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Suja JohnkuttyHi there ! I’m Suja Johnkutty, MD a conscientious mom and neurologist . My one simple goal is to provide you honest, practical, simple action steps to experience better relaxation in your life. https://betterrelaxation.com
Hi there ! I’m Suja Johnkutty, MD a conscientious mom and neurologist . My one simple goal is to provide you honest, practical, simple action steps to experience better relaxation in your life.
This is the last installment in our three-part series profiling breast cancer survivors. In Part II, the women gave insight into the importance of their mental health and their own attitude as critical components of care. They also shared some of the ways in which they coped with cancer. Today, the women talk about the possibility of recurrence. So, we pick up with the final stage of Shannon’s preventive measures. Based on her history, she knows her cancer can come back, but she wanted to do everything she could to prevent it.
Shannon’s treatment didn’t stop at reconstruction. She opted to have an oophorectomy, which meant she had her ovaries and fallopian tubes removed. Remember, her moms’s cancer had returned and been terminal, so Shannon wanted to take every preventive measure she could. “My fear and my worry is that hers came back 16 years later and she died at 65. If the same thing happened to me, I would die before I’m 60,” says Shannon. Her breast cancer diagnosis meant she was at higher risk for female cancers and she wanted to do whatever she could to have as much time as she could. “I’m relatively young,” she says. “I wanted to give myself as long as I could.” In order to have the procedure, Shannon had to take medication that would put her into menopause and the side effects that came with menopause affect her quality of life, so she says she goes back and forth on whether or not she would do the oophorectomy, if she had it to do all over again.
Although she did have melanoma a couple of years ago, Tina has been 27 years without recurrence of breast cancer. “I didn’t really feel safe until five years out,” she says, but adds that you never really know if it’s coming back, and that you should always be vigilant about checking for lumps. There is a risk of late recurrence, i.e. breast cancer that comes back more than five years after diagnosis and treatment, and it is more likely if it was later stage when first diagnosed, and if the cancer was HR positive.
Like Tina, Betty also had a second cancer. Her colon cancer was discovered in 2009 and her doctor estimated that it had been growing for ten years, but because of where it was growing in relation to the colon wall, the tumor was able to be cleanly removed and no treatment was required. Because her breast cancer was ductal and not in the tissue, and her doctor was able to get very clean margins, Betty says she doesn’t worry about it returning. “I’m more afraid of the colon cancer returning,” she says.
Diana has been nine years without recurrence, but she says, “My guard is always up.” Maybe it’s because her mother and grandmother both had breast cancer, and, despite being BRCA negative, she believes her cancer is hereditary. Shannon feels the same way and says she believes 100 percent that her cancer is genetic. The genetic testing available is limited compared to the number of genes in the human body so, Shannon says, “There’s a long way to go.” And, while it’s early for Shannon to think about recurrence, she can’t help but consider it. “I don’t want to spend every day thinking about cancer. I don’t want that to be my life,” she says, “but it is in the back of my head.” Not knowing how the cancer might come back makes Shannon especially uneasy because she doesn’t have a plan for it.
When Meredith finished treatment, her doctor said he didn’t expect to see her back for recurrence. The odds were in her favor that she would remain cancer free. Meredith, like Betty, says she got the best cancer to get if you’re going to get cancer, but unlike the other ladies, Meredith was not expecting to get cancer. She didn’t have the same family history. Her only red flag was that she had an aunt that had ovarian cancer and she thought maybe her grandmother had breast cancer when she was 90. Meredith was young, she had three small children, and breast cancer was not on her mind. In fact, she was so sure she didn’t have it, that she took her 18-month-old daughter with her when she got the results from her lumpectomy. But, Meredith, who is also BRCA negative, did have cancer, and while her cancer was ductal, it was bigger than it should have been, and there was also a spot on her other breast that needed to be watched. Wanting to be proactive Meredith opted for a double mastectomy with reconstruction. She also had chemotherapy, because the cancer was found in a lymph node, and she lost all her hair. While she possibly could have gone without radiation, she opted for it. Again, she wanted to be aggressive and as proactive in her treatment as possible. She wanted to make sure her cancer was gone.
