Breast cancer invaded woman's rural paradise
Published: Sunday, March 24, 2013 at 5:17 p.m.
Last Modified: Sunday, March 24, 2013 at 5:17 p.m.
OLD TOWN -- Off a gravel road just past Old Town, the silence on a Saturday afternoon is nearly deafening, apart from a couple of planes arching overhead and the wind advancing through the trees.
A billowing American flag marks the home of Krista Campbell, best known in these parts for her down-home, sexy voice.
The 59-year-old has made her living as a singer and deejay here for more than a decade. Eleven years ago, she moved from her native Palm Beach to a 12-acre wooded property just a half-mile away from the Suwannee River with her husband, Ron, a retired boat captain 13 years her senior.
"When I moved up here, I wanted to get away from it all," Campbell said. "It's my paradise. I pray. I meditate. I can have a bonfire or walk around naked if I want to."
Campbell points out the gopher tortoise hole and the abundance of trail moss, the kind that is coveted by floral shops.
Signs designating trails that Campbell cleared herself are named for family members. "East-West" is named after her sister Amy. "She has a rack," Campbell explained, pointing to her own chest. "I always had a boob fetish."
But Krista lost that fetish once she got "boob cancer," as she calls her breast cancer.
"Now they (her breasts) are no longer a sexual thing. It's medical," she said.
Campbell's cancer diagnosis in March 2012 came slowly: She noticed a pain in her left breast shortly after going through menopause. "Being a guitar player for 45 years, I just thought it was muscle build-up," she said, adding that "my mammogram was normal."
But the pain persisted, so she decided to get further testing.
"It's not like out here in the woods you have gynecologists," she said. "If you want a doctor, you have to go to Gainesville."
At her doctor's office 15 miles away in Trenton, Campbell saw an ad for a program called "Believe in Miracles," which provides low-cost testing for breast and cervical cancer.
The Department of Health-sponsored program has since been renamed "The Breast and Cervical Cancer Early Detection Program." The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention-sponsored program provides cancer screening and treatment to at-need women using Medicaid money.
"It saved me," Campbell said.
Campbell was referred to North Florida Regional Medical Center in Gainesville, and one test after another revealed invasive tubule lobular carcinoma — a cancer hidden in the fold below her right breast that hadn't shown up on her mammogram and, unlike many breast cancers, did not present with a lump.
Campbell recalled her mother, who'd had both breasts removed because of pre-cancerous tissue in 1979.
"Since I was 22, I remember that my mom put her boobs in a drawer," Campbell said. "That was in the barbaric days."
Campbell's mother was treated at the end of a long era of treating breast cancer with radical mastectomies, involving the removal of both breasts. Since that time, treatment has evolved to spare unaffected breast tissue while still killing cancer cells.
Still, it would take surgery to determine how far Campbell's cancer had spread, and how much tissue doctors would need to remove. To be safe, Campbell told her surgeon, "Just take the damn things off."
But when Campbell woke up from surgery, she felt across her chest, expecting to feel "what it's like to feel like a guy," she said.
Instead, she felt the familiarity of her own nipple.
Since Campbell's cancer had not spread to her lymph nodes, her surgeon decided that it was safe to preserve most of Campbell's breast.
"We've come a long way," Campbell said.
"But we still have a long way to go," she added, tearing up as she recalled her cousin, who was diagnosed with breast cancer around the same time she was and died a few months later.
After Campbell's surgery, she was told she would have to undergo six weeks of daily radiation therapy to make sure all cancer cells had been killed and to keep the cancer from reoccurring.
She thought about the hour-long drive between the home she loved and the hospital — and whether she should try to stay in Gainesville during her treatments. Transportation to and from treatments is one of the biggest obstacles rural cancer patients face.
"It was a real tough call between (staying) here and the Hope Lodge," Campbell said.
Hope Lodge, a facility near Shands at the University of Florida that is sponsored by the American Cancer Society and Winn-Dixie, provides free housing to cancer patients coming from afar and their caregivers. It has 45 suites, each with a kitchen, living room, and bedrooms and bathrooms for patient and caregiver.
