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May 22, 2022

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Breast Cancer Awareness Month: Sources of support

Patients share what helped them most during their battle with breast cancer

The Columbian

For the loved ones of a breast cancer patient, it can be hard to know how to help.

The Columbian asked breast cancer patients and survivors to share stories about family, friends, health providers or even strangers who offered support through their diagnosis and treatment. What helped? What didn’t? Most importantly: How can the people surrounding a breast cancer patient be of service?

Encouragement counts

I was diagnosed with breast cancer on Feb. 14, 2014. I had just started a new job, so it was frightening and stressful as to how I would be able to work and go through cancer treatment. Luckily, I had a very supportive work team that was with me every step of the way. They were compassionate and encouraging, offering help daily.

I chose a lumpectomy and six weeks of daily radiation for treatment. I worked the majority of time and was able to rely on my work mates and close friends to help when needed.

What helped the most? Daily texts or phone calls, emails of encouragement, cards and just knowing people were thinking and praying for me. A meal train was organized for my family, which was a huge help. Also, reaching out to local support groups and talking to my nurse navigator. Finding someone who had gone through the same experience. Laughing as much as possible was a good distraction, as well.

How can people surrounding a breast cancer patient be of service? Patients aren’t always able to articulate what they need, so offer help with specific tasks (housework, mowing the yard, meals, grocery shopping), and just drop a quick line or call to say you are in their thoughts.

I’m happy to report that I’m five years cancer-free and enjoying every minute that life has to offer.

Tamira Hite, Vancouver

A community of support counts

I went in for a routine mammogram in May 2018 (hadn’t had one in four years due to divorce and expensive health insurance). I have no family history of breast cancer.

I was called a couple days later to return and over the course of the next few weeks was diagnosed with DCIS (ductal carcinoma in situ). Not one medical professional had ever told me you could have breast cancer without a lump. Most women I share this with haven’t been told this, either. This needs to change!

I had a lumpectomy in July, wherein they discovered invasive cancer in the lymph nodes and also inside the DCIS, then mastectomy in October and reconstructive in December. I rushed my last surgery because I had met my out of pocket so no additional costs.

My fianc? was amazing through it all. He moved me into his home while I was recovering and took such good care of me — going to appointments, emptying my drain tubes, and giving me so much strength and support. Having an involved spouse is so important. Even after all the craziness, we got engaged in December.

My mom stayed at my house and cared for my dogs. My brother’s family sent me the best care packages of little things to do and snacks. This I highly recommend. It was like a bottomless treasure chest!

I was able to take a paid leave of absence from my new job and have gotten so much support from my co-workers and customers with lifting and time off. I don’t know what made me sign up for disability insurance that day I became eligible, but I was never so thankful.

At first, I was so uncomfortable with people knowing. I hated how people looked at my chest first before asking how I was. I taught dance in the area for 30-plus years. I ran into former customers all the time and didn’t want people talking about this like they had when I got divorced.

I didn’t feel the need to join support groups but really wanted to have a one-on-one person that had gone through this to answer questions. I did reach out to a mentor with Pink Lemonade. We had one conversation with a lot of promises, none that she followed through with. This was a huge letdown.

My wonderful medical team — Dr. Cory Donovon (surgeon), Dr. Allen Gabriel (plastic surgeon), Dr. Natallia Sarorova (specialist), Catherine Patterson (social worker), Katy Wood and Julie Hawthorne (physical therapists), and their staff have been very supportive. Cigna Insurance has been helpful, as well, walking me through getting assistance with bills and a lot more.

I created an event on Facebook to inform my closest family and friends of my surgeries and progress. The positive comments and messages were so encouraging. Surgery and diagnosis is a huge part of the journey but it doesn’t stop there. I am battling a recurrence every day of my life when I take those pills with horrible side effects. Unfortunately, I haven’t heard much from people this year, which really hurts. Some people never even acknowledged my news. People might not know what to say, but just being there to listen and check up on you is so appreciated. Waiting until you run into someone every couple months and asking how they are is just not enough.