About a month ago, Meredith found another lump under her arm. She had a scan that was all clear except for the spot where the lump is located. She and her doctors are hoping it is just scar tissue, but she’ll have a lumpectomy this week and then she’ll wait for the biopsy results, which she is guessing will take several days. “The waiting is the worst,” she says. Liz, as a caregiver, felt the same way about waiting, “The worst part of all of it was waiting for the results.”
Tina, who also had young children at diagnosis, recalls that she just wanted to live long enough to raise her children. She says she found it difficult to accept the idea that she might die before her kids were grown. That thought is clearly on Meredith’s mind as well. “I remember saying, ‘Just give me five more years,’ and now it’s been seven years, and I’m saying, ‘Just give me seven more years,’ but no amount of time is enough,” she says. You can hear in her voice that she’s trying to be brave, and she says, “Hopefully, it will all be fine,” but it’s scary because, even though Meredith got the best cancer you can get if you’re going to get cancer, it is still cancer.
Anxious to hear Meredith’s results? We are, too, and as soon as she gets her results, she’s promised to follow up with us. We’re hoping for good news, and we will let you know as soon as we can.
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.
In the first part of of this three-part series, you were introduced to Betty, her daughter, Liz, Shannon, Tina, and Diana. You learned that women who are diagnosed with breast cancer are not really all that surprised to get a diagnosis. They are often expecting it. Having breasts is a risk factor, and women have breasts. In today’s installment, you’ll meet Meredith. She wasn’t expecting to get breast cancer. But, before we meet her, we’ll pick up where we left off in part one: the matter of hair loss and chemotherapy.
Whether or not a survivor lost her hair during cancer treatment, it’s one of the first things she says about her experience. Shannon even lost her eyelashes and they never came back. She says she knows it’s a little thing, but it still bothers her. Betty, didn’t lose her hair. Like a growing number of women, she did not have to have chemotherapy. She says avoiding chemo made a huge difference in her experience. At the time, Betty was receiving treatment at a research hospital, and there was a test available to her that would determine how beneficial chemotherapy would be in treating her cancer. She was told that if she scored between a one and a 19, she would not need chemotherapy. Betty scored an 18. While she had to pay for the costly test out of pocket and wait for insurance to reimburse her, she says it was worth it. “It was so helpful,” she says. “Because of what chemo does to your body, you don’t want it unless you need it.” Side effects from chemotherapy can include anemia, diarrhea, fatigue, fertility issues, hair changes/loss, memory loss, neuropathy, menopause and menopausal symptoms, mouth and throat sores, nausea, vaginal dryness, vomiting, bone loss/osteoporosis, heart problems, and vision problems. The test Betty had is now being more widely used and, as you may have read on the Patient Empowerment Network blog in the June Notable News here, researchers have learned that 70 percent of women don’t need chemotherapy when they have the most common type of early-stage breast cancer, with low and moderate risk of recurrence. The test looks at cells from a tumor biopsy to determine what is known as a patient’s recurrence score. Patients are scored between zero and 100, with zero being the lowest risk of recurrence. Researchers now know that women who score less than 25 do not necessarily need chemotherapy.
Betty also did not need to have a mastectomy. She had a lumpectomy followed by intraoperative radiation therapy, a 30-minute procedure that involves surgically placing a ball of radiation in the spot where the tumor had been. The procedure meant that Betty only had to have a single radiation treatment, and it helps reduce the side effects of radiation. Betty was eligible for that form of radiation in part because of the size of her breasts. She says she told the doctor, “I’ve been lugging around these big things my entire life and they are finally paying off.”
The intraoperative radiation was another benefit of being at a research hospital. At the time of Betty’s treatment, the procedure wasn’t being widely used and wasn’t available through her local doctors. Receiving treatment at a research hospital also made a difference in Diana’s care. She recalls going in to her local doctor’s office for her test results, and no one in the office would make eye contact with her. Then, when the doctor came in to see her, he told her she had breast cancer, that he wanted to treat it right away, that he’d see her next Tuesday, and then he left the room. Diana says she was left there shaking. “He has a heart, but he didn’t show it,” says Diana, who then went to a research hospital for a second opinion. Her new doctor was much better, she says, and adds that the shoulder of his lab coat was always dirty from the smudge of make up left behind after his patients hugged him.
