Siteman Cancer Center patient Celina Campbell was at her office at Scott Air Force Base when she got the phone call on May 2, 2016. Sure enough, the quarter-sized lump she’d discovered in her breast was cancer. Ever forthright, she immediately shared the news with her colleagues, most of whom were male and active-duty military. She didn’t cry, but they did.
“I had not expected their reactions. These grown men in uniform were just bawling,” Campbell said.
Campbell isn’t in the military herself, but she’s worked for the Air Force since she graduated from college. It’s where she met her husband, the flight chief of a bomb squadron, and what brought her to the Illinois prairie from the coast of South Carolina. Her life revolves around her community at Scott and the large, blended family that she and her husband share. Today, thanks to the care she received from Washington University Physician at Siteman William Popovic, MD, Campbell is cancer-free and back to pouring her energy into the roles that define her: wife, mother, grandmother, and military contract supervisor.
Campbell is a proud second-generation American.
“My grandma came from the Barbados with her parents. I was born in New York and lived there till I was 5,” she said.
She spent the rest of her childhood in Charleston, South Carolina. She says she misses the sea and the south, and she preserves her Carolina and Barbadian heritage by cooking hearty feasts for her family every Sunday.
“Collard greens and rice, corn bread, baked mac and cheese,” she said, listing off dishes. “And my entire family comes, so that’s 13 people.”
Campbell and her husband have five children between them. Three of them are hers, daughters that she “brought into this world.” She’s now also a grandmother.
Given her energy, stamina, and healthy lifestyle – “I was cross-fitting. I was paleo. Everything I was eating was clean,” Campbell said – the lump in her breast came as a shock. She had just seen her ob-gyn several months before and received a clean bill of health.
“April 10, 2016,” Campbell remembered. “It was a Sunday, and I was in the bed, stretching – my husband was away – and I just stretched, and I felt this lump.”
She initially assumed it was just a swollen area from some minor injury.
“Because that’s me, I bump into things unconsciously and just keep going,” she said. But as she lay in bed, the fear started to set in. “Dang – this is a pretty big knot,” she thought. She measured it against a quarter and saw that it was bigger. “And I started crying.”
Breast cancer runs in Campbell’s family, and she had an idea of what might be in store. Her cousin had just been diagnosed with triple negative breast cancer, at stage IIb. What had started off as a peaceful Sunday morning had ended in a confrontation with what Campbell strongly felt was a life-threatening disease.
Follow-up tests at her ob-gyn and a breast surgeon’s office confirmed her suspicions. Like her cousin, Campbell had triple negative breast cancer, stage IIb. The surgeon explained that her tumor was actually similar to a brain cancer, except it was growing in her breast.
Yet, rather than alarming her, this news gave her disease a purpose. When the surgeon asked why she was smiling, her reply was convicted.
“You just told me God put brain cancer in my boob, and I found it,” she told him. “This is bigger than me. God has a message for someone. He had already planned to make me a vessel for his message.”
Campbell was referred to William Popovic, MD, then affiliated with Illinois Oncology, Ltd. but now a Washington University Physician at Siteman. He quickly put her at ease with his warmth and genuine concern.
“I met Dr. Popovic, and I loved him,” she said. “He spoke directly to me about what my treatment was going to be. He said, ‘Kiddo, we’re going to take good care of you.’”
Popovic laid out a thorough treatment plan. Because Campbell’s tumor was aggressive – after all, it had grown from nothing to a lump bigger than a quarter in just a few months – he recommended eight sessions of intensive chemotherapy spread out over 16 weeks. After the chemotherapy, Campbell would undergo a lumpectomy to remove what remained of the cancer. Triple negative breast cancer, Popovic explained, can recur even in patients with double mastectomies, so there was no medical advantage to taking such a drastic step. Finally, to conclude her treatments, she would receive radiation therapy to guard against any future relapse.
From there, as Campbell put it, “Things happened really fast.” She got her hair cut so she wouldn’t have to watch it fall out. Before she knew it, she was getting a port placed in her chest in preparation for her first round of chemotherapy.
Chemotherapy was difficult, both physically and emotionally. She appreciated the support of the staff in the infusion room at Illinois Oncology, now Siteman Cancer Center, especially a particular nurse who took an unorthodox approach to patient comfort.
“There was this one nurse, Debbie,” Campbell remembered. “She was no-nonsense, but she loved you. I cried the entire first treatment, and Debbie said, ‘Honey, look, you’ve got to stop this crying. You’ve been plugged in for an hour.’ Debbie was that tough-love nurse.”
Regardless of their different temperaments, however, all of the staff shared a common goal.
“Everyone was trying to make sure you were calm and relaxed. I never experienced it not being personal,” Campbell said. “That staff made me comfortable. They didn’t treat me like they were never going to see me again. They treated me like they were vested in me. They helped me to understand, they helped me to know about it, they helped me to absorb it.”
Chemotherapy had a dramatic and immediate effect on Campbell’s body. Her nails turned black. Her tongue “looked like the tongue of a chow dog.” She struggled with nausea and fatigue. But she soldiered on and tried to keep things as normal as possible for her family’s sake. She played with her grandchildren and put on a brave face for her children and colleagues.
“I couldn’t show them fear or weakness, because people react to that,” she said. “Anything I wasn’t okay with, I just absorbed it and pushed it in. It was always about my faith in God. But I was determined to kill it before it killed me.”
Campbell initially tried to keep working from Scott Air Force Base, where her military co-workers were anxious about her well-being. They made sure everything in their office was sanitized and even accompanied her to a breast cancer support group held at the base. Later, to protect her health, she started working from home.
Fortunately, the chemotherapy drugs that were challenging Campbell’s strength were also breaking down her tumor. Their impact was instantaneous.
“By the second chemo, I couldn’t feel the lump anymore,” Campbell said.
After eight sessions of chemotherapy, there was no tumor to be found when Campbell underwent her lumpectomy – only fluid.
True to form, Campbell’s Air Force colleagues remembered her on the day of her surgery. They sent her a photo of the entire team wearing matching T-shirts that read, “I Wear Pink For Celina.”
“My squadron was so supportive,” Campbell said.
After undergoing a course of radiation therapy, Campbell finally completed her treatments on December 31, 2016, ringing the bell to celebrate. She follows up regularly with Popovic and will continue to do so for the next two years, until her cancer is considered fully cured.
Three years after her encounter with cancer, Campbell’s life is full, just the way she likes it. She was recently promoted to a supervisory role at the base and has 13 employees, ranging in age from 21 to 60. Her family is thriving, and she and her husband enjoy traveling and riding motorcycles together, although Campbell is planning to trade in her motorcycle for a three-wheeler sometime soon.
“It happened. I went through it all,” Campbell said, reflecting on her experience. “Some days I see my port scar, some days I don’t. Some days I see my surgery scar, some days I don’t.”
Though she may not always notice the marks left on her body, Campbell takes care to remember the Siteman teams that brought her through her treatments. She regularly visits Debbie and the infusion room nurses, as well as the radiation technicians.
She also has a few simple words for other cancer patients.
“Don’t give up.”