MATTOON -- When Sarah Hocking turned 40 years old in December 2016, she debated whether or not to have her first mammogram. But knowing that a friend and former classmate had been diagnosed with breast cancer at the age of 37, she decided to schedule an appointment at Carle Foundation Hospital's local clinic in Mattoon.
She was nervous about getting her first mammogram, but knew it was the right thing to do.
“Part of turning 40 is getting your first mammogram,” Hocking said. “From the very first one they found something.”
She was referred to Carle in Urbana for a second mammogram, and immediately met with a radiologist after the procedure. At this point there was no mention of cancer, but rather the doctor described it as “cells that had changed,” she said.
“It started moving very quickly after the second mammogram,” Hocking said.
Accompanied by her husband Sean, Hocking returned to Carle in Urbana the next day to have a core biopsy. The surgery involved removing a group of cells from her breast, which the oncology surgeon described to her as “like scooping out a scoop of ice cream.”
“It was a little unnerving,” Hocking said. “The biopsy machine was very involved.”
With the outpatient surgery over, and feeling a bit of relief, she and her husband went out for pizza afterwards and the next day their family went to an Illini game.
The following week, she received a call with the results from the biopsy. The pathology report showed that Hocking had Stage 0 ductal in situ carcinoma of the breast.
“I couldn’t quite believe it,” she said.
The results showed three tumors, but at Stage 0, they had not spread to her surrounding breast tissue.
She immediately began telling family members about the results. First her mother and brother, then her husband’s parents, and finally her father, who is an oncologist in England.
“Telling people was hard. It was a long day of telling people bad news and then reassuring people that it would be OK,” she said.
Prior to talking to her two sons, Benne, who was 6 years old at the time, and Liam, 9, Hocking spoke with a family friend who is a child therapist.
“She said it was important to reassure them that I will be OK,” Hocking said of their conversation.
The Hockings had talked to the boys previously about cancer when a family friend was going through cancer treatments. Together they had purchased gift cards to restaurants in Mattoon so the family could have easy access to quick meals, Hocking said.
“We tried to be really open with them,” she said. “I always wanted to be honest with them. I wanted life to be as normal as possible.”
The next step for Hocking was to have a lumpectomy, which would be followed by radiation treatments. Hocking was given the choice to have a mastectomy instead of the lumpectomy, but said she “wanted to keep as much of me with me as I could.”
The lumpectomy was performed at Carle in Urbana, and Hocking was referred to Sarah Bush Lincoln Health System for radiation treatments since they were scheduled for five days a week for a month.
“I started the week after the new oncology building opened (at Sarah Bush),” she said. “Radiation was really weird. They tried to make it as comfortable as possible.”
Throughout the month of April, Hocking’s weekday schedule consisted of taking her boys to school, going to Sarah Bush for radiation treatment and working the rest of the day as a litigator at Smith Law, Ltd. in Charleston.
She considered taking time off from work, but with a busy practice and volunteer work through the Land of Lincoln Legal Assistance Foundation, she thought that it would be healthier to stay focused on her family and work.
“April was tough, but we got through it,” she said.
In addition to staying busy, Hocking has used humor to handle some of the toughest moments during her treatment.
When she explained to her boys that she would be having radiation treatments, they immediately thought of their favorite superheroes.
“They asked if I was going to get superpowers,” she said.
She’s also written about her experiences on Facebook to keep her family and friends up-to-date on her progress and joked about having the “tannest single armpit in town” as a result of the radiation burns.
“I tried to make it as laughable as I could, because otherwise you cry,” she said.
Hocking admits that she’s had some tough days, but has vowed not to throw herself “pity parties,” she said.
The biggest disappointment for her was only completing two months of hormone therapy, which was recommended because her cancer was positive for estrogen and progesterone. The hormone therapy normally lasts for five years.
In June she was prescribed Tamoxiphen, a drug used to keep cancer cells from growing, but she soon began experiencing side effects. She developed a sudden onset of menopause resulting in hot flashes and mood swings.
“I made it through the first of August,” she said. “It was an awful experience.”
Hocking’s father had told her that about 20 percent of patients taking Tamoxiphen have similar side effects, but she still feels sad that she couldn’t do it.
“It’s a good drug for people that can take it,” she said.
Since her radiation treatment ended in early May and without hormone therapy, Hocking is done with active treatments for now. She still has lab work scheduled and continues to see her doctors regularly. She will have her first follow-up CT scan in December.
“This is one of the toughest stages. My biggest fear is that they find more,” she said.
In addition to the support of her family, Hocking has made friends with cancer survivors, including several busy working mothers with kids, she said.
She has attended the breast cancer support group at Sarah Bush and was even approached by a few mothers at her sons’ school after hearing about her diagnosis. She appreciates being able to share her story and hear about the experiences of other breast cancer survivors.
“I wanted to share my story because if it wasn’t for my classmate that had cancer, I might not have gotten my mammogram. They’re not fun, but it’s worth it,” she said.