The importance of good doctors that you are comfortable with seemed to be one of the critical components of care to all the women.They all talked about how much they liked and appreciated their doctors. “A really good physician realizes psychological and spiritual care are just as important,” says Tina, who sought the services of a psychologist after her treatment. She was struggling with anxiety and depression and found that the counseling really helped her to work through her emotions about having cancer, which emphasizes another, perhaps the largest, critical component of care during treatment: emotional and mental support and health. Diana says she found support online and emphasized the importance of staying positive through treatment. “Count your positives,” she says. “That is the key.” Along the same line, Betty says, “The number one thing is attitude.” Actually, she and Liz say “attitude” in unison, and Betty adds, “I think attitude is a big piece of it.” Meredith Cronin who was diagnosed at age 37, says “Attitude is everything.” Meredith, who had three children under the age of six when she was diagnosed, says she understands how easily you could get depressed as a cancer patient. “I always say that I felt blessed that I was young and so busy that I didn’t have time to be depressed.”
Shannon, who was accused of being negative because of her detailed planning to get breast cancer before she actually had breast cancer, says she wasn’t negative; she was realistic and it was that take on it and her preparation and planning that helped her maintain emotional balance.“It didn’t affect me emotionally as much as I think it would have,” she says. Shannon coped through research and attention to details, and she describes her experience in the kind of detail that makes you think she’d just had it done yesterday rather than three years ago. Betty used a different method of coping and says she’s been able to let a lot of the experience go. “I don’t dwell in that place,” she says. She and Liz also found a lot of humor in the experience. The clickity-clack of someone’s shoes, Betty’s preoccupation with cutting out recipes from a magazine, or the ridiculousness of what must have been an excruciating procedure, were all fodder for coping. It’s not that Betty doesn’t take cancer seriously, but she was better able to cope with the diagnosis by finding humor in the situation. “We laughed through our tears,” she says. Liz says that early on in the experience, they imagined the worst possible scenario, which made handling what really happened more doable. The ways of coping with cancer are as varied and vast as are the treatment options.
Next time, in Part III, recurrence.
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.
It’s October and the pink frenzy is in full force. Breast Cancer Awareness Month (BCAM) is impossible to miss given the pink ribbon avalanche that arrives each Fall. While there is no denying that BCAM has played a significant role over the past two decades in raising public awareness of breast cancer, there is nevertheless growing criticism of its off-balance approach to awareness-raising, with many key messages becoming lost in a sea of “pink-washing.” Interestingly, some studies have even found that pink branding may actually lead the public to take breast cancer less seriously.
“The biggest issue I have with Breast Cancer Awareness month is that it’s not even really awareness,” writes Elizabeth McKenzie, who was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2012. “Awareness is mindfulness of all aspects of breast cancer, which to a certain respect, is different for all of us, based on medical differences in disease processes, treatment access, and personal, social-emotional and cognitive processes.”
Much of the criticism centers on breast cancer campaigns which over-sexualise the disease, equating breasts with womanhood and femininity. Rod Ritchie, who was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2014, points out that “October is a bad time for male breast cancer survivors because the trivialisation and sexualisation of the disease by the pink charities reinforces public awareness that breast cancer is gender specific. Since there’s little attempt to educate men that they need to be aware of symptoms too, we are diagnosed later and have a poorer prognosis. So, how about adding some blue to the pink, encouraging research on us, and screening those with a genetic propensity?”
Over a decade ago on an October morning, I was diagnosed with breast cancer; a double reminder each year of the role this disease has played in my own life. Looking back, I now see that my view of breast cancer was one-dimensional. Standing today on this other side of cancer I see a broader picture, a richer landscape of many shades beyond pink. This post is intended to provide a truer picture of the lives of breast cancer patients in its many varied hues. Wherever you are in your experience, whether you are caring for a loved one, recently diagnosed, finished treatment, or living with a recurrence or metastatic cancer, I hope this post will speak to you.
