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May 26, 2022

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Breast cancer survivors: Advice for the diagnosis — and beyond

Survivors share lessons learned, wisdom gained

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Trish Mayhew, a breast cancer survivor and oncology nurse at Legacy Cancer Institute, celebrates completing the 2017, above, and 2018, right, Hood to Coast relay with her team in Seaside, Ore.
Trish Mayhew, a breast cancer survivor and oncology nurse at Legacy Cancer Institute, celebrates completing the 2017, above, and 2018, right, Hood to Coast relay with her team in Seaside, Ore. Photo Gallery

A breast cancer diagnosis can be a terrifying thing, and can mean months or years of tests, uncertainty, surgical procedures, chemotherapy and radiation.

The Columbian asked breast cancer patients and survivors to share what they’ve learned since their diagnosis. What would you tell your past self upon hearing that you had breast cancer? What advice would you give that person in that moment?

Responses have been edited for style and clarity.

Letters to myself

Dear Me, age 33:

You are about to get a diagnosis that will change the course of your life.  I would like to offer you some wisdom and suggestions:

It’s YOUR fight.

  TV commercials are not reality-based.

Breast Cancer Awareness

Each year, more than 200,000 women in the U.S. are diagnosed with breast cancer, including thousands of women in Washington. In honor of their fight — and as part of National Breast Cancer Awareness Month — The Columbian published this collection of stories about the women who have received breast cancer diagnoses, the science and technological advances for treating them and the community that supports them.

Read more

  Pink ribbons are not necessary.

No one but you will know what you are going through.

Enjoy every moment, every opportunity for adventure or learning.

Dear Me, age 60:

You are going to learn soon that you have another breast cancer. Just as before, this will be life-changing.

  The decision to have bilateral mastectomies is yours.

  The decision to wear or not wear prosthesis or have reconstruction is yours.

  Recovery from this episode will be longer than you expect, both physically and emotionally.

  Honestly — people will not freak if you don’t have boobs.

Dear Me, age 66:

The younger and current me are starting another breast cancer journey.  My thoughts to share with you now are:

  I will not get good hair, perfect body and a gorgeous husband by taking those cancer drugs advertised on TV.

  It’s OK to hate cancer.

It’s OK to be mad.

It’s OK to be afraid.

  Family and friends are priceless.

  Adventures are still available on good days.

  We will learn together what our new identity is.

• We will be exploring our mortality.

  We will learn to ask for help.

Focus on life, loving, family, adventures, and laughing!

­— Chris Larsen, ages 66, 60 and 33

Start a cancer journal

I serve as a volunteer mentor for Pink Lemonade Project and am a retired board member and chair. I was diagnosed with stage 1A breast cancer and had a double mastectomy Sept. 16, 2014. I live in Vancouver, and work full-time as a sales leader for a Portland-based software company.

What I would tell my past self upon hearing my diagnosis:

I would coach myself to start a journal, an organized journal, from day one. I took so many notes, but in retrospect would have liked to have put some chronological structure to that. Mostly a document of my journey but also a tool or resource to help others. I would tell my past self that one day you will mentor other survivors and metavivors, so document and remember as much as you can — those details could someday be helpful to another.

— Carolyn Rerick

Take a deep breath

I have been an oncology nurse for 28 years. Last year I was diagnosed with stage IIB breast cancer. My greatest gift was that I had 100 percent confidence in the science, my oncologist and my treatment team. I wish that I could impart that to each patient who I touch through their journey.

This is what I would tell each patient from personal and professional experience …

Breathe. Inhale, exhale. Again.

Seek support from those around you who will hold you up and not paralyze you with fear. Cancer is not who you are, it is a piece of what you have to walk through. Do not let it define you, resist being placed in a category.

Yes, you are a survivor, but that is not all of who you are. Yes, you are a fighter, and you have fought many battles. Take control of what you can. Stressed about your hair falling out? Shave it off. Anxious about chemo day? Make it a party and celebrate it. Worried about inactivity? Ask someone to commit to being your exercise partner — no matter what that looks like.

Cancer is not a death sentence. We are so lucky to live in a time where there have been so many advances in medical care, especially breast cancer. The treatment that your grandmother or mother or your cousin’s best friend’s sister received is probably not the type of treatment that you will receive.

Trust in your medical team and the science behind your treatment, listen, ask questions when you don’t understand, and stay off the internet forums — they are not the experts.

Worry is a rocking chair: It gives you something to do but does not get you anywhere.

Breathe. Inhale, exhale. Again.

— Trish Mayhew

Live for today

I was born in Vancouver in 1938. I turned 80 years old in September.

I have had cancer in each breast and had to have them removed. I walk my dog three times a day, every day. People have asked me if it is strange to not have my breasts. I just explain to them that I am not an exotic dancer (at my age?) nor do I nurse babies. I live for today and tomorrow — yesterday is gone.

Each morning as I awake, I say “thank you” for another day.

And I say to you — you may not have your breasts, but you have been given another day.

— Delores J. Burns and Banjo (the dog)

Conquer the new normal

I have recently found out I am now officially a cancer survivor. It has been a long year and this is what I’ve learned since I was diagnosed:

• Plan to take a year off from your normal life. Give yourself a break from your usual routine and know that when you are on the other side of this battle you will get back to it. Remind yourself that you will get through, then you can get back to your life the way it was before.

You will find you can get used to anything. Truly, you can. I promise. So don’t fight the stuff you have to deal with. Save your fight for the cancer.

I found myself short tempered at times, irritated with other drivers. Just stupid stuff. I learned to remind myself, “I am not angry with the other driver” (or whatever was irritating me). I would tell myself, “Remember you are angry about the cancer. This other driver didn’t cause it, nor did I, so be angry at the cancer, not people.”

I live alone and I’ve always done things for myself, didn’t want to burden others. I had to learn to let others come stay with me, to help me get to appointments and make my recovery from surgeries easier to deal with. I learned I am loved by many people who wanted to help me. They also were affected by my cancer and it helped them to help me. I needed to let them help me, even when I thought I was a burden. I found out I wasn’t, and it gave my friends and family a way to fight my cancer with me, in their own way.

Stay away from looking things up on the internet. Get recommendations of reading material from your doctors. Stick to learning the part of your process you are about to deal with currently. Too much information at once made everything seem worse. I also was better able to ask my doctor questions if I was only addressing the current treatment (and its possible side effects) or the problems I was suffering from at the time.

­—­ Diana Robinson-Weiss

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