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Teacher responds to cancer curve ball

“I’ve seen so many women get sick and not follow up.”

Debra McMillan grew up in one of those old-fashioned communities where doctor visits were reserved for the very sick, and serious ailments were kept hushed. Debra, 65, was the youngest of nine siblings, most of whom maintained that culture of healthcare avoidance.


But she had a different perspective. Debra promised herself that if she ever had good health insurance, she would take advantage of regular checkups and health screenings.


“I get my mammogram every year,” says Debra.

Her proactive nature paid off in a big way in 2022. Although her annual mammograms often found extra tissue in her left breast, she was always cleared after a follow-up ultrasound. But that June, it was also found in her right breast. Although a biopsy was negative for cancer, doctors still didn’t like what they saw and scheduled her to have the tissue removed.


Then they removed more.


It turned out, Debra did have breast cancer.


The STRIVE Collegiate Academy physical education teacher had weekly radiation treatments in November. She went during her lesson planning period so she wouldn’t miss work. She continued teaching and even coached the girls’ basketball team to one of its best seasons in years.


“I felt fine,” Debra says. “I didn’t get sick or anything.”


After the radiation course, doctors had good news.


“We don’t see anything,” they said.


“Thank you, Lord,” Debra replied.


She is now undergoing a five-year hormone therapy treatment to help ensure the cancer doesn’t return.


During her cancer journey, she learned some disturbing news: One of her sisters had earlier had a breast removed because of cancer.


“I asked her why she never said anything, and she said she didn’t think it was important,” Debra says. “I said it was very important to me! I’ve been telling my doctors there’s no history of breast cancer in my family.”


Now Debra urges her two adult sons to be diligent with their checkups and screenings. She also spreads the message to fellow teachers and women at her church.


“I’ve seen so many women get sick and not follow up,” she says.


She’s grateful that MNPS offers the kind of benefits that made it easier to catch and treat her cancer in the early stages.


“I never stressed about it. I never cried about it,” she says. “I just went on doing what I had to do.”


What if she didn’t have those resources? Debra doesn’t like to think about that.

“It might have been too late to catch it early.”


Debra McMillan

STRIVE Collegiate Academy
physical education teacher

Due for a mammogram?

Click below to schedule yours with Vanderbilt Health.

Due for a well-woman exam?

Call 615-259-8755 or click below to schedule yours with the MNPS Health Care Centers.

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