Kara Owens, Vancouver

Kindness and encouragement over pity

I am 50 years old. When I was 48, I was diagnosed with stage 3 breast cancer just one month after I started my new position as a registered nurse with Kaiser Permanente’s outpatient oncology department at our Interstate campus.

This was mid-February 2017. It was pretty ironic but also a blessing. My team was amazing, and gave me all the time I needed for surgery, chemotherapy and radiation. I cut back my hours and worked light duty in the back office. I returned to work in the infusion room the beginning of October. Having light duty at work really helped.

What helped during my diagnosis and treatment was just an acknowledgment and a word of encouragement. I had people I hadn’t heard from in years send a card or a message of encouragement through Facebook. The kindness of people, friends and strangers was incredible. It also helped if people didn’t look at me with pity. I did NOT like that.

When going through this, the biggest help was just acknowledgment and normalcy.

Jill Ellis, Camas

Listening goes a long way

Listen. The most important thing anyone did for me was to listen. Breast cancer is a very personal journey. There are so many decisions, so many variables, and so much information to digest in a short period of time, all while grappling with the idea, “I have cancer?” I had doubts about which were the right choices for me. I struggled with regrets and depression. The healing went beyond the physical. I was glad for those who were patient and listened as I worked through it all. Everyone knows someone affected by breast cancer. Everyone has a story. Thank you to everyone who listened to mine because that’s what I needed most.

Lynn Stoller, Vancouver

Family, friends make best medicine

Anyone who gets the diagnosis of breast cancer will be shaken. My first reaction, in early April of this year, was, “How could this happen to me?” I’m healthy, take no prescription drugs and exercise regularly, but I have breast cancer with lymph node involvement.

People show their support for me in various ways. Some by listening, or if a friend says, “If you’re up for it, let’s go for a walk.” What didn’t help me were horror stories about cancer in lymph nodes and how brutal chemotherapy is.

From initial diagnosis to a lumpectomy to chemo, I truly have never met so many caring human beings. It’s like some magical entity proclaimed, “If you are dedicated to making the sick well, come congregate at Vancouver Clinic and Legacy hospital.”

The best medicine is being with family and friends. My husband has been the epitome of patience. The second best is reading newspapers and doing New York Times crosswords as they cause my mind to focus externally rather than inward. Knowing this chemo is going after the cancer cells with a vengeance makes me feel good.

The worst side effect for me is the feeling of total fatigue, with the flu thrown in.

Since most chemo patients lose their hair, my sister-in-law and friends have decided to put their crocheting talents to work by making really cool, Diane Keaton-style hats, which they are going to donate to the chemo ward at Legacy Salmon Creek Medical Center.

Diagnosis: Finishing chemotherapy and radiation — cancer free!

Elaine Odahl, Vancouver

The fight goes on

I am now 44 years old and a two-time cancer survivor. I was first diagnosed in February 2012 with stage 4, metastatic, then again in March 2018 with stage 2. I am a unique story, or so I am told. To me, I just live my life.

I was diagnosed at 36 years old. I have three children and a husband. I was at a loss at first but knew the only option was to fight. My cancer was estrogen+. “Traditional” chemotherapy did not work, so my doctor at OHSU had me go an “alternate” route and starve my cancer by depleting my body of estrogen by removing my ovaries and not replacing estrogen in my body. This, coupled with three medications, shrunk all the cells. However, I continue to go every three weeks for an infusion to inhibit growth.

I was completely surprised in 2018 when a scan showed a small lump forming near the origination site of my first cancer. However, after biopsies were done, it was determined my cancer had morphed to a new form and was now estrogen negative. So in April 2018, I began six rounds of chemo, then surgery, then radiation. This dissolved any new tumors. But my fight did not end. I then had to resume my treatments for my first cancer.

For 7 1/2 years, I have gone every three weeks to OHSU to receive treatment. I have lost my hair, grew it back, lost it again. I have been at my lowest and at my strongest. But through it all, I continue to move forward. I continue my job as a teacher and I wake up each morning ready to take on the day.

