Facing a breast cancer diagnosis can be a frightening prospect.
The Columbian asked breast cancer patients and survivors for advice on getting through diagnosis and treatment.
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I was diagnosed in 2011 after a mammogram showed a spot. It couldn’t be felt, only seen on mammogram and ultrasound.
My bit of advice is to think carefully about reconstruction. I had a single mastectomy, and chose an implant. No one told me implants may need to be replaced after 10 years.
Fast forward to 2020, when an unrelated scan showed that my implant had broken on the inside. Instead of replacing it, I chose the DIEP flap procedure. It’s more invasive, since it uses skin and tissue from one’s torso. It’s basically a tummy tuck and then reconstructing the breast. I’m very pleased with the results. Its appearance is more like a real breast, unlike what I called “the immovable object.” It is also more comfortable to have one’s own tissue instead of a bag of silicone set on one’s chest.
— Jaron Farley, Vancouver
In 2013 at the age of 49, I was first diagnosed and treated for stage 2 breast cancer. I underwent chemo, followed by a double mastectomy and reconstruction. I initially thought this was a “one and done” event given extreme stress at the time, therefore, I did not change much in my life.
Confronting Breast Cancer
Fast forward six years: The original breast cancer metastasized to my lungs, bones and lymph nodes. Cancer now has my full attention! Metastatic breast cancer is not curable but it is treatable. Following six months of chemo, I take daily Letrozole and Verzenio to keep the cancer from spreading. Each quarter, I have Zometa infusions to help keep my bones strong.
I complemented my medical oncology team with a naturopathic oncologist. This was life changing as I began to take supplements during the weekly chemo treatments as well as ongoing supplements to build my immune system and minimize drug side effects.
I also read the book “Radical Remission” by Kelly A. Turner and followed every suggestion. The book recommends eating diet of whole grains, fruits, vegetables, lean meat and no processed foods or sugar; limiting diary and alcohol; drinking eight glasses of filtered water daily; getting lots of rest along with daily light exercise such as walking, cycling and yoga; and seeking support for mental and spiritual wellbeing.
— Christine Terry, Felida
I was diagnosed Jan. 8, 2018, with invasive ductal carcinoma on my left breast, and suspicious calcifications on the right. This was just a month before my big 50th birthday!
I made it through surgery, chemo, radiation and now am taking hormone blockers to prevent recurrence.
Things I learned along the way:
- Listen to your oncologist about meds, supplements and diet — absolutely not Google, not well-meaning friends and family, and not Facebook! There’s so much conflicting info out there, that it is scary and overwhelming.
- Ask your doctors any and all questions you have; even if you ask twice, they shouldn’t mind. Write down notes at every appointment or take a support person with you to help you remember. Chemo brain is real! Keep a medicine log too. It’s easy to forget if you have taken pills or not during this time.
- If you still have pain long after surgery, tell your doctor!
- Take ice packs for your hands and feet to chemo. It will save your nails and help reduce neuropathy. Eating ice chips during chemo helped me avoid mouth sores.
- Moisturize way more than you think you need to, and drink lots of water. Rest whenever you need to. Your body is trying to fight and heal.
- I saved the most important (for me) until last. Join support groups. There are many types online. Nobody who hasn’t gone through this will understand exactly how you feel, but your pink sisters will. It’s also a good place to ask embarrassing questions about intimacy, drug side effects, etc. Make sure you have a good support system. Not everyone is able to deal with your diagnosis in a helpful way. Sometimes they just don’t know what to say or do to help. Surround yourself, even if its a Zoom call, with comforting people!
I truly hope this helps anyone out there who is going through this journey.
— Amber Peterson, Vancouver
‘You have cancer” — three very scary words. However, the words don’t need to send you into a dark corner. In fact, the dark corner is exactly where you shouldn’t be. One’s positive mental attitude goes a long way in the recovery process. The biggest piece of advice I can give is to find joy and humor every day. Laugh, make jokes, play games, watch a silly movie — it’ll be hard some days to be positive, which is OK, but there is joy there. Hold onto it.
