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News / Health / Breast Cancer

Breast cancer survivors share wisdom: Get support. Accept help. Stay strong. Never give up

The Columbian
Published: October 11, 2020, 5:19am

Facing a breast cancer diagnosis and treatment — especially during a pandemic — can be a frightening prospect.

The Columbian asked breast cancer patients, survivors and their families to share advice on how to get through diagnosis, treatment and recovery.

• • •

Some tips for getting through treatment: Make sure you have a good support system. Don’t let all the negativity bring you down. You need to stay strong and don’t back down. Turn on fight mode. You got this!

Alyssa Cooper, Vancouver

After receiving a diagnosis of breast cancer, my mother told no one. Not my father, not me, not her friends. Fortunately, her case was mild, and surgery took care of it. But what about her mental anguish? When I was later diagnosed, I shared my worries with a few close friends and my husband. The difference was that I had a caring support team — something my mother had to do without. I didn’t need to hire a sound truck to blast my news all over town, just a few good friends to help me through. Friends and family help us through hard times! I wish my mother had realized this!

Ursula Medanich, Vancouver

Twenty-five years ago, when I was 48 years old, I was diagnosed with breast cancer. After the removal of my right breast, I started chemo, and boy, did it make me sick! I couldn’t even keep water down and the anti-nausea meds gave me a migraine. My wonderful Aunt June told me her morning sickness cure: Before even raising my head off the pillow in the morning, eat a piece of dry toast and drink plain black tea. She explained it kept the bile from shooting up into my stomach when I stood up. The bile would make me sick all day. Another thing that worked was sea-sickness bracelets that I got at Walgreens. They work by acupressure.

The cancer threw me into menopause. To sleep at night, I had a small fan blowing across my bare legs. I wore socks, though, to keep my feet from freezing.

With all this, and physical therapy after chemo, I was able to go back to work. I never regained all of my strength and stamina back, though.

Gayle Okubo, Vancouver

On June 26, 2008, I was scheduled for a routine mammogram. Mammograms aren’t fun, but since I had already survived ovarian cancer 10 years earlier, I knew that a negative result would ease my mind. Two days later, I was asked to come in for conversation. The news was not good. A small cancer, the size of a pencil eraser, was detected at the back of the right breast tissue. There appeared to be no (or very little) lymph system involvement.

The operation date and time were set. I asked the surgeon to leave a small footprint, that is, I elected to have a lumpectomy, rather than a radical mastectomy. Surgical recovery went well since I was in good health. Emotional recovery was the challenge. During my ovarian cancer recovery and follow-on chemotherapy, my emotional support system had failed.

After recovery from ovarian cancer, I became a volunteer with Breast Friends, a women’s cancer support group in Tigard, Ore. They became a second family.

My Breast Friends’ co-volunteers and my mother were my physical and emotional support. My oncologist was always there with encouragement and helpful comments. Although I continued to live alone in my apartment, Mom was always there for me on the phone. My therapy included both radiation and chemotherapy. Driving to and from appointments was not a problem. Getting ready for radiation appointments always took longer than the appointment. My radiation tattoos are also a humorous reminder of that time. Six chemotherapy treatments, every three weeks, completed the treatment. Fortunately, I did not have lymphedema.

Ten-plus years later, as a double survivor, here’s my advice: Early detection is the key to survival. Get your mammogram as scheduled!

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Nancy Frederick, Vancouver

I was diagnosed with stage 4 breast cancer in 2018. Here are some things that have helped me, heart, mind and body.

HEART: Stress plays a big part in cancer growth. I cleared my heart of unresolved conflicts that stressed me out. I approached each family member asking them to forgive me for anything that I have done to hurt them, knowingly or unknowingly. This helped me to move forward without regret.

I highly recommend making a comfortable place in your home to relax and recharge.

MIND: Cancer takes away energy. So choose how you want to think. At the end of each day I write in my “blessing book” something that was a blessing that day. It is a reminder that God is with me each day and there is beauty in even the simple things.

I choose a word each year that inspires me. I have used “hope,” “strength” and “joy.” I wear the word as a bracelet to remind myself of powerful words to live by.

