One woman’s brave battle with breast cancer and the surgeons who joined her army
When Margie Singleton felt a painful lump in her breast, she wasn’t alarmed. At 44, she chalked it up to hormones. “I’d just had a routine mammogram six months before, and they said I was OK. Why would I question anything?”
Singleton would soon learn to question everything.
While her routine mammograms had always come back normal, Singleton’s file noted that she has “dense breast tissue,” which didn’t seem to cause anyone — including her doctor — alarm.
However, the law in the majority of other states requires that women with dense breast tissue be warned of an increased risk of breast cancer that may not be detectable by a mammogram and that they should consider additional screening.
Without this information Singleton didn’t know she was — in her words — “a ticking time bomb.”
The bomb dropped on Valentine’s Day 2018, when a surgeon friend suggested Singleton get an ultrasound. The radiologist brought her back for an additional screening, and a week later, an oncologist confirmed that Singleton had an aggressive form of stage 2B breast cancer that had spread to her lymph nodes.
Disguised by dense breast tissue, the 3.6-cm tumor could only be detected by an ultrasound.
On the heels of a shocking diagnosis, Singleton began the fight of her life — or rather, the fight for her life.
The battle would not be a solitary one. It would take the support of her family, friends and a talented team of doctors. In short, it would take an army, which Singleton immediately began to assemble.
“When diagnosed with cancer, some people take a step back and carefully consider what they’re going to do,” Singleton says. “But I’m very type-A. All I could think was, ‘I want this gone — I want a mastectomy.’ Of course, it doesn’t work that way.”
While every cancer patient’s treatment regimen is different, Singleton’s aggressive form of cancer required six rounds of chemotherapy to first shrink the tumor before her surgical oncologist, Dr. William Burak at Memorial Health, could surgically remove it. She then underwent 25 rounds of radiation. The route she traveled to save her life was not an easy one, but it afforded Singleton some options: she was finally able to consider a mastectomy and regain some control.
Having done her research, Singleton traveled to Emory to see one of the top breast surgeons in the region, but there she felt like she was “just another person with cancer.” A friend in the medical industry told her about Dr. Matthew McLeod, a surgeon in Boston who was coming to Savannah. “Everything about his history and education told me he has a passion and that he cares,” Singleton recalls.
McLeod was still finishing up a fellowship in aesthetic and reconstructive surgery at Massachusetts General Hospital, but Singleton followed her gut and reached out to him on Facebook Messenger, introducing herself and saying she’d been newly diagnosed with breast cancer and was looking for someone to partner with her for her reconstruction.
McLeod was on a plane at the time, returning to Boston from New Orleans when he got the message from Singleton. “I didn’t respond at the time because I wasn’t quite sure who she was,” McLeod recalls. “But then I took a chance and called her.”
They ended up talking on the phone for more than an hour.
“Within a couple of minutes of talking to her, any doubt I may have had went away,” says McLeod. “Margie’s very engaging and easy to talk to. She’s intelligent and has great questions and insight.”
Singleton shared her goals with McLeod in regards to the mastectomy, and he was able to provide her with options.
“By the time I see [a breast cancer patient], they’ve seen their primary care doctor, they’ve gone through several mammograms, they’ve had biopsies, they’ve been to appointment after appointment, and now they’re sitting in another appointment,” McLeod says. “But this is the chance for me to give back some control — the one chance they have to get off the conveyor belt and walk through the options.”
Meeting Singleton in person sealed the deal, and soon after, McLeod performed what is called a direct-implant reconstruction, a technique that doesn’t require the traditional expander process and typically leaves patients with less scarring.
Post reconstructive surgery, Singleton’s army continued to grow. As a medical device sales representative, she had worked alongside Dr. Timothy Minton of Savannah Facial Plastic Surgery. When he heard about her undergoing chemotherapy, he and his team stepped in.
“We wanted to do something to help her keep some normalcy,” Minton says. So, he provided platelet-rich plasma treatments to parts of her scalp where chemotherapy treatments thinned her hair. “When we see people at their lowest point, I like being in the position to first calm them down and then reassure them that we’re going to be able to have a good outcome.” This was the case for Singleton’s treatment. “Her hair came back right away,” he says.
At the time, Minton didn’t know just how much this gesture meant. Singleton wipes away tears when she recalls telling her 11-year-old daughter she had cancer. “She had just two questions. She asked me, ‘Are you going to die?’ And then, ‘Are you going to lose all your hair?’” Singleton assured her daughter neither would happen and fought her hardest to make it true—with a little help from her army, of course.
Thankful for the doctors who stood alongside her as she fought cancer, Singleton decided to pay it forward. Between rounds of chemotherapy, she made Margie’s Army an official foundation and repeatedly traveled to the state capitol with a team that included cancer survivors and hospital administrators to meet with representatives in an attempt to pass a Georgia law requiring that women with dense breast tissue be alerted to their increased risk of breast cancer. Singleton garnered the attention and support of then-governor Nathan Deal, whose wife was recovering from breast cancer, and the foundation succeeded in passing House Bill 62, known as “Margie’s Law,” in the Georgia General Assembly in February 2019; it took effect in July. Today, Margie’s Army continues to support local families fighting breast cancer and raises funds for the St. Joseph’s/Candler Foundation.
As a woman of faith, Singleton believes God put McLeod, Minton and all the other members of her army in her path for a reason. But for those who know her, it was always Singleton who led the charge.