By Adrienne McGee Sterrett
Veronica “Ronnie” Ballard and her boyfriend, Trevor Dodds, were thrilled to find out they were expecting again.
Their second daughter, Molly, would prove special on a few different levels.
“We call her our blessing in disguise,” Ballard said.
The Bluffton couple met in 2011. Ballard was from Temperance, Michigan, and Dodds was from Bluffton. Because he farms, she knew she would have to relocate here to include him in her life. So she did. Their daughter, Ellie, was born in 2013, and in mid 2015, they learned another child was on the way.
Ballard, 39, and a physical therapist assistant in the rehab department at Lima Memorial Health System, settled into northwestern Ohio life and applied to a physical therapist education program in Findlay. She was planning ahead, dreaming of the future, giving a hard-to-break-into program a shot.
Then life hit the brakes.
When Ballard visited her OB/GYN for the 12-week prenatal checkup, the doctor found a lump in her right breast.
Her head spun. How could that be? She doesn’t have a family history of breast cancer. She didn’t do self breast exams, explaining she believed she’d feel something out of the ordinary regardless. She knew she was approaching 40, and with that age would come mammograms, but she hadn’t had one yet.
More tests followed at Lima Memorial Medical Park on Eastown Road. The doctors opted for ultrasounds, as mammograms would have been unsafe for the young baby she was carrying. They found two spots in her right breast and a lymph node under her arm that looked “funky.”
What’s “funky”? she remembers thinking. On Aug. 4, 2015, she was diagnosed with Stage 2 breast cancer — and a good prognosis.
Ballard has a matter-of-fact personality and is quick to laugh. She describes herself as not very emotional. But in the parking lot, she broke down.
“I cried that little bit,” she said. “(Trevor) walked out, and he just gave me a hug and said, ‘We’re gonna get through this.’”
On Sept. 15, 2015, she had a right-side mastectomy at The James, formally called Ohio State University’s Comprehensive Cancer Center, in Columbus.
“The first thing I said was, ‘Can I get a new one?” she remembers, laughing.
Doctors removed 34 lymph nodes. Three were cancerous. Chemo and radiation were in her future.
Could all this be done while pregnant? Doctors reassured her the only side effect would be possible lower birth weight for her child. She explained the mastectomy was just her right side because to remove both breasts would have meant she would have been under anesthetic for too long for the baby handle. And, yes, there are chemo drugs now that work to fight cancer while not harming a baby. In the past, women had to choose between terminating to start treatment or doing no treatment until giving birth.
“I’m glad for whoever those moms were who went through those trials,” Ballard said. “Because of them is why I was able to have some of that treatment while I was pregnant. … I didn’t care about me anymore. Is this OK for the baby?”
The James drew up a plan, which Lima Memorial Health System followed. This allowed her to receive care through her workplace (using her discount), stay close to home and enjoy continued support from her family and co-workers.
“I have an awesome support system with everybody at work,” Ballard said. Rehab department folks gave her two “huge” care packages, one before her mastectomy and one before her first chemo. They’ve covered her shifts when the chemo schedule interfered and she couldn’t be exposed to germs. And they’ve also matched her sense of humor, joking about what a nice head shape she has and more.
As if having chemo and being pregnant weren’t enough, her chemo port became infected — badly. She was septic by the time she was flown to OSU. She spent eight days there recovering. A second port became infected again later, but she was able to treat it at LMH that time. And a blood clot was found in her jugular, necessitating clot-busting drugs twice a day. That’s much better now.
Molly was born Jan. 26, 2016, a scheduled birth. She was 6 pounds, 8 ounces — and perfectly healthy.
That same day, Ballard had her fallopian tubes and ovaries removed to get the female hormones out of her body. Estrogen can feed cancer. She and Dodds, prior to the cancer diagnosis, had decided to stop at two children.
After Molly was born, Ballard’s treatments became more frequent, and now, she’s finished — aside from maintenance drugs to be sure she is in the clear. She believes she will be on a chemo pill for about five years, but she’ll learn more about that soon. Halloween will bring an appointment with a breast reconstruction surgeon at OSU.
“I still consider myself young. For my own body confidence,” she said.
“I put Ellie in the shower with me sometimes,” she said, explaining her daughter asked her a question recently: “Mommy, why do you only have one boob?”
Ballard chuckled, explaining her daughter then looked down at her own chest to compare.
“I don’t have any!” Ellie declared.
Laughter has certainly kept Ballard going. It seems nothing is off limits. She and Dodds have a joking way, which sometimes got them looks from nurses during treatment, she remembered, but it’s their way. She took a Look Good, Feel Better class at one point and considered a wig until she realized she would have to style it and fiddle with it all the time.
“I said screw this. This is too high maintenance for me. I’m just going to rock my bald head,” she said, laughing.
She considered a scarf, tying it simply at the nape with a rubber band like she learned in class, but that wasn’t for her either. Cue Ellie.
“I come out of the bathroom and Ellie says, ‘Mommy, are you a pirate?’”
Having no hair wasn’t an overly difficult transition for her. (She admitted to being more self conscious about the radiation burns at her collarbone than her hair. “It feels like a bad sunburn.”) Before treatment began, she cut her long locks off into a pixie cut to prepare for what was to come. Her hair started coming out after her first chemo treatment, in handfuls that shocked her even though she knew it would happen. Her eyebrows came and went various times.
When her hair started to go, she was in the bathroom at home and shouted out to her husband, “It’s time.”
That got his attention.
“OK. I should’ve used different words,” she said, explaining he thought she was in labor. What she meant was it was time for a buzzcut, which he helped her with.
So, what’s she up to now? Getting ready for PT classes. Her program starts in January. Leadership there allowed her to defer for a year while she was undergoing treatment.
“I feel like (cancer) kind of set me up … for what it’s going to be like with school and the kids — the craziness of it all,” she said, laughing.
The family bought a camper for a vacation this summer to Coldwater Lake in Quincy, Michigan. Dodds was grousing about needing to park it somewhere other than the driveway, but she shut him down.
“Just leave it there because come school, I’m going to have to go hide in there and study,” she said, grinning.
Ballard is interested to see where classes will lead her.
“I just wish there’s a way I could help in the future because of what I went through,” she said, musing she may go into lymphedema management.
But in the meantime, she’s eager to help women now.
“I feel like it’s not like IF you’re going to get (breast cancer), it’s WHEN you’re going to get it,” she said. She points to her own experience — no family history, genetic testing at OSU negative, no obvious clues.
Because her daughters now have a family history, the recommendation is they do their first mammograms when they reach age 28. That’s 10 years prior to her age when she was diagnosed.
Her advice? Follow every screening guideline and doctor’s order.
“Don’t mess around. Do it.”
What: Ladies’ Night Out
Who: Presented by The Lima News, sponsored by Lima Memorial Health System
When: Doors at 5:30 p.m. for cash bar, doors to vendors at 6 p.m. Oct. 6
Where: UNOH Event Center, Lima
Tickets: Table for eight is $160 or $22 for general seating. A portion of the ticket sales will be donated to Lima’s Making Strides Against Breast Cancer. Wine tasting available for $5 per ticket. Appetizers will be sold.
Details: The band Exploit will entertain. Vendors will include clothing boutiques, cosmetics, jewelry and home improvement. Also, there will be a fashion show featuring a local boutique’s fashions and Pink Out best dressed contest.