Here’s what else has helped me:
- This is your time to take care of yourself. Let friends and family help you, hire a house cleaner, have groceries delivered.
- Comfort is key, so bring what you love to treatment. I brought a blanket from my friends and wore something my kids gave me to every treatment to feel like I had them with me. Also, ask the nurses about the chairs. Some are better than others — seriously.
- Treatment is boring. Bring something to do — a novel, a crossword or coloring book, a tablet and headphones.
- Ask questions of your doctors and nurses because you’ll have a lot to process. Be honest about your symptoms to help your team help you. Also, talk to the other patients in the treatment room. They are on the front lines with you.
- There’s no need to stop being you. Go to the beach. Have coffee with a friend. Live life.
— Paula Gunther, Vancouver
I was diagnosed with breast cancer in January 2021 — stage 1, invasive lobular and ductal carcinoma. It’s a shock to receive this news but my gynecologist told me I had a treatable disease. Start with a good surgeon and your medical team will take you through an established process. My treatment was a lumpectomy and radiation therapy, followed by hormonal therapy for five years.
- Tell your doctor about any suspicious lumps. My cancer did not show up on my annual mammogram.
- The logistics of treatment were often more stressful than having cancer. There is a lot to coordinate and you must be your own advocate. Get a notebook and keep good records.
- Try and find a doctor who communicates well based on your needs. My surgeon was the type to say, “Your pathology was great,” but I needed to know the details.
- You decide who you are comfortable with sharing your news. Be prepared that not everyone will respond the way you thought. You may need to openly communicate with family members about what you need emotionally during treatment. They want to support you but may not know how.
- It helped me to talk often with a friend who had gone through breast cancer treatment the previous year.
- Some side effects come well after treatment. Keep your follow-up appointments and ask any questions. Be persistent in finding answers as it’s better than needless worry.
- Know that there are many caring friends, family and medical staff to help you get through this.
— Brenda Dias, Vancouver
My tips of wisdom as a cancer survivor: Never ever postpone your yearly mammogram and please go one step further and make it a monthly routine to do a self-exam.
I was faithful to my yearly mammogram but never got into the monthly routine of self-examination.
Nothing short of divine intervention had me, out of the blue, decide to do a self- exam in January 2021. And that is when I discovered the mass.
I immediately called my gynecologist. Tests confirmed I had stage 2 breast cancer.
I survived 12 weeks of chemotherapy plus a double mastectomy and was declared cancer-free in July 2021. I am one of the lucky ones. I am now undergoing six weeks of radiation therapy.
The key was the self-examination.
I suggest the 2006 book “After Breast Cancer: A Common-Sense Guide to Life After Treatment” by Hester Hill Schnipper. It was a great read and life- changer for me.
— Joan A. Selby, Vancouver
I am 46 years old and was diagnosed with invasive ductal carcinoma (estrogen receptor positive, HER2 negative) in May 2021.
I started having twice yearly mammograms four years ago due to family history but never thought anything would be found. Well, I am now recovering from a full, right mastectomy and awaiting reconstruction.
The following items helped me after my mastectomy and might help you also.
- Shower chair. It is difficult to manage your drains and it helps to sit down. I was able to find one at my local Goodwill for a reasonable price.
- Oversized, button-up shirts. I also got these at Goodwill. I shopped in the men’s section and picked soft cotton styles about two sizes too big. You can tie them at the waist to allow for a spot to hide your drains if you leave the house. This made me feel more comfortable and even a bit fashionable.
- Something to hold your drain. A large safety pin or a purchased belt. This not only keeps them from flopping around but will also prevent the drains from pulling and hurting.
- Flexible ice packs. As many as you can find. You will need them.
- A comfortable spot to rest. A recliner worked best for me. I had no idea how tired I would be after surgery and it helped to have a spot to just crash.
Remember that the pain and scars will fade. You will emerge stronger than before.
— Cindy Sheehy, Vancouver
My first breast cancer was frightening. I didn’t inform my children until the day before the surgery. I was treated at the UW Medical Center, a very reassuring facility. I had lumpectomy, three months of radiation five days a week and counseling. I read Dr. Susan Love’s book.
