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Journey of a Lifetime

Breast cancer survivor Cynthia Hall
Cynthia Hall, breast cancer survivor and patient at Hollings Cancer Center.

Cynthia Hall had prepped for the three-day, 12-mile grueling hike in India to the Gaumukh Glacier, perched 13,000 feet high in the Garhwal Himalayan region. She would be trekking past sacred shrines, breathtaking peaks and bleating blue mountain goats.

She had worked out, prepped her pack, stowed her special painted rock and read up on water quality and the geology of the region.

What she hadn’t read up about, though, was breast cancer, a diagnosis she got in May, about a month before the trip.

“I was working out and getting in shape for the trip until I found out that I had cancer,” she said. “I got really depressed and quit working out, and then I had surgery. I was really worried I wouldn’t make it to the glacier. Some of our students do not,” she said of the travel abroad trip she was co-teaching at the College of Charleston. 

She wrestled with whether she should go as well as how to handle the shock of the diagnosis. Hall, 45, also found she was angry.

“I think the most important thing was letting myself feel sorry for myself. Everyone kept reassuring me that everything would be all right, but it’s scary. I didn’t want to hear that everything was going to be OK. At the time I was thinking, ‘We shouldn’t be OK with breast cancer – not at 45 – it’s not all right. It’s not OK whatever is causing it.’”

“At the time I was thinking, ‘We shouldn’t be OK with breast cancer – not at 45 – it’s not all right. It’s not OK whatever is causing it.”
- Cynthia Hall 

Because Hall has a family history of breast cancer, she fortunately took getting her annual mammograms seriously. Another risk factor is that she has dense breast tissue, which means more of the breast is made up of dense glandular and fibrous tissues that can make it hard to see tumors on mammograms. Hall jokes that she’s such a classic case that a few years ago she was asked if her imaging results could be used to illustrate a medical article about dense breasts.

The problem with dense breasts is that it can be difficult for women with this type of tissue to remain vigilant as they often feel lumps in their breasts. In this case, Hall hadn’t felt anything so when she was called back in after her mammogram to get a biopsy at Hollings Cancer Center, it surprised her. When she found out it was cancer, she freaked out, she says.

“I thought I was going to die. My grandmother and aunt had had breast cancer and survived. I had no reason to think that, but you just can’t help it.”

Cynthia Hall on a dragon boat
Cynthia paddling boat - Cynthia Hall, a breast cancer survivor, rows with a Dragon Boat team following her treatments. Photo by Emma Vought

Forging Ahead

Having a great support network of friends and family, Hall let her mom and sister come with her on her visit to see surgeon Andrea Abbott at Hollings Cancer Center. The one condition was that no one was allowed to cry, whatever they found out. Anxious before the visit, all kinds of scenarios ran through her head.

“Dr. Abbott was so positive. She said this is what’s going to happen, and this is what we’re going to hope for. After meeting her, I felt so much better.”

“Your thought processes change when you know you have cancer.”
- Cynthia Hall

What they were hoping for came true. Because of her mammogram, the invasive ductal carcinoma was caught early, and Abbott recommended surgery, a lumpectomy, May 12. Hall began reconsidering her India trip. Maybe she could still go June 3 and be able to keep up.

As a geologist familiar with the powerful, tectonic changes shaping Earth, she felt a similar upheaval happening inside her. “You’re going about your life with no idea of all that’s going on beneath the surface,” she says. “Your thought processes change when you know you have cancer. You feel like you have an alien inside you, and then that’s at the forefront of your mind.”

Hall talked with her doctor about what other forces were at work in her life, other than genetics, to cause her to have cancer. She decided to improve her diet, increase her physical activity level and decrease her stress. She would join Survivors’ Fit Club, a wellness program for breast cancer survivors offered by MUSC Wellness Center and Hollings Cancer Center. She made it a goal to worry less. And she decided to risk going to India.

Cynthia Hall at the Wellness Center
Hall takes a break from her workout at the MUSC Wellness Center. Photo by Emma Vought

About this time, a friend sent her a job announcement relating to NASA. Though she loved her College of Charleston teaching job, she welcomed a new challenge, and the job would get her back closer to her roots. She had earned her masters degree at UCLA in the use of satellite imagery to assess data and worked at the Jet Propulsion Lab for about a decade before moving home to Charleston to be closer to family.

This new job with Science Systems and Applications Inc. as a contractor with the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center involved being a community coordinator for all the Earth science data that NASA collects. “I decided, now is the time. What does it hurt to try and see if they allow teleworking?” she said, adding that the interview time was conflicting with her India travel plans.

“I am laid back and passive, but now I’ve seen that change in me too. I called about the job and said, ‘I’m going to India, but I’d like to do this job interview, too.’”

While she was at it, she decided to move to a new house as well. “Why not?” she asks, laughing.

“I feel I’m in a totally different place. It’s not just because of the cancer, but it put a lot of things in motion, like the shifting of priorities. And I’m putting myself in a better place.”

Cynthia Hall and her son, Liam
Hall enjoying time with her son, Liam. Photo provided

Facing the Glacier

When Hall left on her trip, she knew she would face radiation treatment when she returned home. She also would be taking a new job.

What she still didn’t know was if a bunch of 20-year-old college “kids” would leave her in the dust.

“It was surreal being there. It was an experience that I wasn’t sure I would ever get to experience again. The mountains were just so massive, and they’re still forming and growing. When I started to see the glacier, that’s when I started to cry. The students were like ‘what is wrong with you?’ And I was like, ‘I made it! I made it!’

“I had had all these major life-changing events and challenges. And I made it at 45. I just had surgery. I’m a little overweight, and I just hiked and kept up with 10, 25-year-old students.”

Hiking trails in India
Hall trained to be able to handle the hikes on her trip to India.

Hall says she’s settling into all her new roles now, including being a cancer awareness advocate. Many of her friends have gotten mammograms because she’s shared her experience. She’s also encouraging others to support funding for cancer research and joining in more of those events. Her story is spreading far and wide.

She took a special painted rock with her that her young cousin had painted for her. “I thought, I’m going to take this with me and leave it there. It was like leaving a little piece of me there.”

“When I left that rock there, there was a heart on it, and I felt a connection that I left something important in me there.”
- Cynthia Hall

Two days later, someone found it and posted the picture on Facebook. “I went online and told my story to the Indian person who found it. It was just really cool.”

Even though the trip is over, she is forever changed, she says.

“You feel this amazing sense of accomplishment. When I left that rock there, there was a heart on it, and I felt a connection that I left something important in me there. I was leaving a marker of my accomplishment behind.”

Breast cancer facts

  • 1 in 8 women in the US will be diagnosed with breast cancer in her lifetime.
  • Breast cancer is the 2nd leading cause of cancer death among women.
  • Although breast cancer in men is rare, an estimated 2,470 men will be diagnosed with breast cancer in 2018.

Source: National Breast Cancer Foundation, INC.