I have gathered a group of women around myself who give support. We make a point to go out together to laugh, cry, and encourage each other. It has been helpful to my friends to know me in my struggle.

Live life to your fullest. Laugh, sing, dance and go bald!

I made a Facebook page to journal and update my family and friends. Bring them along with you on your journey.

BODY: Take a walk every day. It doesn’t need to be long, but get outside and move.

Make smoothie kits for the freezer with nutritious food so you can eat even when you feel nauseous.

Treat yourself to a massage often. It is an investment in yourself.

Let people help in tangible ways. Make a list of gift cards that you would use and of yard and home projects that need to be done.

Janet Straub, Vancouver

I was diagnosed in October 2018. It’s not something you ever want to hear: “It’s probably cancer.” I had that hunch when I found the lump in the shower. But, when you do, the next step is to think, how am I going to deal with it? After the diagnosis, I was resolute. I’ve always been a fighter. And this would be the fight of my life — literally. I looked forward to every chemo treatment knowing afterwards, it was one fewer to the last treatment! Things weren’t normal, but they weren’t awful. I quit listening to those who had been through it before and felt they had to share every dreary detail. I was told it would be the worst year of my life. It just wasn’t. I stayed positive and busy, but also listened to my body. When I needed to rest, I did. Allow yourself to rely on others. Ask when you need help. Your family and friends, they understand and are most willing. (You can be Wonder Woman another day!)

Breast cancer treatment has come a long way. Just realize that you can beat it and live a long and healthy life. Those are powerful thoughts and will keep you going on your toughest days. You will learn that you know many women who have been through this before — and they are still with us today, even decades later. Chat with them, learn about their journey and realize that one day it will be you encouraging others.

Lynda Wilson, Vancouver

I am a nine-year cancer survivor. I was diagnosed and treated for both breast cancer in 2011 and thyroid cancer 2014. I kicked both their butts.

The way I received my diagnosis was not ideal. The X-ray tech bluntly told me right there after the exam, and then a nurse called to tell me over the phone a week later. I never heard it from the doctor. After the call that changed my life, I sat there and cried for eight minutes. But then I pulled up my big girl panties and just told myself, “I will do this!”

After that eight minutes, I did two things: I told my husband and kids about my diagnosis, and I researched everything I could about my kind of cancer. The doctor warned me not to do that, but I wanted to know everything. Information empowered me. Knowledge was my weapon.

It took me a while to tell other people. I mostly told people over email so that they could process it a little bit before seeing me. I didn’t want to see the pity or fear in their eyes. I didn’t want to have to tell the story over and over again.

That part was hard. Being around people, knowing I had cancer and everything had changed but them not knowing it yet. I did start a blog from day one and went through my daily thoughts, treatments, complaints and obstacles. Strangers and old friends began asking me questions and for support. Cancer touches everyone and they had experienced some cancer scares themselves.

When treatment started, a whole new phase of this I-have-cancer thing began. People I thought would be there for me weren’t and people showed up that I would have never expected. My kids’ teachers were amazing and made sure my kids felt supported and that I had care packages. I felt so much support from strangers on the internet.

Sometimes people I’d never met who had cancer were more comforting to me than people I’d known for years who didn’t. Find your tribe, even if it’s just one person. You can’t do this alone!

If you are just starting your I-have-cancer thing, I have so much advice! If you’re doing chemo, have a chemo bag ready to go. Stock it with activities, a blanket, something that smells good and sour or ginger candy to keep your mouth moist. Just be aware: You will hate that candy when this is over, so choose wisely! Never go to chemo alone and be ready for Day 3 to be the hardest. It will really hurt when your hair starts to grow back.

Check out the Look Good Feel Better program. It was so encouraging and introduced me to people fighting my same battles. Even the little ones. I also did a Shoots for the Cure photo shoot and I made the website cover. See your baldness or weakness or good days as a badge of honor. You are a warrior. Stay in warrior mode.

Strangers won’t know what to do. I made up little cards to hand to people that explained why I was bald (or sweating or crying!) and asked them not to stare. Friends won’t know what to say. That will make some of them not say anything. Let those friends go; others are on their way who will see you and say something.

