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News / Health / Breast Cancer

Community of survivors: Columbian readers offer advice to navigate breast cancer diagnosis, treatment and recovery

The Columbian
Published: October 7, 2023, 5:00am

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. Who better to offer advice than those who have been down that road?

Responses have been edited for clarity.

Get your annual mammograms. Don’t skip them. Don’t assume you’ll skate by with a wish and a prayer. It was at my annual mammogram in 2019 that I was diagnosed with stage zero ductal carcinoma in situ, which is the presence of abnormal cells inside the milk duct of the breast. DCIS is considered the earliest form of breast cancer and is noninvasive, meaning it hasn’t spread out of the milk duct. I do not have breast cancer or cancer history in my family.

Schedule your mammogram as early as you need to, as medical appointments tend to take longer with many providers these days.

My treatment involved three lumpectomies (under general anesthesia but day surgeries). After finally getting clear margins, I moved to six weeks of radiation.

Connect with support groups

Pink Lemonade Zest: Targeted at young women with breast cancer. Meets via Zoom 6-8 p.m. on the third Tuesday of each month. Find information at www.pinklemonadeproject.org/others-who-can-help

Pink Lemonade Limoncello: For all breast cancer patients. Meets via Zoom 6-8 p.m. on the first Thursday of each month. Find information at www.pinklemonadeproject.org/others-who-can-help

Legacy Health Breast Cancer Support Group: For all breast cancer patients. Meets via Zoom 5:30−7 p.m. on the first Tuesday of each month. Contact Sara Butler at 503-413-7932 or Margaret Hartsook at 503-413-8404.

Compass Oncology Women’s Cancer Support Group: For all women cancer survivors. Meets via Zoom from 5-6:30 p.m. on the second Monday of each month. Contact Virginia Hill at 503-528-5212 or virginia.hill@compassoncology.com.

Grupo de Apoyo - Cáncer de Mama: For Spanish-speaking breast cancer patients. Meets via Zoom 6-7 p.m. on the second Tuesday of each month. Contact Erika Ramirez at 971-331-1762 or ERamirez@nwfs.org.

Oregon Cancer Foundation Breast Cancer Support Group: All are welcome. Meets via Zoom 6-7:30 p.m. on the second Wednesday of each month. Call 541-632-3654 or email info@oregoncancerfoundation.org.

—Chrissy Booker

A survivor attitude worked for me, but pushing through and acting like you’re tough also takes its toll.

Having a great positive support network was also key for me. Surround yourself with that positivity and people that give you the right support.

Do not Google treatments and diagnoses. Kaiser Permanente told me which websites were good; they generally end in “dot org.”

Think about your all around general health, especially during this time. Eat better, try to get more rest and give yourself a break.

— Cindy Dickinson, Ridgefield

Early detection, early detection, early detection! I never skip my annual mammogram and my cancer was spotted very early. So my surgery was uncomplicated, and I didn’t need radiation or chemo. I am taking tamoxifen. Putting off going to the doctor and ignoring warning signs only makes the disease harder to deal with. For those having treatment, stay strong, eat well, take extra good care of yourself. You’ve joined the sisterhood that you never wanted to join.

— Carol Williams, Camas

Please, if you have been given the diagnosis of breast cancer: stop, breathe and pray! Talk to your doctors about your concerns, cares and wishes. I was given the diagnosis in December, and I still feel depressed. How could this happen? What did I do? Now what shall I do? Please talk and share with family members and friends. If you are religious, now is the time to pray and pray some more.

You now have major decisions to make. Hopefully your family will be part of your life and your decisions. Do I want surgery? Please evaluate it. I did have a full mastectomy and recovery has not been easy. Again I ask, “Why me?” A family member was not supportive and that hurt very much. I have learned that I cannot make someone else care.

After surgery, I had to learn to cope with incisions, drainage tubes and lack of ability to use my arms. I could not even shampoo my own hair. So a local beauty school was an answer to that prayer. I could not put my shirts on over my head, so my wardrobe came with buttons only. I could not drive, which drastically limited my independence. Full recovery takes a long time and demands a lot of patience from me as well as from those I love.

I encourage you to carefully consider all your options. I did not have chemo or radiation treatments due to my full mastectomy and my age (87). My options may be very different from the choices facing you.

I am currently facing the possibility of skin cancer in the area of the mastectomy scars. I will have more doctor appointments and tests, along with the concerns of what this new chapter of my life could hold.

I cry very easily. I pray: “Are you listening, God? What do you want from me?”

All I can do is encourage you to do your best with this change to your life, both now and in the future.

— Sarah Maxwell, Vancouver

I have had breast cancer and once I changed my diet to being plant-based I felt better and have been free of tumors for 10 years now. The research indicates that vegetarians and people who consume fish, eggs and dairy have a lower rate of cancer.

