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Breast Cancer Awareness Month: Local survivor says she 'fought like a girl'

Between the COVID-19 pandemic and a breast cancer diagnosis — an East Tennessee woman had to fight like a girl to stay healthy and get through it all.

SEVIERVILLE, Tenn. — Friday kicked off Breast Cancer Awareness Month Breast, and experts say cancer awareness is more important than ever.

Doctors say disruptions in healthcare from the COVID-19 pandemic could be causing more breast cancer deaths. Nearly 44,000 people die from breast cancer each year and new models predicted delays could result in nearly 2,500 additional deaths by 2030.

In May 2020 Patti Kowarko wasn't just learning how to cope with a global pandemic. The East Tennessee woman was also trying to learn how to live with breast cancer.

"The faraway place of having cancer is awful," she said. "It's awful. You have a lot of things going through your mind. Am I going to last? Is it going to get it all?"

Doctors discovered a cancerous tumor in her breast after a mammogram. At first, she said she was worried the diagnosis could lead to her death.

From there everything staring moving very quickly. 

"Boom, boom, boom, boom, boom, appointment, appointment,” she said. “I’ve had lots of surgery and I've had lots of chemo.”

She’s undergone 26 rounds of chemotherapy. During that time, Kowarko said that she also started dealing with another kind of stress — her relationship with her fiance. She said that she constantly worried about how he would handle the situation too. She said she was fearful he would think she was a burden.

But those fears turned out to be untrue. Her fiance stuck by her side through the treatments and the stress.

When Kowarko said when she found out she had cancer she was scared. Worse, she said she felt like no one understood what she was going through. Chemotherapy was a place where she didn't have to feel that way though she said. 

"The emotions I feel when I walk into chemo and see everyone else doing it, I felt, 'Okay I can do this because I’m not the only one," she said.

The rooms where she got chemotherapy became a place she liked, and a place where she made friends she holds close to her heart. Now, her scars are her truth and they represent her fight.

"I fought like a girl," she said. "If I could help one person start getting their yearly mammograms, I am happy as I can be.”

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevent, mammograms are recommended once every year for women who are 45 to 54 years old. Women 55 and older should get them every two years. Women who are high-risk should also talk to their doctors about starting sooner.