Her diagnosis came in October 2011 during a routine mammogram. She says that when the technician came in for more pictures she knew immediately she had cancer. A biopsy confirmed malignancy and without any “debate or deliberation” Dana Oakes opted for a double mastectomy. Her surgery was scheduled for the next month. “I didn’t have a lot of of fear,” she recalls. “I said let’s get it out and get rid of it.” Oakes wasn’t interested in letting cancer get the best of her. After all, she had only recently recovered from a decade-long, debilitating battle with Lyme disease.
“It totally disabled me for many years,” she says of the Lyme disease that forced her to spend up to 20 hours a day in bed and go from full-time to part-time employment. Lyme brought with it other ailments that included burning pain in her hips, pain in her joints, profound fatigue, and flu-like symptoms. She describes the treatment and recovery as intense and says that, in a lot of ways, she feels that her chemo and cancer treatment were easier.
“I feel like I sailed through,” she says of her cancer treatment which did not leave her bedridden as her Lyme disease had. She credits an oncology team who made it as easy as possible and her husband Don who utilized the Family Medical Leave Act so he could be by her side every step of the way. But, it wasn’t all smooth sailing for Oakes. “With every doctor visit my prognosis seemed to get worse,” she says. “I was 62 years old and I had a fifty fifty chance.” Her treatment was aggressive. A month after her surgery she began chemotherapy which continued through April of 2012. She began radiation two months later, but there were several complications along the way.
Within weeks of recovering from her initial surgery she had to have an emergency appendectomy and she learned that, due to her Lyme disease, she would not be a candidate for breast reconstruction. Then during chemotherapy she got phlebitis and had to have a port put in. She also had to skip a week of chemo because her white blood cell count was too low. In addition, a heart issue developed due to side effects from one of her medications and she developed neuropathy which caused a stinging feeling in her ankles and calves that she equates to being attacked by yellow jacket wasps.
Fortunately, her heart issue was resolved within a year and, although it seems to be permanent, her neuropathy is controlled by medication. Oakes says she doesn’t miss her breasts at all and found an added bonus in that her cancer treatment may have also tackled any residual Lyme disease. “I found the chemo came as close to finally knocking it out as anything else,” she says.
This year, Oakes has graduated to seeing her oncologist only once a year, she has had no recurrence, and she lives with no evidence of disease, or NED. “I prefer to not say I’m cancer free because we never know,” she says. “But I like NED. I like him a lot.”
Jennifer Lessinger is a professional writer and editor who learned the value of patient empowerment during her struggle with a hard-to-diagnose and complex endocrine disorder.