Lessons We’ve Learned From Each Other
Some of the most valuable lessons I’ve learned about breast cancer have come, not from my doctors, but from fellow patients. My doctors didn’t tell me about the effect of chemotherapy on my future fertility. I didn’t learn that treatment could damage my heart. And I finished treatment with no clue about late treatment side-effects or the risk of a cancer recurrence.
While valuing her oncologist’s expertise, Catherine Foy, who blogs at My Triple Negative Life, acknowledges that “within the online breast cancer community there will be someone awake somewhere in the world that can provide support and advice. For example, based on someone I followed I got my Vitamin D level checked which was very low and I am now on supplements. Other examples include creating awareness of late treatment side effects and reducing the feelings of isolation that some may experience.”
Liz O’Riordan, a breast surgeon diagnosed with recurrent breast cancer, and co-author of The Complete Guide to Breast Cancer, also refers to the feelings of isolation she experienced during her treatment. “I felt incredibly alone during my breast cancer treatment. I didn’t meet another patient at any of my chemo or radiotherapy sessions. All my advice was from amazing people on Twitter,” she says. Liz offers this advice to patients undergoing chemotherapy: “The two best tips I was given to reduce the side effects of chemo were: (1) Drink. Lots. Even when it taste disgusting. Ideally 3 litres a day. Try flavoured water or cordial. Carry a bottle everywhere you go. (2) Exercise. Walk for 30 minutes every day. You’ll hate me for making you. Some days you may have to stop and spit and pant and retch. But do it. You will feel better for it. And they were right. I did feel better.”
Barbara Jacoby of Let Life Happen agrees that we can learn valuable coping lessons from each other. “Whether it is a question of side effects that one is experiencing from a prescribed medication, or questions regarding treatment options or experiences or procedures, if you query a patient support or advocacy group, you are likely to find more answers and information from those who have had actual personal experiences with these issues. There is no doctor or group of medical professionals that has all of the information about real patient experiences and outcomes like any group of actual patients who have dealt with just about anything and everything imaginable on every level,” she says.
Both Catherine and Barbara believe that the information you get online should be shared and discussed with your doctors as the basis of shared decision making (the conversation that happens between a patient and clinician to reach a healthcare choice together). “I value my oncologist’s advice and experience,” says Catherine, “and would usually discuss with him any new developments that I may have encountered through the various platforms on social media.”
Terri Coutee, a two-time breast cancer survivor, and founder of DiepCFoundation, a non-profit organization providing information on options for breast reconstruction after mastectomy, also embraces the concept of shared decision making and wants others to experience it too. “I have had chemotherapy, radiation, two lumpectomies, a double mastectomy and breast reconstruction using my own tissue,” she says. ”Each of these occurrences was fraught with difficult decisions and hours of research to optimize my own health care plan. I left offices of various health care providers with armfuls of brochures and information to sort through and organize.”
Terri encourages patients to download the Breast Advocate App, a new tool to aid the shared decision making process. The app was developed by plastic surgeon Dr Minas Chrysopoulo, whose patient population is primarily those affected by breast cancer or at high risk of developing breast cancer. “Shared decision making is an extremely powerful approach to deciding our treatment plans. Simply put, it empowers us and helps us advocate for ourselves,” explains Terri. “As patients, we owe it to ourselves to embrace everyday conversations with our health care teams,” she says. “The information on the Breast Advocate app is informative, intuitive, and specific to your individual diagnosis or situation. There are treatment options with evidence-based articles to discuss with your healthcare team. It even features a community section. I encourage you to check out the wealth of shared decision-making information and download the Breast Advocate app to your phone.”
Siobhan Freeney, founder of Being Dense, an organization which raises awareness of Breast Density and its associated links to breast cancer and screening, was completely unaware of the issue until she was diagnosed with breast cancer. “40% of women have Dense Breasts,” she explains. “A Mammogram is the only way to determine and measure Breast Density. In Dense Breasts the reliability of screening mammograms can be reduced by as much as 50%.” When you have a Mammogram, the radiologist reading it can tell if you have Dense Breasts. Siobhan recommends you should ask for a copy of your radiology Mammogram report and ask if your breasts are dense. “If you have Dense Breasts you need to know and you should ask your Doctor/Radiologist about more personalised screening such as Breast Ultrasound or MRI,” she advises.