I’m in recovery now. I celebrate my cancer-versary every year with those people. My bones are weaker, my eyesight is worse, my hair is thinner, my boobs are just tattoos now. But I am in recovery. Claim your power back any way you can! For me it was tattooing things on myself that cancer had taken, making goodie bags and journals for the people in the chemo chairs I’d once been in, and scrapbooking my entire journey. Even the really ugly parts.

Cancer doesn’t really change your character. It reveals it. Everybody’s cancer story is different. Claim victory over yours, and don’t judge someone else’s.

Jill Marple, Vancouver

I was diagnosed with breast cancer last fall after noticing a lump while breastfeeding. Two doctors initially dismissed my concern, suggesting the lump was probably related to breastfeeding. Their medical advice was to monitor it and come back in six months. I pushed for a mammogram, which saved my life.

Advocate for your health. It is a skill necessary for dealing with a serious illness and navigating the U.S. health care system. Be your own ally throughout the process, including diagnosis, treatment and recovery.

Listen to your body. In the months leading up to my diagnosis, I experienced dizziness and lightheadedness, often feeling like I was going to pass out. I later learned this is a side effect of cancer.

You’ll deal with brain fog, especially upon diagnosis. The human brain can only process so much at once. Bring a loved one to medical appointments to take notes, ask questions and support you. This helped me even when I thought I didn’t need it.

If you’re a premenopausal woman, chemotherapy may send you into menopause. I wouldn’t have bought that pricey wig had I known I’d be sweating through winter.

Speaking of wigs, for some people, a wig that resembles their “normal hair” brings a sense of security, especially in the workplace. I got my mileage out of a $15 rainbow wig that my kiddo found quite hilarious. To each her own.

Accept help when you need it. I’ve met fierce, amazing survivors through Young Survivors PDX and the Vancouver-based Pink Lemonade Project. I extend my gratitude to Andy McCandless of Michelle’s Love. The nonprofit helps single parents dealing with breast cancer who were employed at the time of diagnosis by providing financial assistance, cleaning, meals, and most of all love.

Kate Kimball, Northeast Portland

My breast cancer diagnosis was gut wrenching for me. It wasn’t possible. I had no family history and I was healthy, exercising and trying to live a well-balanced life. Without my faith and my unbelievably loving family and friends, I would have been lost in the diagnosis, treatment and now recovery. I knew cancer did not belong to me and it simply had to go. I chose to dig in, fight with open arms and ears as I listened to my expert oncology team. I accepted all the treatment available and kept moving forward. I worked full time through most of the year of chemo, surgery and radiation and continued to teach Pilates two days per week (except when I was too tired). During radiation I played the same song each morning as I drove to the appointment. It was my fight song.

Living my life as “normal” as possible was extremely important. I used my cancer to reach out and share my experiences with my friends and family through the site CaringBridge. Keeping them informed and involved all along and leaning on their love and support became part of my treatment plan and recovery. I needed my tribe and they never let up! I filled my life with positive messages anywhere I could put them — prayers, sayings, music, art and flowers!

In recovery I am learning to be kinder to myself, rest when I need it and fuel myself with more happiness and far less stress. Faith and family is and will always be an integral part of my recovery. Today I am cancer-free and living my very best life.

Kristen Bryant, Battle Ground

I was diagnosed with stage 2 breast cancer in December 2017 during a regular mammogram. My mom had been diagnosed with stage 4 non-Hodgkin lymphoma only the month before. I had surgery in January 2018, and started chemo not long after. I was taking care of my mom during her treatments, and trying to work just enough to at least cover my rent, all while doing my treatments in Portland. The American Cancer Society helped me with rides to chemo. I don’t think I would have been able to do treatments otherwise. I was very sick, too busy and put myself so far in debt that I am still trying to get myself out of it. I’m not really sure how I did it all. Take advantage of any help you can find.

Sonya Larson, Stevenson

At the end of my annual mammogram in 2010 I heard words a woman doesn’t want to hear: “The doctor would like to talk to you.” My adventure into the world of breast cancer diagnosis and treatment had begun.

