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EUREKA — For more than 30 years, Patty Cuffe has screened thousands of women for breast cancer as a mammography technologist at Advocate Eureka Hospital.

"I'm the caregiver, not the patient," Cuffe said in her Eureka home last week.

For years, Grant Cuffe, Patty's adult son, led a healthy life.

"I was in fantastic shape and ready to start my career," Grant said.

But in 2012, Patty was diagnosed with breast cancer and had a bilateral mastectomy, and Grant was diagnosed with aggressive testicular cancer and given a 20 percent chance of survival.

"It was a roller-coaster ride," said Patty's husband and Grant's father, Jim, a 59-year-old retired union carpenter.

"Cancer doesn't care who you are, how old you are, what you do for a living," said Patty, now 54.

"What my mom and both my parents went through was crazy," said Grant, now age 27. "What we dealt with still hasn't sunk in. I don't know how my parents did it."

Patty and Jim Cuffe married and moved to Eureka in 1986, the same year that Patty, a Dallas City native, began as a mammography tech at the hospital. They have three children: Courtney, 29; Grant; and Emily, 24.

"My health was good and I would get my yearly mammogram and Pap smear," Patty recalled.

Grant exercised six days a week.

In early May 2012, Patty detected an indentation in her left breast but decided to wait to have it checked until after Emily's high school graduation.

Grant graduated from college that same month, moved to Kansas and began work as a technician at the nuclear power station in Burlington.

A few days later, he detected a nickel-size lump on one of his testicles. He had a sonogram and was told he had testicular cancer.

"I was totally blindsided," Grant said. "But the next morning, I got in my car and drove 500 miles for my sister's graduation party. At the time, I didn't know how bad things were. A week later, we found out."

Grant had a CT (computed tomography) scan and met with a specialist who told him that the cancer had spread to his lungs.

"How could someone who exercised, never did drugs, never did really drink get a devastating cancer that could kill you?" he asked.

"It was shock, horror," Jim said.

Grant had outpatient surgery to remove the testicle but his tumor markers remained elevated. So he was referred to IU Health Melvin & Bren Simon Cancer Center in Indianapolis, where he found out on June 19, 2012, that the cancer also had spread to his brain and abdomen.

That explained his blurred vision, coughing and headaches.

"He was mad as hell," his father said.

Jim stayed with Grant, who was immediately admitted to Simon to begin chemotherapy. Patty needed to return to Eureka for work and to address her own ill health.

"I was losing weight because I couldn't eat (because she was worried about Grant)," Patty said. Her weight loss made the indentation in her left breast more pronounced.

She had a diagnostic mammogram and a biopsy. On June 26, 2012, she was told she had breast cancer.

"It was disbelief," she said. "I knew it couldn't happen to me at the same time my son was sick. Besides, I'm a mammographer. I don't get breast cancer. We diagnose it."

"I was numb," Jim admitted. "The probabilities of a son and mother being diagnosed with cancer a month apart are so slim."

Patty saw a radiation oncologist, medical oncologist, breast health navigator and plastic surgeon. Because her type of cancer, invasive lobular carcinoma, was likely to spread to her other breast, she elected to have surgical removal of both breasts with immediate reconstruction.

She had the surgery the next month. "When I got home from the hospital, my older sister came to stay with me. It was really hard for me not to have my husband there but we agreed to put Grant first."

Patty's second phase of reconstructive surgery was a few months later; she didn't need radiation or chemo.

Meanwhile, Grant had four courses of chemotherapy.

"I lost the ability to drive. My memory got horrible. I was vomiting and dizzy every day."

His tumor markers remained high. So he returned to Simon, where he had a double stem cell bone marrow transplant. His stem cells were harvested, he received high-dose chemo (losing hair, weight and energy) to kill his white blood cells, then his stem cells were returned.

Because his immune system was gone during treatments, he remained at Simon.

"You just keep pushing. I did it for my parents and my family."

He was lonely but his spirits were raised when some high school friends hosted a benefit that raised $30,000 to help his parents with expenses.

In December, he was allowed to return to work and immediately drove to Kansas.

"I wanted to start my life," Grant said. "It was important for me to keep this new job," which his company had kept open for him, even though he had been able to work only four days since May.

"In a world of crazy businesses, here, people still come first," he said.

"His insurance was phenomenal," Jim said. "His treatment was in the millions (of dollars)."

Grant began taking chemotherapy pills as he resumed work. The following May, he had surgery to remove 29 lymph nodes from his abdomen. "I have not been on any medication since that surgery," he said.

But the odyssey isn't over. Grant's hearing and taste buds are damaged because of all the chemotherapy.

"I still have nightmares about (his diagnoses and treatments)," Grant said. "The demons still haunt me. I went to a therapist and have medication for anxiety although I use it rarely.

"I have body confidence issues. I'm missing half of my male anatomy ... I can't biologically reproduce. At my age, everyone is talking about having a family, especially here in the Midwest.

"When I go on dates and drop the cancer bomb, it changes things. That hurts. But I'd still like to have a wife and family somehow."

Patty does six-month checkups, and takes tamoxifen to prevent cancer cells from getting the hormones needed for growth. "Even though it's been five years, it still weighs heavily on my mind.

"October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month and this is the first (since her diagnosis) I can tolerate it. This year, I'm good with it. We focused on Grant so it took me longer to focus on my emotions. It's easier for me to talk about than it was before."

Patty said she has become more understanding when people are sick.

"My goal (as a mammography tech) is always to get the best possible exam for the patient. I don't know how I was able to do it that (2012) summer. Now, I  understand the fear and anxiety a lot more. It's made me a better technologist. I know what it's like to be a patient. It's made me a better listener. I feel like I have a lot more connection and empathy."

Follow Paul Swiech on Twitter: @pg_swiech


Health Reporter

Health reporter for Lee Enterprises Central Illinois.

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