Metastatic Breast Cancer: The Other Side of BCAM
Learning about metastatic breast cancer (MBC; also called stage 4, secondary, or advanced breast cancer) from online blogs and social media networks was revelatory for me. MBC is breast cancer that has spread beyond the breast — to the bones, liver, brain, or another organ. Even if the cancer is found in another organ, it’s still referred to as breast cancer. Like Beth Gainer, who says, she learned “that anyone who’s been diagnosed with breast cancer is at risk,” I too have found, in Beth’s words, “what the metastatic breast cancer community has had to say has been a real eye-opener.”
MBC has been referred to as a story half-told, the other side of BCAM we don’t hear enough about. As Catherine points out, “For me, breast cancer awareness month is for those who are not yet diagnosed or those newly diagnosed. The pink scene looks to future research and provides good information for those starting or in the midst of treatment. There is less focus on those of us living or dying with breast cancer.”
Nancy Stordahl is unequivocal in her criticism of the failure each October to adequately raise awareness of MBC. “Despite all the pink, all the races, all the pink ribbons, most people still know little or nothing about metastatic breast cancer,” she writes. “No wonder so many with metastatic breast cancer feel left out, isolated, alone and yes, even erased.”
Joanne Taylor, a metastatic breast cancer patient and advocate, is pushing for more information and awareness of MBC. She created this infographic to show the red flag symptoms of advanced breast cancer.
While metastatic breast cancer is terminal and cannot be cured, because of improved treatments more women are living longer than ever with it. Even so, many misconceptions and lack of information about this diagnosis persist. “A stranger called Elizabeth Richards contacted me and like many other women she knew very little about MBC, yet the more she found out, the more angry and amazed she became that the illness was side-lined,” says Joanne. “Elizabeth’s view was that as long as metastatic cancer wasn’t mainstream people would not be aware of the limited treatment options available to them. If they knew, they’d demand more.”
One of the biggest misconceptions is that MBC is an instant death sentence. “We thought with BCAM coming up we would do something different to show how people could live well with MBC, so we started the #busylivingwithmets campaign,” explains Joanne. “Elizabeth had the idea, it was positive, it showed what people can do if they have access to drugs and surgery. I was her inspiration! If I can do it, others can as well – if they are given the right options.”
Lessons of Resilience, Connection, and Hope
Cancer can be a lonely and isolating experience, but it doesn’t have to be. “A friend told me to accept whatever help was offered, says breast cancer survivor Connie Rosser Riddle. “It was her way of saying to quit being Superwoman, that it was okay to be in need, vulnerable. It was best to be specific when folks asked, “What can I do for you?” My answer combined what that person was best at and where I needed help, and that made a good fit for both of us.”
Audrey Birt, diagnosed with breast cancer three times, shares lessons of courage, connection and resilience on her blog. “Cancer taught me I’m more resilient than I would have believed, it helped make me braver,” she says. “It also taught me that life cannot be controlled. This made me more able to live in the moment, and for the moment. That’s probably not so good for my bank balance but it’s great for my life balance in a way. It taught me to reengage with writing through my blog and in a funny way it changed my life and connection to others. But it also taught me my fragility and that’s a lesson I’m still learning, one day at a time.”
Ultimately however, the lessons you learn will be unique to you. “There is not a single person, story, book, lecture or talk, which will teach us all we need to know to understand the impact of cancer on our lives. That’s what we have to figure out for ourselves when we go through our own cancer experience,” says therapist, Karin Sieger . “Having been diagnosed twice with breast cancer all I can say is try and stay open minded – to your body, the illness, treatment options. You always have choices. Don’t get stuck in fear and don’t get stuck in complacency either. Live your life to the best of your ability and stay true to who you are – with or without cancer.”
A Stanford Medicine X e-Patient scholar, Marie Ennis O’Connor is an internationally recognized keynote speaker, writer, and consultant on global trends in patient engagement, digital health and participatory medicine. A board member of the Patient Empowerment Foundation, a network of people, foundations, organizations and medical institutions dedicated to empowering patients worldwide, Marie’s work is informed by her passion for embedding the patient voice at the heart of healthcare values. She writes about the experience of transitioning from breast cancer patient to advocate on her award-winning blog Journeying Beyond Breast Cancer.