"(Hope Lodge) is like a Ronald McDonald House for cancer," Campbell said.
Hope Lodge is just one support service for people from rural areas traveling long distances to receive treatments.
Campbell compromised and spent three days a week at Hope Lodge, and the rest at home. The best of both worlds, she said, adding that Hope Lodge was a supportive place in which to recover.
"We counseled each other. We kicked each other's butts. We laughed with each other. We cried with each other," she said.
Back home in Old Town, Campbell never tried to hide the fact that she had cancer. "I wanted to shout it from the mountaintop," she said. "I wanted the right people praying for me."
Behind Campbell's bonfire, live oaks frame an alcove for a cement bench that's a memorial to a friend who died of ovarian cancer and a stepdaughter who died in a drunken-driving accident.
She pointed out her "pet cemetery"— a dirt path flanked with stones, each one painted with the name of one of Campbell's pets: Harmony, Captain, Scooter, Misty and Maynard, Jamocha and Joshua.
Her 5-year-old rescue dog, Diesel, lay at her feet, chomping at gnats.
"I think he knew when I was sick," she said, adding that the dog would follow Campbell to the bonfire in the middle of the night when the side effects of her treatments made her too sick to sleep.
"He wouldn't jump on me," she said.
When asked what she thinks might have caused her cancer, Campbell is quick to say: "I didn't smoke, but I've been working in smoky bars for over 40 years."
Campbell's parents were musicians — her father performed with Nat King Cole and Judy Garland. So Campbell had an early start in the bar circuit.
But as a free-spirited artist, cancer was far from her mind.
Sometimes, looking up at the sky, Campbell wonders if the exhaust from airplanes makes us sick, or the bug spray to ward off the heavy swarms of mosquitoes here.
The environmental links to cancer are still somewhat tenuous, but "The President's Cancer Panel," produced in 2010 by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and the National Cancer Institute, did conclude that "the true burden of environmentally induced cancer has been grossly underestimated."
The panel also said that "efforts to inform the public of such harmful exposures and how to prevent them must be increased."
Still, there is a lot of uncertainty about what causes cancer in the scientific community. As for Florida, "Whether climate or sunshine or anything else is causing us to have more cancer, I don't think anyone knows, but it's an open question," said Dr. Robert Cook, an epidemiologist and professor at the UF College of Medicine.
And for Campbell, "It's still a pig in a poke."
She added that she has been more attentive to her health since her diagnosis.
"I have a freezer that has more veggies than meat," she said, adding that she's cut out white bread and potatoes and drinks less beer. But she doesn't withhold an occasional whiskey or piece of fudge. Her new treat is Honey Nut Cheerios and soymilk.
Her habits, she said, reflect "little snippets of things, common sense" she's picked up along the way of her cancer journey.
"I'm all for people taking those measures if it makes them feel empowered," said Dr. Allison Grow, Campbell's radiation oncologist at North Florida Regional Medical Center.
Grow added that people shouldn't drastically change their eating habits, though, as a punishment for something they think they might have done wrong.
Campbell said her doctors impressed upon her the idea that "your cancer is not your fault."
But Campbell does consider the fact that she survived cancer to be a new lease on life, and she is proactive about screenings. One Saturday she drove to nearby Chiefland to sign up for her first colonoscopy.
"For women, the Pap smear, mammography and colonoscopy when you're 50," she said. "You've gotta do it."
Campbell is now cancer-free and considered a survivor. She wears a lot of pink, the color that's become emblematic of breast cancer survival, and she was recently a guest spokeswoman at Relay for Life, an American Cancer Society fundraising event, in Gilchrist County.
She considers herself lucky even though she still has her moments. Spared chemotherapy, Campbell never lost clumps of hair. But a maintenance hormone therapy is gradually thinning out her mane into long, silvery strands.
"I used to only be able to wrap it around twice," she said, holding her hair band. "Now it can go around five times."
Wiping away tears, she said, "At least now it's only a three-second cry.
"And then it passes."
Contact Kristine Crane at 338-3119 or email@example.com.