— June Yamrick, Vancouver

I underwent a lumpectomy and radiation for breast cancer in 2021. I found my initial appointments with the radiation machine to be very intimidating because of its lights and sounds. I would advise patients to try to get a tour of the radiation facility ahead of treatment so your first few visits are not so frightening. My medical provider did not offer this, but it is something I suggested to my radiation oncologist at the end of my treatment.

I met some wonderful people in the waiting room during radiation. Some wanted to talk and some didn’t. Everyone in that room is going through their own journey.

I bought a journal-type book on gratitude that I found really helpful. Each day it offered a way to find something to be grateful for in life and pages to write down any thoughts and reflections.

I had lunch with friends and colleagues who had been through their own breast cancer treatments and gathered advice and suggestions from them.

There is no way to sugar-coat a cancer diagnosis, but I tried to live by that adage that adversity can make you stronger.

— Julie A. Rawls, Portland

Receiving the news that you have the big “C” may be some of the most devastating news that you receive. Every person is different and every person’s experience is different. These are some things that helped me:

Talk to others who have been through breast cancer. Ask them about their experiences, choices they made, and what they found most helpful.

Keep a positive attitude. I was blessed that my surgical oncologist was also a cancer survivor. She said that having a positive attitude helped her the most. As a surgeon, she said that the patients that she saw with a positive attitude usually did better, too.

Always remember that you’re not alone. At my chemotherapy appointments, there were free hats that others had made for us cancer patients as we lost our hair. Friends from church would help me with meals and rides to and from my treatments. Be willing to accept help from others. You’ll need it.

Ask questions if you don’t understand what you’re being told. Or take a trusted friend or family member with you to help you understand the treatment plan you’re given. And do some research on your own too.

Be aware of the treatment costs and stay in touch with your insurance company. When you come out of treatment, you don’t want to have to deal with major financial issues. Help facilitate communication and paperwork between the insurance and service providers to ensure your insurance pays the maximum amount possible.

— Kathy O’Hara, Vancouver

Here’s my advice as a two-time breast cancer survivor:

Step away from the internet! The internet is a good way to search out information, but make sure that you stop there. Beware of reading individual’s sad stories. Those are not your stories!

Make sure that you have some front-close bras. Even if you don’t typically wear a bra, it’s a good place to put an ice pack to help with discomfort. Also have tops that don’t go on over your head. Front-button pajama tops are cozy.

You may be able to drive and go about your typical activities before your ability to reach overhead returns fully. Think about what you do daily where you reach above eye level: glasses and dishes in a cabinet (put some on the counter); lowering the trunk lid of your car (groceries go in the backseat for a while).

Absolutely rest when you need to rest! And accept help when it is offered and ask for it if it isn’t offered and you need it. This, accepting and asking for help, might be the most challenging part of your cancer experience. It could also be the most positive life change after hearing, “You’ve got cancer.”

— Bridget Raach, Camas

How was this possible? I was in my late 20s and a new mom to a sweet 1 year old. I had no family history, no concerning genes, and took care of myself. The lump I found while breastfeeding was believed to be mastitis. Hearing those words, “You have breast cancer,” left me in complete shock. We soon learned I had been diagnosed with triple negative breast cancer (cancer not caused by hormones) which meant treatment would include chemotherapy, radiation and surgery.

Here are some things that got me through it:

  • Build your support system and lean on it. If possible, have someone come with you to the appointments. Pink Lemonade Project offers groups and mentors to connect with. Access therapy.
  • Find the uplifting stories.
  • If you have a port, get a seat belt cover pad.
  • Speak up for what you need.
  • I took part in an immunotherapy study which also meant there was extra follow ups and attention to my progress (which I found helpful). This also helped with medical bills.
  • The nonprofit organization Cleaning for a Reason provided free house-cleaning services.
  • The Meal Train website allowed people to organize and give meals/food gift cards.
  • I found it beneficial to continuing working. It kept me feeling like life would continue on after all this.

Fast-forward and I am now four years cancer-free, my daughter just turned 6 and has a new baby brother.

— Meaghan Frost, Vancouver

It’s been a year from my diagnosis of early breast cancer to an official designation as a breast cancer survivor.

As I look back, I see a plethora of appointments; an immense backlog of statistics from all the compatriots before me; a book called “The Emperor of All Maladies”; the unshakable genuine support of family and friends; the skillful and compassionate care by doctors, nurses, navigators and receptionists; a prayer for courage, “I am a child of God, filled and surrounded by the peace of God.” And hair. I see hair! Hallelujah!

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It wasn’t an easy year. Did I get depressed? Of course. Did I deny myself the pleasures of the hot tub or swimming due to my lumpectomy, ports (plural, one was infected), and subsequent lymph node dissection as well as 20 rounds of radiation? Absolutely! I went for the gold. I listened carefully to those in the know. From there I curated my options. And it was all so worth it — to know everything possible was done to ensure I stay alive, healthy, as long as I possibly can.

Last bit: Get a mammogram. Be proactive.

And the trip to Disneyland with my 12 grandchildren? It’s back on. Woo hoo!

— Virginia Hutchinson, Vancouver