Patients, survivors share their sources of strength

What did you lean on to get through cancer treatment?

By

Published:

 

A breast cancer diagnosis can mean months of tests, uncertainty, chemotherapy, radiation and surgical procedures. Here, breast cancer patients and survivors share their sources of strength during their fight with breast cancer. Submissions have been edited for clarity.

Faith and family

February 2014. Age, 31. Mother of 1-, 2-, and 5-year-old girls. Feeling great, training for Hood to Coast. Then, there it was: a lump. And my life changed, just like that.

“You have breast cancer.” Four words I never expected to hear. I was feeling as healthy as ever. It seemed surreal.

My family quickly rallied around me and became my primary support group. I went through 16 weeks of chemotherapy, two surgeries, and 12 weeks of radiation therapy. My veins were destroyed from the chemo, my chest was scarred from the surgeries and my skin was burned from radiation.

My faith kept me from giving into despair on the darkest of days. It would have been easy, even justified, to retreat into a very dark place that would be difficult to recover from. Through it all, I was reminded that God is good, and he is in control. I knew that whatever the outcome, I was in his hands, and I couldn’t ask for a better place to be.

I found comfort in reading the Psalms, Job, and Isaiah. “The floods have risen up, O Lord. The floods have roared like thunder; the floods have lifted their pounding waves. But mightier than the violent raging of the seas, mightier than the breakers on the shore – the Lord above is mightier than these!”

And that is where I found hope to keep moving forward. I am now cancer-free and forever thankful for my family and my God!

— Tracy Giles of Camas. Diagnosed in 2014 with Stage 1 invasive ductal carcinoma.

Assembling a support team

Body, mind, and spirit: for me, my breast cancer diagnosis threatened to devastate every part of my being. I realized early on how important a strong support system would be to ensure my sense of self and my ability to cope with the unknown, despite how very alone I felt in the aftermath of that initial shock.

I was blessed to have three vital sources of support during and after my initial diagnosis and subsequent treatment. Even now, I depend heavily on all of these support systems to ground me in a place of strength.

As word of my diagnosis began to spread through my relatives and friends, I received an astonishing number of cards and letters from people spanning the globe who were praying for me and sending constant encouragement my direction. As a person of faith, I found this initial and continued spiritual support critical to my emotional and mental stability as I braced for the surgery that would forever alter my physical landscape.

Second, I cannot emphasize enough the importance of my incredibly gifted medical team who skillfully eradicated my cancer, restored my appearance and compassionately helped me navigate endocrine therapies. My breast surgeon, plastic surgeon and oncologist remain an essential component of my physical wellbeing.

Finally, I’ve been especially blessed to find four of the most amazing women — all survivors themselves — who remain my constant emotional support. They are my sisters, confidantes, soulmates, warriors, comediennes, ad hoc therapists and they are forever bonded to my heart.

— Susan Pagel of Vancouver. Diagnosed with Stage 1 invasive ductal carcinoma in September 2013.

Humor in hard times

At the age of 31, I found lumps, and on Oct. 2, 2015, I was delivered a diagnosis. (It’s only fitting to be diagnosed with breast cancer during its month of recognition.)

As a wife and mother of two young children, I had to dig deep to find strength in every crevice to overcome what I felt was crumbling me. My support system spanned miles: family and friends locally, from my hometowns, cross-country, and the Pacific.

Everyone, myself included, treated the situation with a light-hearted, positive and derogatory way. The first step in my treatment plan was surgery (followed by chemo, then radiation), and I opted to lop the girls off without reconstruction.

Though there were hard times, laughing at my situation was what kept me going when I didn’t want to, and to this day, I continue that laughter.

Many people tell me I’m an inspiration but what they fail to realize is, they are the true inspiration.

To my support system near and far, I thank you, for yesterday, today, and tomorrow!

— Moani Houston of Gig Harbor (formerly Vancouver). Diagnosed in 2015 with Stage 2A invasive ductal carcinoma.

Faith follows her

Mammograms have been a part of my health routine for years, especially with dense breasts and a history of benign breast lumps. I almost came to assume I would receive the familiar all-clear letter. This last February was different though.

Suspicious radiological findings and a biopsy confirmed cancer. An MRI and PET scan followed and then surgery — a right modified radical mastectomy in March. Chemotherapy for four months began in April. Next, I will undergo five to six weeks of radiation followed by five or 10 years of medication to lessen a recurrence of the cancer.

What has gotten me through this life challenge? Certainly, wonderful and compassionate doctors, nurses and office staff at Kaiser Permanente.

