For newlyweds Linda DeCola, 62, and John Sheehan, 65, there was no way a global pandemic — or anything, really — could tarnish their wedding day.
The two of them have lived with breast cancer for decades, opening their eyes to the importance of “the little things,” they said — like simply being together.
DeCola, who took Sheehan’s name at an intimate Sept. 26 ceremony in the couple’s Methuen backyard, has survived breast cancer twice — first in her 40s and then again, in the opposite breast, in 2018.
Her husband was by her side for the second diagnosis, a daunting deja vu for him. He lost his first wife to the same disease in 2013.
“It was scary. It was scary for everyone,” DeCola Sheehan said of her second bout. “You know when you hear that big “C” word, you don’t know what the outcome is going to be.”
The first time DeCola Sheehan was diagnosed with breast cancer, the oldest of her four children — who now range in age from 28 to 35 — was just starting college.
The formal diagnosis was ductal carcinoma in situ. It was found during a routine mammogram in her milk ducts, but was noninvasive and considered stage 1, or confined to one area in her right breast, she said.
At the time, DeCola Sheehan was working full-time as a waitress — on her feet 40 hours a week to provide for her two boys and two girls.
“I remember thinking right away that I didn’t want to leave them without a mother. Or with an incapacitated mother,” she said. “There’s no handbook. But the kids were great, they’ve always been great.”
She told them what she was up against during the holidays, she said, when everyone was together.
“When’s the right time to do that? How do you tell your kids that news?” she said.
While undergoing radiation treatment, DeCola Sheehan limited her hours at the restaurant, but was able to continue working until being cleared of the cancer, she said.
Fast forward to 2017.
“Now I’m a nana, and I had another regular mammogram appointment,” she recalled.
Her children would watch their mom be diagnosed and treated a second time.
“The doctors thought they saw something on my mammogram. I went back six months later for another one, a few days after Christmas,” she said.
In mid-January 2018, DeCola Sheehan’s doctor confirmed the spot on her left breast was cancer. This time, however, it was more serious.
“This had an ability to spread throughout my body through my lymph nodes, but thankfully the cancer was contained to the upper left breast,” she said.
A familiar six weeks of radiation followed, and again, she was thankful to be able to continue working a new job as an assistant bank manager in Salem, New Hampshire.
“It turns out I have a mutation of the ATM (Ataxia-Telangiesctasia mutated) gene,” DeCola Sheehan said. The gene is associated with increased risk of certain cancers.
She giggles now at the irony of the acronym, considering her retirement from her position as bank manager this past August.
“I was told this time around that a double mastectomy would be the best route,” she said. “But I didn’t need to do that. It was up to me.”
The alternative to surgery would be getting tested twice a year for the rest of her life.
“That’s what I decided instead of that big surgery,” she said. “I know I need to be watched. But I have the best medical team and support system and I’m doing great.”
DeCola Sheehan’s experiences have led her to become involved in breast cancer awareness and fundraising campaigns. For 10 years, she’s been the captain of an American Cancer Society Relay for Life team, and was given the honor of being the “Survivor Speaker” during a relay in Methuen two years ago.
Her efforts to support breast cancer research and awareness predate her own battles.
“I have always tried to walk the Making Strides Against Breast Cancer event around the Charles River in Boston, too,” she said. “This was before I was diagnosed, but had lost a dear friend to breast cancer.”
At those events and in her day-to-day life, DeCola Sheehan shares her biggest lessons.
“Do not miss your mammograms,” she said. “Women tend to put things off for others, but you absolutely cannot do that with mammograms.”
Also, “it’s not a death sentence. It’s not.”
“It doesn’t have to be a life changer,” she said. “It’s rough going through treatment, but treatment ends. You get your strength and laughter and life back.”
For those watching loved ones facing cancer, DeCola Sheehan also has advice.
“Just always be there for them,” she said. “Go have a cup of tea, give them a ride to an appointment. Give them a place to cry.”
She said her husband was her anchor to reality when her ears buzzed with anxiety during doctor’s appointments.
“I don’t know that I would have wanted to go through it again myself. Of course, you do what you have to do, but he was a rock,” she said.
“He went to every appointment, in the office with me, writing notes and reminding me of questions that I had mentioned wanting answered. That was so huge, him sitting there with that notebook.”
Sheehan speaks concisely about his wife.
“She’s strong,” he said. “That’s what it comes down to.”