First came the biopsy. Yes, it was cancer. At my first appointment with the surgeon my entire support team, my daughter (and hero), came with me to take notes because my mind was like a pingpong ball in a room full of mouse traps. The surgeon was terrific — calming and direct. She would do an outpatient lumpectomy first and see where we went from there, but the prognosis was good. I was diagnosed with ductal carcinoma in situ, the absolute earliest stage of a breast cancer diagnosis.

Next was the lumpectomy, with the implantation of a clip to indicate to future examiners that something had been found and removed. Kristen, my daughter, was with me the whole way through the lumpectomy and, bless her, had a chocolate bar already unwrapped when I awoke in recovery.

The margins of the lumpectomy were completely clear. The biopsy had gotten all the cancer cells! Radiation and its side effects, fatigue and radiation burns, completed my treatment regimen over the next few months after the surgical site healed. One of the first things one of the radiation technicians said to me at the first treatment was that I had a terrific attitude and would come through treatment easily. Thankfully, she was correct. My daughter’s support, my employer’s understanding, and all the medical people who cared for me then and now were absolutely the best and all contributed to my recovery and mentally positive attitude.

Since I began getting mammograms I have not missed a year. Early detection is key! I encourage every woman to get an annual exam. Some cancers, like mine, are much too small to be found by monthly self-exam in the shower, but suspicious spots on mammograms can be found by more experienced, knowledgeable eyes.

Jan Barrett, Vancouver

I first found out I had breast cancer back in May 2017. When I heard those words from a physician’s assistant, over the phone, with my husband being at work, I was angry. Luckily, my oldest daughter was with me, as well as my mother. They took it pretty bad, yet tried not to break down in front of me. My mother just looked so sad, having tears in her eyes. My daughter did her best to be strong in front of me, but eventually tears streamed down her face. We were all in a state of shock. After I was able to reach my husband, I just sat down next to my daughter, and tried to feel all those feelings that one would expect from hearing such news. Yet, I still wasn’t about to cry. I wasn’t about to allow that cancer beast to break me. My son and husband took it the worst. But, I still remained calm, allowing my strength to build up inside of me. When I finally started my chemo in July, I had prepared myself for what was about to happen. I was not afraid, and I just knew inside that I would be OK, and everything would be just fine. Now, many people might have thought that I was in denial, but this wasn’t the case. I did very, very well during my chemo, never once getting sick from what was being put into me. I stayed strong, not just for myself, but for my family and friends. I started to feel bad about having to make those calls, as everyone was in shock and disbelief. Because they were sad, I was sad for them. I still did not cry. But, two weeks into the chemo, I started losing my hair, and when I saw all my beautiful hair falling everywhere in the shower, I starting weeping, and immediately ran to my husband. I sobbed and sobbed, for what seemed like forever. And when I stopped, I felt relief, as I washed away those fears I had buried inside.

I had my double mastectomy on Dec. 4, and my surgery went well. Unfortunately, the biopsy and CT scan came back showing cancer in my lymph nodes on both sides, so back to surgery on Jan. 12. My mother had just passed away one week before that surgery, so that was even more difficult to go through. Yet, I still stayed strong, and remained calm. I wasn’t about to let fear take over. I began my radiation in February, doing extremely well. I received a clean bill health. I had survived! I had beaten that cancer beast!

Unfortunately, I found out my cancer had returned less than a year later, in the summer of 2019. I was still unafraid, and felt even more strength. I had an amazing supportive system, and I felt so blessed to have them in my life. I went through surgery once again, in October. I had survived for a second time. I celebrated once again. Unfortunately, less than six months later, it had returned and had metastasized into my brain. I took it hard this time, crying on my husband’s shoulder for what seemed like hours. But this time, I received more strength from God and my family and friends. I eventually stood up, once again, not allowing the cancer beast to take me down. I was confident in my doctors and especially my God. I will have another MRI, and I am not afraid. I have faith and truly believe I will be fine and those cancer cells will be gone for good. The moral of all this: Never ever give up!

May you lean on others, and allow them to help you through. You do not have to do it alone. May you stay well, and never give up fighting!

LaNae Davidson, Vancouver