Aside from the inconvenience, the worst part was seeing the babies and children who received the day’s first radiation treatments, most under anesthesia.
The only aftereffect for me was lymphedema, and I have to wear a compression sleeve when I fly.
The love and support of my family was a major component of my recovery.
My second breast cancer, 23 years later, was more irritating than frightening: How the hell could this happen? My husband was in rehab from a stroke. I was selling a house and buying another on my own — plus moving. I decided on a double mastectomy. Twice was enough.
My husband and family were strongly supportive, but worried about my mental reaction. However, I was comfortable with the decision, even though I am occasionally surprised when I see my flat chest. The second surgery was three years ago.
- Have a cheerful, supportive family, but make up your own mind what you want. It’s your body.
- Happily accept your family’s love and comfort — and irritation, if indicated.
- Try to get outdoors in the fresh air every day.
- Ask for help. A neighbor organized other neighbors and our children and grandchildren. For two weeks I cooked no meals.
— Susie Cheek, Vancouver
I was diagnosed with stage 2 invasive HER2-positive breast cancer on Dec. 24, 2018. First I had chemotherapy, then surgery, then radiation. I made it. I’m now cancer-free. I have such appreciation for those who took care of me. I had some very tough days but I always had help at the end of my fingertips.
Here are my tips:
- Seek support groups — any and all. I also found comfort in “Chicken Soup for the Breast Cancer Survivor’s Soul: Stories to Inspire, Support and Heal.”
- Get up and move every day, even if you only make it to the other side of the bed.
- With chemo, you will lose your hair. Guess what? It will be gone before treatment No. 2! The nose hair goes too. You’ll have a runny nose for about a year.
- Don’t buy false eyelashes; they have nothing to sit on.
- If you have dehydration, try a Slurpee. It’s not the best nutrition but it helped me replenish fluids.
- In radiation treatment, as the skin gets worse, get burn bandages. They help keep your underarm from sticking to your breast area.
- Buy your husband a book that is written for him. He needs to know what, why and how to do things for you or to do nothing at all. It helps with the suffering — and he will suffer just watching you. I recommend “Breast Cancer Husband: How to Help Your Wife (and Yourself) During Diagnosis, Treatment and Beyond” by Marc Silver.
- Smile at everyone you see. They see a bald head and get scared, so smile.
— Pattie Westmoreland, Sequim (formerly of La Center)
“I am the CEO and CFO of my body.”
I don’t recall where I heard or read what became my mantra for my six-year-and-counting breast cancer journey. Nothing comes up when I Google it.
I used it when I asked my primary care physician to forgo my annual physical to instead examine a lump I found in my breast. I used it again when I decided to stop my chemo after five rounds instead of the recommended six when atrial fibrillation landed me in the emergency room. Once more when I insisted on allergy testing for titanium as my siblings have this allergy. Again, when I decided to delay breast reconstruction surgery to this day. And I used it when my insurance wouldn’t pay to test for the BRCA gene so tested through 23andMe on my own. I even used it recently when I declined a PET scan as being premature for lower back pain after all routine exams and labs were normal. I’ll start with X-rays and physical therapy, thank you very much.
I have my reasons for each of these decisions. I don’t want to explain, argue, debate or justify my decisions to anyone. After all, this is my life, my money, my insurance, my breast, my cancer.
My mantra gives me a sense of control, strengthens me, and forces me to go within and take responsibility for my decisions. Try it. It may do the same for you.
— Debra Ivy, Vancouver
I received my cancer diagnosis (estrogen and progesterone receptor negative, HER2 equivocal) in January 2018.
After you recover from the shock of your diagnosis, you and your doctors will make a plan that’s likely to include chemo. Ask lots of questions so you know what to expect. The oncology nurses are so kind and helpful and will answer your questions during your treatments. Chemo sessions can be long so it helps to bring a book or an iPad to pass the time.
Remember lots of women have gone through this and are now living a full, happy life. If you need people to talk to before or during this time, Pink Lemonade Project can provide mentors. The mentors can be a huge help. All you have to do is call.
I do wish I would had kept a journal so I could look back on this period and realize that it was life changing.
