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VNA of Care New England

In her own words: living with breast cancer

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Joanne, an oncology nurse, was diagnosed two years ago with breast cancer. Recently widowed, she was determined to fight the cancer. Her two married daughters and two grandchildren gave her the determination. She has successfully undergone a lumpectomy, chemotherapy, and radiation. With the support of family and friends, she says she is very close to a 100% recovery.
What was your first sign that something was wrong? What symptoms did you experience?
The lump was found in a mammogram, which I was having on a routine basis. I didn't really have any symptoms.
What was the diagnosis experience like?
It was a shock. I knew that day it was a malignancy because they did the fine needle aspiration. My appointment was on a Friday and my surgery was scheduled for the following Wednesday. So I left the office knowing what I was dealing with. Even though it's bad news, I would rather know right away, and not have to wait on the pathology report. I never dreamed that I would have breast cancer when I went in that day, but I was glad to know what I was facing when I left.
What was your initial and then long-term reaction to the diagnosis?
I think I'm considered a fighter. My husband had multiple sclerosis for 25 years, and passed away four years ago, so I was used to living under intense situations. He was in a nursing home for the past nine years of his life. I wanted to make this less traumatic on my family than what they had just gone through with their dad. It had just been two years after my husband died when I got the diagnosis. I guess for the sake of my girls, I was determined to hit it head on. I wanted to be as strong as I could for them. They were my main priority. I just said, "We'll do what we have to do," so I had the surgery and started the chemotherapy right away.
How do you manage breast cancer?
I had a lumpectomy. I chose to do that over a complete mastectomy, based on my doctor's recommendation. He felt that the mastectomy was too invasive. I had a lumpectomy the day before Thanksgiving in 1999 and started chemo December 16th. I had six months of chemo–once every six weeks for six months. I had three different kinds of chemo–Adriamyacin, Cytoxin, and Taxol. Then, after the tumor was gone, I did six weeks, five days a week of radiation. Now I take Tamoxifen. That was started right away to help prevent the cancer from spreading. I had check-ups every three months. Now I have a mammogram every six months and blood work every three months. I also had a port put in for the chemo. They did all the blood work and all the chemo out of that port. I just had it removed this past week.
Did you make any lifestyle or dietary changes in response to breast cancer?
As far as dietary changes, I don't do much different other than taking vitamins. I have always eaten a pretty healthful diet. I don't drink caffeine, so that wasn't a problem. The vitamins really helped during the chemo because it really zaps your energy. We had a naturopathic doctor on staff where I work, and she recommended specific vitamins for me to take.
As far as lifestyle, I didn't make a lot of changes; however, I had some physical changes. During the chemo, my white blood cell count bottomed out a few times, so I had to go into the hospital twice and be put on antibiotics and get two units of blood. But otherwise, I didn't have the nausea, which was really nice. I did lose my hair, but I had picked out a wig ahead of time. My nails changed— they grew like mad, then afterwards, they were really weak. I had some vision changes, so I didn't drive for a while. The chemo makes you very hyped up, so I had to take something to help me sleep. Fatigue was also an issue. The chemo and radiation would just wipe me out. I would get my treatment at the end of the day. I had to push myself to keep working, even though I really enjoyed it. I would work, get my treatment, and then come home and lay on the couch. My doctor suggested that I not be out among big crowds while I was on chemo, to help prevent picking up germs. I was fortunate in that I didn't get any colds or flu. It takes a lot out of you, and it has just been in the last month that I feel close to 100%.
When I was going through this I had a job where I worked outside. I mowed for a large athletic complex (66 acres). So, I didn't have to work until April. Because I was outside all day, I was careful to completely cover my skin. I always wore a hat, long pants, and long sleeves. I knew I couldn't expose my skin to the sun while I was getting chemo or radiation. Then, in January of 2001 I got back into nursing. It was actually a connection I made during my treatment. It's pretty neat how things work out.
Did you seek any type of emotional support?
I got most of my support from my family and church friends. There were counselors available, but I didn't really need any additional support. My friends at church were constantly keeping in touch, sending cards, bringing meals, and calling to let me know they were thinking about me. My daughters and grandkids were also very supportive and encouraging. They kept me going.
Does breast cancer have any impact on your family?
Yes, it certainly does. Their dad was sick so much of their lives, so they were used to it. But because of that, I didn't want my condition to take over our lives. It was always there, but we didn't let it be the focus. We just went on and tried to do as much as we could.
What advice would you give to anyone living with breast cancer?
I would tell them to take one day at a time. Looking too far ahead could drive you crazy. I would encourage them to learn about breast cancer, but be careful about reading too much. It can get discouraging. I would also encourage them to take care of themselves. It's always there, but you can't let it take over.
Interviews were conducted in the past and may not reflect current standards and practices in medicine. Talk to your doctor to learn more about how this condition is diagnosed and managed today and what treatment approaches are right for you.
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