Whom did I lean on? My Mom, relatives, friends, church family and others’ prayers but, most importantly, my Heavenly Father. There is a savior who loves and cares for us — even with just a tiny mustard seed of faith in him. God’s loving plan ensures that we cannot depart from this life or stay one second longer than his gracious will permits and there is confidence and comfort in knowing this.

“For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.” John 3:16.

— Karen Schmidt of Vancouver. Diagnosed in February.

A helpful husband

I am a 22-year breast cancer survivor. I had a surgical procedure, radiation and chemotherapy.

I would be remiss not to give survival credit to my doctors who recommended treatments and monitored me, as well as the nurses who were always cheerful, helpful and encouraging.

However, I am most grateful for the loving, caring family that saw me through this darkness. When diagnosed, my husband and love of my life, Shawn, immediately went into action by contacting the American Cancer Society and having them send pamphlets and information they had available to guide us through the rest of my life.

As I went through my treatments, Shawn took over all household duties, grocery shopping, cooking healthy meals, getting me to treatment/doctor appointments — literally, everything — all the while working a full-time job, all so I could recover. My kids, Don and Karen, both lived out of town, and kept in close contact with visits, cards and phone calls all with encouraging words.

I believe my faith and not feeling sorry for myself by looking at how much I have to live for also gave me the strength to fight this disease and say, “Hey cancer, you picked the wrong chick.”

— Jane Pidcock of Vancouver. Diagnosed in December 1994.

Dreaming of Hawaii

Last year’s breast cancer section seemed like it was meant for me. I learned I had breast cancer on Oct. 4, 2016.

A survivor of ovarian cancer (1998), my first thoughts were, “Wow, I have to do this alone this time.” My husband died from cancer in 2004 and won’t be by my side.

Hoping to make my annual trip to Maui in January was my light at the end of the tunnel.

I am a very independent person, and it was hard to ask for help. I owe many thanks to the family and friends who got me to early morning surgery and post-op appointments in Hillsboro and brought meals and stayed with me on surgery days.

Radiation treatment took my time line down to the wire.

My doctor came up with a plan for twice-a-day radiation for five days so I could get it done. Of course, this didn’t figure in January’s snowstorm. When I woke up that Wednesday morning to more than a foot of snow I was able to get an Uber driver. I arrived at Kaiser Interstate only to find out that they weren’t going to open. They did do one of my treatments before they went home.

My hero of the ordeal was a registered nurse, Lacey, who went beyond the call of duty and drove me home that snowy day and then picked me up and took me home the next two days.

I finished my last treatment with one day to spare.

— Pam Rauchenstein of Vancouver. Diagnosed in October 2016 with stage 1 invasive ductal carcinoma.

A skillful surgeon

I was diagnosed in May 2014 and underwent five months of weekly chemo, a double mastectomy, and seven weeks of daily radiation. I received excellent care from Compass Oncology in Vancouver.

In 2016, I had my first breast reconstruction by Dr. Allen Gabriel, a plastic surgeon. Because the radiation was so severe in my right breast (second- and third-degree burns), Dr. Gabriel performed the latissimus dorsi flap surgery where the muscle in my upper back was cut and tunneled through my body to give my right breast a base.

I’ve since had two more surgeries, the most recent one July 6, taking out the expanders and putting in implants. My next, and hopefully last, surgery will be to give me nipples.

My belief is that a good attitude plays a huge part in getting through cancer treatment. Everything I experienced led me to be cancer-free! I am so grateful!

— Ruthie Westlund of Vancouver. Diagnosed in May 2014.

Technology speeds diagnosis

I am grateful for this platform to share my story. I have critical information to share with women: I am a breast cancer survivor thanks to the new 3-D mammogram.

Because of 3-D technology, my cancer was caught very early at an annual exam. I had no family history and felt nothing suspicious. After years of 2-D technology with four images, the 3-D takes the same four X-rays, but yields 44 images, three-dimensionally sliced and observed.

Caught early at Stage 1, the cancer was aggressive, hormone driven, spread rapidly and could have doubled in size in two to three weeks.

I had a mastectomy and chemotherapy. I am on a hormone-blocking oral prescription for five years. My journey was much easier and shorter because of the 3-D technology.

This month, I remember a cherished friend who lost her fight. I celebrate being cancer-free for 1.5 years with an excellent prognosis and give heartfelt encouragement to those who are going through the process. You can beat breast cancer, too! I found an inner strength I didn’t know I had.

Women must be informed and proactive. Not all clinics have 3-D technology. My insurance would not pay for 3-D mammograms but would pay for a wig when I lost my hair during treatment.

I proudly declined that wig, donned a pink scarf, and spread the news about this new technology to empower women. A 3-D mammogram could save your life too!

— Carol Plumeau of Vancouver. Diagnosed in May 2015.