I have a blog (that I haven’t written on in quite a while):

I know I have never fought this alone and have so many people in my corner.

Madonna Underland, Vancouver

Professional, personable care

I had a mammogram in 2018 after having skipped one in 2017. I didn’t expect the follow-up letter requesting I schedule further examination.

The biopsy revealed a very small tumor in one breast. The setup between my normal clinic and the cancer professionals was a very smooth one, and before I knew it, I had meetings with an oncologist, a surgeon and a radiation oncologist. My cancer was common — good news. These folks know lots about it and how to treat it. Also good news was the very early detection. Radiation was recommended after a lumpectomy, with no chemotherapy. In the meantime, the staff, from clerical, nurses, techs and aides to doctors, were personable and efficient.

Then, a final test indicated a high probability that the cancer could recur without chemotherapy. I went into surgery in January, knowing that I had a longer treatment plan ahead. Surgery went well; the margins were clean, as were the lymph nodes removed. Chemotherapy was hard and I experienced side effects outside of the more commonly known nausea and hair loss. My tear ducts got blocked and I “cried” all the time. My feet and hands were painful and they cracked and peeled. I still have residual tingling in my toes and fingers. The radiation had fewer, and milder, side effects.

My treatment was occasionally impersonal at times, but always very professional. The Nurse Navigator program helps to humanize the situation a little. The best support, however, was my husband. I couldn’t have asked for better.

Diana Rigg, Washougal

Don’t let go of life

I was 62 years old and had been faithful with my mammograms every year. So when I was told I had cancer, it was a shock, because I had no pain, no lumps, nothing. I had my surgery and underwent recovery and was still working at the sheriff’s office, and then had radiation treatment for six weeks. When seeing my oncologist every month, he said to me one day, “You have a very good attitude about your condition. What are you doing?” I said with family, friends and faith, I can make it through. He asked me if I would meet with other women who were going through the same thing and could I possibly encourage them. I was happy to do that and met several women, and we enjoyed each other’s company. I found that many of these women went through a lot more than I did.

All was well for eight years. When I was 70, after a special birthday time with my daughters, I found that I needed to get some further treatment because of my recent mammogram. Then I was told I had cancer in my other breast. I already had it once, and this time I was asking, “Why?”

My son-in-law said, “Carol, maybe you are taking it for someone else.” OK, I guess so, and I again had surgery and radiation. When I was in the waiting room one day, there were two women in gowns who previously had chemo. One said to the other, “I think your hair is growing back.” The other said, “Oh good, I won’t have to color it.”

I told them, “You women blow me away,” and one said, “Carol, we have lost our hair, not our lives.”

Carol Thomas, Washougal

It knows no gender

It was a series of inclusive biopsies before I was referred to the breast cancer clinic. I remember feeling embarrassed each visit, despite being scheduled for a mastectomy.

The day of the surgery, my spouse and I showed up at the hospital at 6 a.m. prepared for what at that time in Oregon was a day surgery. We got checked in and were rushed through the double doors and then ushered back behind a curtain. There was a bed and a chair. People were moving in and out with a real sense of urgency.

Then the surgical nurse entered, picked up the file and then said, “This is just a formality, Mrs. Roth, do you know why you’re here today?” We look at each other, and she said, “Yes, I’m here to support my husband!”

At that minute, I stopped being embarrassed about my breast cancer, and for the past 13 years I have made efforts to raise money and awareness to the fact that breast cancer knows no gender.

While more prevalent in women (one in eight), more than 2,500 men will receive a breast cancer diagnosis in the U.S. this year.

Will Roth, Vancouver

Don’t neglect routine mammograms

I am currently being treated for breast cancer. This is stage zero cancer but with grade 3 cells, the most aggressive kind. I have a 99 percent chance of cure.

The real story is that this was discovered on a routine mammogram. It was just a cluster of calcified tissue with no discrete tumor, but a subsequent needle biopsy revealed the malignancy. I am encouraging women not to neglect routine mammograms. Without it, I could not have known.

Lora Taylor, Vancouver


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