Monday, October 04, 2010

Tips for Coping with Breast Cancer

It almost feels like it was all a bad dream already and I just finished radiation a few weeks ago. I credit my successful breast cancer survival experience to a positive attitude, my robust support network and the top notch medical care I got from Dana Farber Cancer Institute and the radiation oncology unit at St Peter's in Albany. Here are some of my coping mechanisms for getting through it in one piece.


After a suspicious spot on my annual mammogram that needed more study, I was diagnosed with Invasive Ductal Breast Cancer Stage I in May 2010. Lucky for me, it was small and caught early so, according to my doctors, a lumpectomy and radiation would give me as much survival rate as a full mastectomy.

I had my lumpectomy and sentinel node surgery on June 15th, 2010. Although margins were all clear and no nodes were involved, one of the edges was too close for comfort. Because I wasn’t going to have chemo, my doctors highly recommended a second surgery to take more clear margin from that area which I had on July 6th. My radiation treatment, 28 to the full breast and 5 boost treatments just to the tumor site, ended on September 20. Since my tumor was estrogen and progesterone positive, I am now on Tamoxifen to shut down my ovaries for the next 5 years.


My friends and family did a great job in helping keep my spirits up throughout the whole ordeal. They kept me bedecked in pink stuff to make a statement and keep me and my caregivers smiling. They sent cards, books, letters and good luck charms, prayers, positive energy and white light to let me know they were thinking of me. A few even painted my name on their arms and walked in my honor to raise money for cancer research. They took me out to dinner to celebrate successes. I came home from my last treatment to 33 long stemmed pink roses. My wonderful husband was with me every step of the way, picking up the slack at home when I was too tired or sore. Even my dog snuggled in a little gentler, a little closer when I was hurting. They all did everything that Kelly Corrigan, fellow survivor and author of "The Middle Place," suggests on her Circus of Cancer web site.


Connecting with other survivors helped give me perspective and remind me that I had control over my own treatment. One of my favorite tips was to fit cancer into my life and not try to fit my life into cancer.

  • I sought out the best imaging specialist, surgeon and oncologist. A college friend pointed me to the Boston Breast Diagnostic Center in Wellesley MA when there was a chance a biopsy was needed. They were amazing, compassionate and had the most up to date equipment making the whole thing so much easier. Since advanced cancer research that Dana Farber Cancer Institute was able to apply to my sister's bone marrow transplant for Hodgkins treatment saved her life, I went straight there after my diagnosis. Feeling that I had the best care possible helped reduce worry.
  • I chose where and when I would have my treatments. I scheduled surgery after a writing workshop I enrolled in and moved radiation treatments around as I needed to work around important meetings at work. Since radiation was a daily event, I needed to do that locally and not in Boston so I did my research and found the radiation oncology team at St Peter's Hospital.
  • I opted out of chemo and oncotype testing. After seeing what my sister and other survivors went through, I didn't think a single percentage point better survival rate was worth the toll it would take on my body.
  • I insisted on a Breast MRI even when my surgeon didn’t feel one was necessary.
  • I got a good comfortable well-fitting cotton support bra (two of them so one could be laundered while I wore the other) and wore it 24 hours a day. Title Nine had my favorite, the Quest Bra. I literally lived in this thing ever since the biopsy!
  • I brought my own gown to the pre-op for surgery and radiation - a Jillie's. It's long sleeves, thick material and decorative style made me feel less vulnerable and more in control every step of the way.
  • I put a big calendar up on the fridge and with a big red X crossed off each treatment as I finished it.
  • I asked for (and took) Ativan the very last week of radiation when the burn was so painful on my sensitive skin that every time I even thought about another treatment that would make it worse, I broke down. Some people don't have much reaction to those "healing beams" but I sure did!


I asked a million questions. I reached out to friends who were doctors to get their opinions on what was being recommended to me. I reached out to survivors to find out what to expect of the next stage in treatment and tips for dealing with side effects. I prepared a list of questions for every doctor I visited along the way. I reviewed my questions with friends and relatives to make sure I didn't forget to ask something important.


And I told people. At first I thought I’d keep it to immediate friends and family but word leaked out and I ended up waging a fairly public battle on the internet and at work. I kept a journal from day one, updated my Facebook and Twitter status often, and wrote blog posts to keep friends up to date on my progress. The more people I told, the more encouraging stories I received back. There’s nothing like sharing personal cancer stories to deepen any relationship!

Together we are stronger! I am a survivor and happy to share my story! Let’s all work together to help other women and to find a cure for breast cancer.