Survivor update: Women look back at challenges, lessons

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Editor’s note: The Columbian has shared the stories of dozens of women and men with breast cancer since it began publishing the Confronting Breast Cancer section in October 2013. We recently caught up with two women to see how they are doing today.

Jenneh Onwumere

• The story: Jenneh Onwumere was featured in the 2016 Confronting Breast Cancer section.

• Then: Onwumere was diagnosed with breast cancer on Mother’s Day in 2016. For four months — every other Thursday for eight treatments — Onwumere drove from her Woodland home to The Vancouver Clinic in Salmon Creek to undergo chemotherapy.

• Now: Onwumere underwent a double mastectomy in October 2016. Additional testing showed that the chemotherapy treatment was effective, so Onwumere didn’t need radiation therapy.

In March, Onwumere underwent deep inferior epigastric perforator, or DIEP, flap breast reconstruction. The procedure takes the DIEP blood vessels, as well as the connected fat and skin, from the abdomen and moves it to the chest to reconstruct the breast.

Onwumere, 42, still experiences some numbness in her hands and feet, and her bones ache from time to time — lingering side effects of the chemotherapy. But, for the most part, she’s doing well.

“With the cancer past … I’m doing really good,” Onwumere said.

Onwumere credits her positive outlook to making it through the diagnosis and treatment. And she’s maintained that perspective in the months since completing treatment.

“I don’t look at my past,” she said. “I just kept that positive attitude. I don’t feel like I have cancer. I just keep positive and living day by day.”

Onwumere sees her doctor every six months for checkups but, otherwise, has no ongoing breast cancer treatment.

“The main thing I would tell anyone that is diagnosed with cancer is they don’t have to look down upon themselves. They don’t have to feel sorry for themselves,” she said. “They always have to have the 100 percent positive (attitude) that ‘I’m going to beat this, and I’m going to live my life.’ ”

Adrienne San Nicolas

• The story: Adrienne San Nicolas was featured in the 2016 Confronting Breast Cancer section.

• Then: When San Nicolas was diagnosed with breast cancer in the spring of 2015, she quickly saw it as an opportunity to discover her purpose. Through her experience, she said, she could help others. She turned her chemotherapy sessions into themed parties and always befriended the new person to show up for treatment. She maintained a positive attitude throughout the radiation and surgeries. She hoped to volunteer in the chemotherapy suites once she was a year out of the end of her treatment.

• Now: Since she finished treatment for breast cancer in March 2016, San Nicolas hasn’t had any signs of recurrence, a fact she is celebrating.

However, she’s doing so with a cringe.

Earlier this year, her sister-in-law, Naomi Allen, 35, was diagnosed with breast cancer, a fact that flooded her with anger.

“I want to take it from her. I’ll take it again,” San Nicolas, 37, said. “I felt like I should have carried it for everyone. We shouldn’t be doing this again; we already did this as a family.”

San Nicolas said she’s happy she hadn’t committed to volunteering yet. Though the anger about Allen’s diagnosis didn’t last long, it was there.

“For me, a year may not be enough time,” she said. “You have unresolved feelings after a year.”

But something Allen said to San Nicolas early on made her think about her purpose in a new way.

“She thanked me for being a good example,” San Nicolas said. “She said, ‘I don’t know where I’d be if I hadn’t watched you do it’ … It kind of made me go, ‘OK, this may be part of it. Being able to watch me go through it with a good attitude may be part of why I went through it.'”

Now, she’s supporting Allen through a journey she went on two years ago.

She’s gone with her to diagnostic appointments and sat with her through chemotherapy. The women text and call each other daily to check in. San Nicolas answers questions and lends an ear of support.

“I’m blessed that I’ve been through it so I can push her in the right direction,” she said. “It’s been neat to watch her be so positive about it.”

Even though San Nicolas isn’t going through treatment anymore, cancer is still finding a way of teaching her new things.

“Cancer doesn’t discriminate,” she said. “You just never know who it’s going to effect or how close to home it’s going to hit.”