Mary Ford-Naill, of Westminster, had always been focused on her career, on volunteer work and on living life, so when she was diagnosed with a rare form of breast cancer four years ago, it came as quite a shock.
"I was really active, my career was going right and it hit me out of left field," she said.
In April 2009, at the age of 47, Ford-Naill was diagnosed with stage four inflammatory breast cancer, an uncommon and aggressive form of the disease that she had never heard of before.
"I didn't even know it existed, I thought there was only one kind of breast cancer, and there wasn't a lump. Inflammatory breast cancer does not present with a lump in most cases," Ford-Naill said. "I thought it looked like a red patch or a rash, certainly nothing that would make me think 'cancer.'"
According to Dr. Dona Hobart, medical director of the Center for Breast Health at Carroll Hospital Center, early detection of inflammatory breast cancer is often hindered because of its unusual appearance, a big problem for a cancer that can progress quickly, in a matter of months rather than years.
"Inflammatory breast cancer is basically an inflammation of the skin and it really gets missed a lot because people think they have an infection or a rash," Hobart said. "Because it starts in the breast and is invading the skin, inflammatory breast cancer is by definition stage four cancer."
Ford-Naill's sister, Theresa Bethune, had not heard of inflammatory breast cancer before either and recalled how her perception of her sister's diagnosis changed from nonchalance to deep anxiety when she learned what was truly going on.
"When Mary first told me, I didn't think it was much of a big deal, because all you ever hear about is how treatable breast cancer is when discovered early," Bethune said. "I thought, 'no big deal, people get breast cancer every day, she's tough, it will be fine.' Then, when I found out it was inflammatory, something I didn't know about, and that it was aggressive and stage four ... I went from 'this is no big deal' to 'I might lose my sister.'"
Ford-Naill's cancer had already spread to her lymph nodes and liver at the time of diagnosis and she began a course of chemotherapy in June of 2009 that lasted until September of that year and then had a mastectomy of her left breast that October.
Still not done, she endured radiation treatments from November 2009 until this past January, a tough course of treatment that her friend Susie Molfino, of Ellicott City, said Ford-Naill underwent with eyes wide open.
"She knew full well what her diagnosis was ... If you know Mary at all, she does in depth studies of things and had done a lot to research into what her diagnosis meant," Molfino said. "Her thought was that she had a young child and that she was going to do whatever necessary to give [herself] the best prognosis available for the grim diagnosis she had."
Ford-Naill was lucky in that her cancer turned out to be HER2 positive, which meant she was able to begin taking a drug called herceptin, of which she still receives infusions every three weeks, and which interferes with HER2 positive tumors rather than undergoing even more radiation treatments.
Although someone who has had a stage four cancer is never considered fully cured, Ford-Naill was declared to be N.E.D, or "no evidence of disease," beginning in the middle of 2011.
"My quality of life is fantastic and if you stopped me on the street you would have no sign that I survived stage four cancer," Ford-Naill said. "I can do everything I want to do."
What she discovered she wanted to do was to become involved in helping other women through their own struggle with breast cancer: Ford-Naill has been the co-chairwoman of the Making Strides Against Cancer Walk in Mount Airy since its inception three years ago, helping coordinate hundreds of people in this three mile, non-competitive fundraising walk for the American Cancer Society.
"When I saw that the American Cancer Society was doing this stride event, I said, 'it's my turn to give back,'" Ford-Naill said. "I am blessed to be here so it's my turn to try and get other people involved ... It's just waves of people that do this and just to see the waves of pink, it's just very moving to see that many people making an effort in the war against breast cancer."
Her involvement in the walk event also allows Ford-Naill an opportunity to spread the word about inflammatory breast cancer, a disease where awareness is even more important than regular breast cancer.
"It's something that we need to get the world out on," Ford-Naill said. "Be aware of changes in your body. Know that breast cancer does not always present with a lump and that sometimes there are no real symptoms. Don't delay in getting an opinion. Inflammatory breast cancer is very aggressive and requires a very aggressive treatment plan."