Facing the daily struggle of a breast cancer diagnosis can be a heavy burden to carry alone. Paul and Betty Amigh, of Mile Hill Road in Johnstown, said they’re glad they had each other to lean on when both underwent mastectomies to prevent and curtail the spread of breast cancer.
They met in 1980 and married in 2006. Betty, a former nun and state police dispatcher, was 69, and Paul, a retired coal miner and a long-haul truck driver when the miners went on strike, was 67.
They enjoyed quality time with the grandchildren from Paul’s previous marriage when they were younger. There were softball games and swimming at the YWCA, where the two eventually would volunteer for a youth swimming instruction course.
“We took them everywhere. We took them over to State College to see the deer. We’d go over to Fishertown for peaches and make jelly,” Paul said. “They were here all the time.”
Betty said she had always understood the importance of regular mammograms and never missed an appointment.
The results of her February 1993 mammogram showed an enlarging lesion. The March biopsy confirmed the cancer in her right breast.
Getting the news wasn’t an unfamiliar experience to Betty. Her brother also was diagnosed, although in the late stages of the disease, and, just one month after Betty’s diagnosis, her sister, who also was diagnosed late, lost a
10-year struggle with the disease.
Betty said her sister called every day after to lend moral support and reassure her that there was hope on the other side of the disease. The last call came the day before her sister passed.
“She encouraged me more than anything,” Betty said. “She encouraged me to be strong and not let the fear of the disease overwhelm me.”
After her biopsy, Betty’s doctor gave her a choice between a lumpectomy or a mastectomy. She chose the latter, and later that month, her right breast was removed.
“It was a whole new experience to be physically marred in some way and not to know for sure how people were going to look at you, especially someone whom you loved,” she said. “I can’t tell you how supportive (Paul) was with words like, ‘it was you I fell in love with, not your breast.’ ”
Her lymph nodes came back benign – a relief that comes with early detection. The successful mastectomy meant Betty wouldn’t need chemotherapy or radiation treatments.
For the next five years, she underwent bone, liver, lung and spleen scans. With no signs of recurrence, her doctor visits were scaled back to every six months.
Although she’s been clear ever since, Betty said the anticipation after each scan was stressful.
“Every year going for that scan was scary. Very scary,” she said. “Because when the cancer appeared, it appeared just like that. Every time I went for one of those scans, I was really very frightened until it was all over with and I had the results.
“Without my Catholic faith and belief in God, the love and support of Paul, my family and friends, I would not have made it,” she said. “To me, that was my medication – the prayerful support of all those who loved me.”
In 2012, it was Betty’s turn to support her mate through a brush with cancer. In June of that year, Paul began noticing an unusual pain in his left breast. Betty said Paul has always had a high pain threshold. Complaints from him were a sure sign that something was not right.
His mammogram was scheduled in late June. In July, a biopsy revealed atypical cells, or “dysplasia.” Although atypical cells don’t usually denote cancer, Paul underwent a mastectomy in August. The results showed that the atypical cells eventually could have become malignant.
He joked that the mammogram itself was worse than the surgery.
“I won’t go through that again,” he said. “You gotta stretch it out and they gotta lay it just right. I told them, ‘no more.’ ”
“It ain’t that big, so they’re pulling and tugging ...”
After Paul’s operation, doctors said he also needed no further treatments, aside from an occasional visit to the doctor.
These days, the Amighs keep up with classmates from Betty’s fellow 1955 graduates from Ebensburg Cambria High School, now known as Central Cambria High School. She coordinates an email group that disperses updates about events and obituaries. They also host a smaller annual reunion at their home along Mile Hill Road.
The Amighs also take short driving trips together every now and again.
“We try to keep busy,” Paul said.
“It’s almost like we’re stuck together at the hip,” Betty said.
Justin Dennis is a multimedia reporter for The Tribune-Democrat. Follow him on Twitter at www.Twitter.com/JustinDennis.