Facing a breast cancer diagnosis can be a frightening prospect.
The Columbian asked breast cancer patients and survivors for words of wisdom on getting through diagnosis and treatment.
Responses have been edited for clarity.
On May 4, at age 69, I woke up and found a good-sized lump in my breast.
Probably just a cyst, I reasoned. After all, I have none of the markers for breast cancer. I have no family history. I don’t smoke, don’t drink. I breastfed six babies (one set of twins). I do aerobics and weight-lifting daily.
One of my five daughters admonished me, “You’re not being very responsible.”
So, I made an appointment with my regular doctor, still hoping the “cyst” would disappear as fast as it came.
My wise doctor sent me for a diagnostic mammogram and a core needle biopsy. I held my breath. It felt like forever. A week later (or was it a month?!), I snapped out of my robotic routine and came face-to-face with invasive ductal carcinoma with lymph node involvement. I was on a roller coaster.
With the release of this information, I felt a release in me. I garnered my strength. I leaned on family and friends for support. I gritted my teeth, determined to follow each step in the healing process, viewing chemotherapy not as putting poison into my body, but gratefully receiving medicine to restore me. I began watching comedies on TV and strived to smile, mindfully enjoying each day.
I feel great, healthy, energetic and above all grateful. After all, I am choosing life. With God’s grace, I hope to demonstrate a persevering attitude to my 12 grandchildren, riding that roller coaster till it rolls to a stop.
— Virginia Hutchinson, Vancouver
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Growing up I was always aware that I would be next in the genetic breast cancer journey. My great-grandma, grandma and auntie all lost their battles, but not without a good fight. So, when I was old enough, I quickly took the breast cancer genetic testing and it was positive for BRCA2. I cried a lot, and that is perfectly OK. It was OK to be sad and mad at breast cancer! I think I cursed at the results a thousand times before I realized I was going to fight back! It just wasn’t going to win. I had so much to keep living for.
I decided to do a preventive surgery and undergo a full mastectomy. The surgery went very well and afterward I remember feeling very powerful and strong!
To anyone going through any stage of breast cancer treatments: You are beautiful! You can do this! And most importantly, maybe, don’t stop fighting! You have family in all of the survivors.
— Amber Langley, Vancouver
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I’m so sorry you have become a member of this club. I joined in February, also the year of my 50th birthday. I have no history of breast cancer in my family so early detection and a great team of doctors saved my life. That and a bilateral mastectomy with 28 rounds of radiation.
Be as prepared as possible.
If you work in Washington, get set up on Washington Paid Family & Medical Leave at paidleave.wa.gov. I received 90 percent of my pay instead of 60 percent, which is what I would have received from short-term disability insurance. Also, sign up for federal family and medical leave.
Order prescriptions and pick them up prior to surgery.
Jackets and robes with inside pockets help with drain tubes.
Find yourself a mastectomy pillow and take it everywhere.
Have a support person set up a meal train. Meal train organizing websites have fundraising pages too — use them. My friends and family from far away wanted to help and money was so needed.
Rest often to help your body and mind heal faster.
Keep a sense of humor, no matter how dark, and share as much or as little as you choose.
Journaling might help if you prefer privacy.
Your supporters should understand if you’re not well. Speak up and let them know you’re too tired.
Cry whenever you need to.
Spend extra on quality moisturizer for radiation burns.
Encourage others to get their mammograms.
Advocate for yourself.
Be angry when you need to.
Forgive yourself often.
You’re a warrior. Keep fighting.
— Kyla Larson, Washougal
• • •
You have cancer! Shock, fear and anger. Those were the emotions I felt when I was diagnosed in January 2018. To all the women who have gotten the same diagnosis, you need to know that there are numerous people who are able to help you make decisions about your treatment (nurse navigator, surgeon, oncologist and radiologist). With their help, you can make informed decisions about the path you take. Keep a journal. A lot comes at you in a short period of time. Pink Lemonade Project is a wonderful organization that will provide you with a mentor who can guide and support you during this time. Please know that you are stronger than you think. We have outstanding doctors in our community. You can get through all your treatment and be able to lead a healthy, happy life.
— Mary Frances Duggan, Vancouver
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Getting my cancer diagnosis was surreal. My mom’s family has a strong cancer history, including losing her in her mid-50s to cancer. Way too young. I had to take a breath and step back. But if there is one cancer I would want to fight, it’s breast cancer. So many survivors. (You can’t say that until year five, but believe it.) I didn’t need chemo, only radiation. The best advice I got from the clinic was to use calendula cream. My other recommendation is gratitude. I spent that year filling a gratitude jar and looking at it later to remind myself that life is precious and holds so many joys. Don’t get stuck in the negative. Life gives us so many ups and downs but we have to embrace what brings us joy, peace, and serenity. Best to all those experiencing a cancer diagnosis.
— Tricia Mortell, Hillsboro, Ore. (formerly of Vancouver)
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I was diagnosed at 41 with stage 1, invasive ductal carcinoma in 2019 and had a unilateral mastectomy. Thanks to some of the newer testing that exists, I was able to avoid chemotherapy and radiation as my cancer was driven by hormones.
There is no way around — only through — the stress of a cancer diagnosis. Some days you are going to feel like all you can do is take it from one breath to the next. Meditation was a saving grace for me and it’s something I still do to this day. It helped me stay in the moment and not get too far ahead of myself, as well as cope with all the waiting for test results, surgery dates, etc.
Although there were days that I just needed to cry, I also saw that cancer was a huge mirror being held up before me and forcing me to take a look at how I was nourishing my body, mind and soul. I adjusted my diet, approach to stress management and eventually my job. I now work doing what I love as a nutritional therapy practitioner specializing in breast cancer survivorship. Now I feel more alive and healthy than I did before my diagnosis.
I like to tell people that cancer is a crossroads. Being in fear for your life can make you much more involved in actually living it and less willing to do the things you don’t feel aligned with. Lean on your loved ones and your community. If you don’t have a community, know there are so many groups online and in-person that typically offer free support. Nourish your body with real food to speed your healing and just take it one step at a time.
I also host a podcast for breast cancer patients and survivors called, “Tata, Cancer!” Additionally, I am a certified meditation teacher (another path I pursued after my treatment) and create free guided meditations available on the free app Insight Timer, some of which are specific to coping with the breast cancer journey.
— Juni Bucher, Portland