Meet the Models: Dorothy Burnham

It was May of 2018, and Dorothy was nursing her infant while her two-year-old was playing with toy trucks at her feet. Dorothy noticed a lumpy area in her left breast. Totally surrounded by all things baby, and having experienced lots of complications nursing her first child, Dorothy assumed the lumpy area had to do with blocked milk ducts, mastitis, or some other breastfeeding condition. 

A few days later, not feeling well, Dorothy called into her OB with the suspicion the area was infected and antibiotics would be required to treat it.  She got in to the OB’s office the next day, and saw a midwife who was optimistic the area would clear with antibiotics but suggested an ultrasound “out of an abundance of caution.” The local hospital took the referral and scheduled the ultrasound 2.5 weeks out. Dorothy remembers driving home thinking with a laugh “well, this is either serious or it isn’t and I’m not waiting 2.5 weeks to find out!“ Dorothy called the hospital’s ultrasound department when she got home and got an appointment for the next morning. 

The next day, Dorothy’s mom came over to watch the kids, Dorothy’s husband, James, headed to work for a busy day of meetings, and Dorothy cheerfully let her boss know she would miss a conference call or two before heading up to the hospital for what seemed like a precautionary screening appointment.  Dorothy kissed her two boys’ practically bald little baby noggins and walked out the door, breast pump in hand “in case they need my breasts to be empty for the ultrasound,” she thought.  During that visit, Dorothy would see an ultrasound technician, the chief radiologist from the hospital, speak to a scheduling representative from the breast surgery department, and finish up a few hours later, crying and pumping her full breasts in the office of a nurse in the labor and delivery department.  Much of this occurred before Dorothy even called her husband, James at work, or let her parents that they would need to put the kids down for afternoon naps before she could make it home. 

Dorothy looks back on that day and thinks that it must have been a surprising one for the radiology technician and doctor who was called in on the case.  No one, least of all Dorothy, expected to see a young mother suspicious about nursing complications present with stage II breast cancer.  But that Wednesday afternoon as the radiologist repeated Dorothy’s ultrasound, she asked what he was seeing.  “I see a solid mass” he said. “I was expecting to see a collection of fluid here,” he pointed to a dark area on the image.  “You don’t like what you see, do you?” Dorothy asked.  “No, I don’t,” the doctor answered. 

All business, the consultant in Dorothy moved things right along.  “So, what is the next step, when you see something you don’t like?” she inquired.  The doctor explained that women are usually referred for ultrasounds after an abnormal finding on a mammogram, either by a breast specialist or another physician. “But you haven’t had a mammogram, have you?” he asked. Dorothy all but laughed.  “I’m in my 30s.  I just came here from my OB’s office!” So, no, Dorothy hadn’t had a mammogram before.  Regardless, the doctor shared that a biopsy would be the next step in determining what the mass was made of.  Dorothy asked who could do a biopsy and when it could be scheduled.  The radiologist stated it could be done by his office, and Dorothy asked if it could be done at that moment.  The doctor agreed.  While he and the technician prepared for the needle biopsy, Dorothy called her mom to explain she’d be later than expected and shared that the doctor didn’t like what he saw on the ultrasound.  “Oh shit,” her mom replied.  “I’ll have Daddy come up to the house.” “Daddy?” Dorothy thought. “Oh shit”? Neither of those comments sounded like things her mom would say. 

She called her husband, interrupting what she knew were important meetings, and told him the doctor wanted to do a biopsy. “I’ll be right there” Dorothy’s husband James responded. Thinking about the reactions from her mom and husband, Dorothy threw up in the bathroom. She headed back into the room where the ultrasound had taken place and the doctor injected a numbing agent into her left breast and biopsied two areas. Once the procedure concluded, Dorothy asked what would happen next.  The doctor explained that typically a woman in her position would already be under the care of a breast specialist or surgeon. The technician shared that they had tried to find a representative from the hospital’s breast oncology department to come down, but the nurse wasn’t in that day and the department had provided a pamphlet about breast surgery options and a phone number for the department.  They indicated the breast oncology department would be responsible for sharing the results of the biopsy – maybe by Friday but definitely by early the following week. 

Unable to focus on much outside of the ‘knowns’ of her daily life, Dorothy asked if it would be safe for her to nurse her baby, given the numbing agent that had been injected into her breast. The team indicated they weren’t expert in breastfeeding matters, and Dorothy asked if she could head up to labor and delivery to meet with one of the nurses who specialized in lactation consulting. The team made the call. Moments later, Dorothy found herself alone, climbing the same stairs she had climbed twice before, before welcoming to each or her sons. Outside of the births of her boys, she’d never been to the hospital before. She knocked on the door of the nurse who had helped her navigate the challenges of feeding her first son. A sight for sore eyes, the nurse welcomed Dorothy warmly. “The radiology department called” the nurse nodded. “I think I have cancer” Dorothy remembers saying, tears beginning to flow. “How will I take care of my boys?” Dorothy wondered out loud. And so began the journey with breast cancer, and the worry all parents battling cancer must face… 

“The last thing I did before heading to chemo was nurse Luke one final time. I felt a sense of loss over that, over missing Luke’s babyhood, and over missing out on having another child. Those were the hallmark aspects of having cancer for me.” 

Yet even with those real understandings of loss, she also reflects that she “dodged a bullet for the moment.” Moreover, Dorothy knows that the experience of having cancer with two small children at home has given her the insight to stop from “unraveling over the unimportant” things that come up. 

If she was being honest, Dorothy wants women to know that there are “physical changes and an emotional burden” that come with breast cancer.“ She says, ”they’re not necessarily painful, but they weigh on you.“ When she sent us her home video, she commented, ”it’s hard for me not to see the cosmetic changes in my body from surgery, the weight gain from chemical menopause (thanks for keeping me alive, meds, but f*you, treatment, for the extra pounds), the swelling preventing me from wearing my rings, the bizarre, unwieldy curly hair when all that I crave is neatness and order…. all daily reminders that I’m not as in control of my life as I thought I was. But also reminding me they’re not the most important things.“ 

Ultimately, Dorothy’s story is one of strength and honesty and one that resonates with our greater Runway community, and we have asked that she tell us more about it in October. Please tune in for our Live Virtual Event on October 28th to hear more from Dorothy and her husband James.