I was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2011. It was found by accident on a chest x-ray, and I was shocked. There was no history of breast cancer in my family, and I never thought it could happen to me.
Cancer patients are supposed to be upbeat; we are supposed to relax and trust that our doctors will provide the best possible care. I had never had a serious illness before, so I was naïve about what to expect from the medical establishment. I wanted to feel that I was safe and in good hands, and that I could simply follow my doctors’ advice. Unfortunately, that was not my experience.
Our physicians are usually our primary source of information, but the fact is that medicine in the USA is a business. Physicians are paid for their time, so unless a patient is a family member or a VIP, most physicians will not allot a patient any more time than the number of minutes that is the “standard of care.” Some doctors are more caring than others, but the for-profit system that we have in the United States rewards oncologists financially if they squeeze in as many patients as possible. A surgical oncologist will want to do surgery; a medical oncologist will want to do chemotherapy; a radiation oncologist will want to do radiation. This is what they know and what they are paid to do; and most oncologists want to get on with it as quickly as possible.
What they will usually not do is spend extra time consulting with specialists and/or looking in the medical literature for newer and better ways to treat their patients. They will generally not become knowledgeable about any kind of treatment outside their specialty, such as nutrition or any type of complementary medicine. I suspect that most oncologists would be willing to spend the time if they were paid, but insurance in the United States will usually not reimburse for these kinds of activities. In fact, the extra time that an oncologist would have to spend would actually cause them to lose income.
It seemed to me they just wanted me to follow their program, but I knew from even a very quick survey of the literature, that cancer decisions are not easy and simple. The treatment is often unsuccessful, and the side effects can be life threatening. Every patient’s case is different, so the “one-size-fits-all” approach on which traditional cancer treatment is based may not be the best way to proceed. Every year 40,000 women in the United States die of breast cancer after getting the standard of care. I did not want to be one of those statistics.
Because I have an academic background, it was natural for me to jump in and do a lot of research. I went to books, journals, and the Internet. I also got a huge amount of help from other patients. I told lots of people that I had breast cancer, and I gave them permission to tell anyone they wanted. My thought was that the more people they told, the fewer I would have to tell. But I had a huge side benefit—because breast cancer is so common, lots of former patients offered advice and support. I also joined a local breast cancer support group and an online support group at breastcancer.org. These patients were incredibly valuable to me. They referred me to doctors, including an integrative oncologist; they told me how to save my hair through chemotherapy; they told me about a program to reduce side effects through fasting; I was able to avoid neuropathy, mouth sores, and much more.
As of now, I have no evidence of breast cancer, but I am at high risk for recurrence or metastasis, so I am not able to simply return to the life I had before. Conventional cancer care offers periodic tests to see whether the cancer has returned, but it does not offer anything beyond hormone therapy to prevent the cancer from returning. The problem is that if it returns it will likely no longer be curable. I had to go outside of conventional oncology, where I found a lot of evidence that changing one’s “terrain” can keep the cancer dormant. Working with an integrative oncologist, I follow a program of diet, supplements, exercise, mental/spiritual practices, and avoidance of environmental carcinogens.
I learned a great deal from my cancer experience that most people don’t know, and I wanted to share my experience. I wrote a book that I hope will help other patients take charge of their care, to help them make the best medical decisions and to stay in remission afterward.
Janet Maker, Ph.D., is author of The Thinking Woman’s Guide to Breast Cancer: Take Charge of Your Recovery and Remission, winner of 10 book awards. It is a comprehensive guide for women seeking to understand the range of options for breast cancer care, providing resources and information they need to make the best decisions about their own treatment and the best ways to stay in remission.
She holds a Ph.D. in Educational Psychology from University of Southern California, a M.S. in Social Work from Columbia University, and a B.A. in English from University of California, Los Angeles. She is retired from a career as a professor and author of textbooks in the field of College Reading, and she credits her background in academic training in helping her do research for this book. She loves traveling, dancing, food, blues music, Spanish, and the outdoors.