Breast Cancer – A Patient Perspective

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January 6, 2016

I usually write to you about exercise routines but this article shares my journey and experience with breast cancer. I am ten days out from my breast reconstruction surgery. All went very well, and marks the long and challenging six months since my initial diagnosis with breast cancer.

In May, pathology reports confirmed DCIS (Ductal Carcinoma In-Situ) and Invasive Carcinoma. It was detected through breast exam at my yearly gynecological appointment and identified with mammogram, and ultrasound. I simply complained of “peri-menopausal breast tenderness”.

My treatment plan included a mastectomy followed by four rounds of chemotherapy over an eight-week timeframe. I was fortunate to breeze through the surgery and post-operative recovery period and was back to my regular work and fitness routine in just a couple of weeks.

The chemotherapy was a bit more challenging. After a shaky start, the protocol was adapted and rounds two through four went fairly smoothly. My oncologist explained to me that I would lose my hair at the beginning of the third chemo cycle. In preparation, I scheduled an appointment at my favorite hair salon. With a bottle of wine and my girlfriends in tow, my hair was cut off to make a “halo” wig (see that I would wear under a variety of hats for several months.

For me, it wasn’t until after the chemo ended that my body struggled with extreme fatigue and array of symptoms not uncommon to chemo including neuropathy and blistering of the fingers and toes, loss of fingernails, food aversion and indigestion, and relentless eye tearing.

My reconstruction was delayed to allow for my body to heal and be ready for the surgery. I worked hard over that six week period between chemo and surgery to eat well, exercise, and nap as much as necessary and whenever possible.

This New Year brings for me more healing, regaining my strength both physically and emotionally, and growing back my hair (it is coming in slowly but quite nicely!) I also have moved medically from “having” breast cancer” to “history” of breast cancer!

Part of that healing is sharing and in that light, the LadyDocs have asked me to share some of my insights from my breast cancer journey.

– Every woman’s journey is completely different. Your team (gynecologist, radiologist, breast surgeon, radiation oncologist, medical oncologist, physical therapist, mental health practitioner and plastic surgeon) will assist you in determining the individualized treatment plan that will best suit your needs and circumstances.

Be prepared for others to want to share their stories and treatments with you. Decide whether this is helpful to you and have a polite response if/when you feel you have heard enough. I chose to keep other people’s stories to a minimum. This helped me stay focused on my specific situation and diagnosis.

– Determining the treatment plan often takes some time. From initial detection to confirmation of diagnosis can be weeks. A variety of testing is often undergone including traditional mammography, 3D mammography, ultrasound, and MRI. Waiting for all of the results and not knowing “the plan” can be one of the hardest parts.

It is so important to feel comfortable and confident with all of your doctors and their recommendations. This will be your team for quite some time. If a second opinion is necessary be careful not to delay too long as this may have an impact on your final treatment outcomes.

I also found it tremendously helpful to keep a notebook with all of my doctor’s cards, reports and notes organized and in one place.

– Genetic factors are also taken into account. The world of breast cancer treatment seems to be evolving right before our very eyes with advances in both genetic testing for the breast cancer gene mutation (BRCA) and genetic testing of the breast cancer tumors (Oncotype). Results of these tests directly influence treatment choices.

Your Medical Oncologist will help guide you through this part and advise you regarding which tests are appropriate for you and which will have the greatest effect on your outcome. I chose to undergo chemotherapy because of the risk level of my Oncotype test. This was not an easy decision but it brought my risk of cancer recurrence down significantly.

Family, Friends and Work Colleagues will want to support you. This is one of the many silver linings of the breast cancer diagnosis. It is human nature for people to want to be helpful and be there for you.

I was completely overwhelmed by the amount of support I received – from dinners, gift cards, help with shopping, carpooling for my kids, sitting with me during chemo treatments, rides to and from appointments, and phone calls, cards and emails to keep my spirits lifted. I could have never made it through without this support.

Let your support system know exactly how they can be helpful to you. Email a list of needs, ask friends to coordinate meals, and most importantly, set the tone for how you want others to view your diagnosis.

– Keep moving. Stimulating both your body and mind is critical to well being during treatment. Every patient will have a different level of health and fitness but every activity can be modified depending upon how you are feeling. 

It was very important to me to keep up my walking and hiking. There were days when I just couldn’t but there were more days that I could and it helped me feel more in control and always boosted my mental mindset, not to mention decreasing the intensity of my chemo symptoms.

-Resources Abound. Google “breast cancer” and there are an array of organizations that can support your journey with education, emotional support and financial assistance.

The most helpful resources for me included:
– General overview and information about breast cancer from diagnosis through treatment.
– Info about the oncotype testing.
-Clearinghouse of organizations that provide support to cancer patients.
– Local Washington DC non-profit providing free wigs to cancer patients.
– National organization providing free house cleaning services while undergoing chemotherapy.
-Company that makes Halo wigs for chemotherapy patients
**This was by far the most helpful and valuable thing to me during my journey. I wore my halo wig almost every day and it was incredibly comforting having my own hair!!

– Focus on the Silver Linings. Even when you feel your worst, you still have the choice to look on the bright side. Breast cancer can’t take that away from you.

This is what single-handedly got me through the past six months. I chose to focus on all of the good things that were happening around me beyond how the surgery and chemo were negatively affecting my life.

I spent time with friends I don’t usually get to see or talk to; my family grew stronger and closer as they stepped up to support me; I took stock in the good and kindness of every person involved in my treatment, and I appreciated every gesture of support from those offering it. I have never felt more loved and appreciated. I’ll take that.

Special Acknowledgement – I want to express my sincerest gratitude to my team of LadyDocs who have been extraordinary both professionally and in friendship during my journey. I had no idea just a couple of years ago when I joined the group to write about fitness and wellness that these amazing women would become so intertwined in my life. THANK YOU Thu Tran, Judy Song, Kathy Huang, Chitra Rajagapol, and Marsha Seidelman!!!