeks of her treatment. Over time though, she spoke with her oncologist and was able to go back to work as campus secretary for Katy Junior High.

Dawn said her coworkers and the students at KJH were amazingly supportive of her during her cancer battle and she continues to love her job.

In late 2015 though, more complications arose with the tissue expanders that were to help in her reconstructive surgery. At that point, she and the medical team decided to remove the expanders outright and to make sure she healed up so she could continue to her second round of chemotherapy. Doctors wanted to be certain that an infection that had set in during November of 2015 was completely healed, so her second round of chemotherapy didn’t start until early 2016.

Side effects for the second round of chemo were difficult, Dawn said. The worst part was neuropathy wherein her fingers and toes had pain, numbness and weakness due to the medication.

Dawn said she went to Texas Oncology in Katy for her chemotherapy and radiation treatments and was grateful for the support of the staff there.

Dawn said she is also incredibly lucky to have Dwain’s support. Her husband died his beard pink in honor of her fight against breast cancer and stood by her side through the whole thing, she said. Along with that, her son Christopher Hensley lent his support as much as possible. She also had a close friend, MaryAnn Cable, who went with her to every appointment. Dawn said she could not have endured the treatment process without Cable’s aid throughout her treatment journey.

Dawn said she’s healthy now, though she monitors her health closely and still has some neuropathy that may be permanent from the chemotherapy. To celebrate her health, she enjoys as much time with family and friends as she can and wears pink as a signature color to raise awareness for breast cancer.

She also attends Relay for Life Katy, an annual event to raise money for cancer research. The event is scheduled for Oct. 23 this year and will be held at Katy City Park. (see katytimes.com for more information).

For those facing a breast cancer diagnosis, Dawn has a few tips. First, she recommends allowing those that care about the patient to offer their support. Second, she recommends not going to appointments alone. Having a notetaker who isn’t as stressed and can make sure everything is understood is vital to staying organized and having a voice of reason when things seem the most difficult. Third, she said, manage your mindset and stay positive whenever things seem the worst because the positive attitude can see you through.

“Just know that you’re tougher than you think,” Dawn said. “And if you’ve got a positive attitude – which I thought I would never ever get tired of hearing someone say, ‘Be positive. Be positive,’ but it’s true. If you have a positive outlook it helps you get through the bad days.”

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