You are stronger than you think, and everyone who knows and loves you wish you the very best. You can beat this. Good luck.
— Mary Frances Duggan, Vancouver
I am part of the 6 percent of males who can get breast cancer. Mine started when I found a very small sore on my chest that would not heal over several months. My general practitioner sent me to the cancer center for an ultrasound exam. The conclusion by the attending physician who oversaw the procedure and declared the lesion benign. Two weeks later, I just happened to have my annual dermatology exam. As the doctor looked at the same sore, I told him it had been checked. He said, “We need to check this out further.” I went for a biopsy. The surgeon who oversaw that biopsy said, “You are going into surgery next week to have a mastectomy.” That operation was successful. I feel the dermatologist saved my life. Soon after this episode, I was diagnosed with prostate cancer, and 42 radiation treatments later, that was eradicated. All is clear for now, but the effects of chemo still linger. I have neuropathy in my feet.
I would urge anyone who has a suspicious spot to get a second opinion. I also want to give a huge thank you to Compass Oncology. The doctors and nurses there have been so helpful and comforting.
— Dick Corkum, Washougal
“You have breast cancer.” These are words I thought I’d never hear. I have no history of breast cancer in my family. I thought I was at low risk.
The day I heard these words, my heart sank. I thought I was going to die early. I thought I wouldn’t make it. I had a lump in my left breast, diagnosed as stage 2b with lymph-node involvement. It was November 2016.
Right away, we made a care plan with the oncologist: first, shrink the tumor and lymph nodes through targeted chemotherapy; then, five months later, surgery to remove the involved breast and lymph node and to determine if radiation was needed. I then underwent seven weeks of radiation, five days a week. In a nine-month period, I had survived my cancer and received a clean bill of health.
My oncologist encouraged me to cut my hair first, before it fell out from the chemotherapy. This helped me to take control of how I felt about myself. The cancer does not define you. You can make it an event. I had my grown kids over to cut it off so that they could feel like a part of my journey.
Ask for ice chips to suck on during chemotherapy. This works to prevent mouth sores. A friend made a lap quilt for me to take to my appointments. I put it in a bag with magazines and other items of interest to keep me busy; every time I left my house for an infusion, I had my bag to take along.
Find mentors in your community to talk to about their cancer journeys. They will share some advice with you, and more importantly, they will show you that you do not have to go through breast cancer alone.
Lastly, memorize an inspiring thought or scripture. I would say it every morning and evening and many times in between to strengthen me and uplift me. It helped me to be positive and happy. Ultimately, a positive, can-do attitude will win the cancer battle! Your body is equipped to do amazing things to fight the cancer!
— Lara Harker, Camas
I received diagnosis of triple-negative breast cancer, invasive ductal carcinoma stage 1b, with a 1.8 centimeter mass on Dec. 2, 2019. I started chemotherapy on Dec. 20 that year, and then had a double mastectomy May 7, 2020. (I chose to go flat, so I didn’t have any reconstructive surgeries.) I began Xeloda, an oral chemotherapy, on June 10, 2020. I completed treatment Oct. 2, 2020. I got the all-clear on June 23. That’s as good as it can ever be!
Here’s my best advice:
- Don’t keep it a secret. Children, parents, other family members, close neighbors, friends and your church will all be so supportive.
- Accept offers of help and tell people what you need. Ask for child care; simple meals that can be frozen and will make leftovers; rides to chemo if it is likely to leave you tired or not able to drive; someone to accompany you to the appointments. Whatever you need, ask for it from those who offer help.
- Don’t jump too far ahead. At an appointment to discuss your treatment plan, you will probably receive a notebook with section after section of what to expect. Stay in the moment. Thoroughly learn about what you will be facing in the immediate future. Have three months of chemo infusions first? Learn about that — side effects, how often, where to go, how to prepare and become comfortable with the language for that portion of treatment. When you are close to moving on to the next treatment step, learn about that. If the plan includes lots of steps and details, it’s just too much. Too stressful. A step at a time is manageable. You can do it.
— Brenda Fletcher Gaston, Vancouver