What it Means to be a Breast Cancer Survivor
I believe in pink. I believe laughing is the best calorie burner. I believe in being strong when everything seems to be going wrong. I believe that happy girls are the prettiest girls. I believe that tomorrow is another day. And I believe in miracles. ~ Audrey Hepburn
Hollywood starlet and humanitarian Audrey Hepburn said it best when she spoke of her outlook on life, but when someone is presented with breast cancer and the difficult journey that so many women have bravely undertaken, this statement takes on a whole new meaning of hope and survival. Each year more than 192,000 U.S. women are diagnosed with breast cancer, according to the National Cancer Institute (NCI).
This dismal fact makes tumors in the breast the most common type of cancer among U.S. women, other than skin cancer. Unfortunately, medical science cannot define specifically why one woman develops breast cancer and another does not. Even with these grim truths however, thousands of women have faced this terrible diagnosis with courage and a resolve to overcome the disease before them. This is the story of local women who have fought breast cancer, and won.
Why get tested?
Breast cancer knows no boundaries for age, race, or medical history. Lyn Holcomb is a resident of Lakeland, who had no family history of the disease. Holcomb had a professional background as a nurse, but despite her knowledge of breast cancer, thought nothing of the dull discomfort in her right breast until one afternoon during a breast self-exam (BSE) when she discovered a lump. Winter Haven resident Marilyn Stewart’s tumor was not detected during a routine mammogram and she did not feel a lump during her BSE. A bloody discharge secreting from the nipple brought concern, and immediately following a test confirmed the suspicion. Tammie Marple, who lives in Bartow, also had no family medical history but called her doctor after a disconcerting BSE. Pamela Smith, who has resided in Lakeland for 10 years, was first diagnosed at the young age of 25. The American Cancer Society (ACS) outlines that women 40 years and older should have a mammogram and a clinical breast exam (CBE) annually. Women in their 20s and 30s should have CBEs as part of a regular health exam at least every three years. ACS also points out that women in their 20s can do breast self-exams as often as every month, and should report breast changes to their doctor right away.
Test results and diagnosis
Dr. Susan Ross is a medical oncologist at the Central Florida Cancer institute and a Polk County Medical Association member who has counseled many breast cancer patients in Central Florida since 1992. Dr. Ross says, “We try to encourage a positive attitude, which could help tremendously, especially during treatment.” Holcomb was diagnosed after her BSE in the late summer of 1996. She recalls vividly her first conversation with her doctor, “At first, the news feels like a punch in the stomach, and then it plays like a broken record over and over in your mind, ‘You’ve got cancer.’ There is no way to prepare yourself for this news.” Stewart was diagnosed in the fall of 1998, and she remembers saying to her doctor, “I can’t let this get me down. I have a granddaughter coming.”
Marple says, “I was diagnosed February 23, 2009. My doctor kept my spirits up by just being very caring and understanding. I was getting a divorce at the time so it was very hard on me and she was very helpful.” Smith has been diagnosed twice, once on April 4, 1990 and again in October of 2000. Before the first diagnosis, she remembers, “Yes, a thousand things run through your mind, but never cancer. I thought I was too young.” Then, ten years later she received another diagnosis. These women all had different stages of breast cancer at different times, but one theme remains the same through their experiences: each woman found support through her loved ones.
Getting treatment and encouragement
“Just having a presence sometimes is a big help, explains Dr. Ross for those who wish to offer their support. “Go with the patient to the doctor’s appointments so that you can know what is happening and get a better idea of how to help the patient through the illness. Also, try to maintain a normal daily routine. When you are going through something as unpleasant as chemotherapy, a familiar routine at home or at work is comforting and can take your mind off the unpleasantness of the situation.” Holcomb confesses that telling family and friends was the first really difficult thing she had to do. She explains that those who love you don’t just support you, but experience the illness with you. “A part of me wanted to save them from bearing the pain of this news,” admits Holcomb, “but I needed them during this time more than ever.” Her doctor in due course recommended a bilateral mastectomy. “Dr. Dupont took hours to explain everything to me. She was compassionate, sensitive, and brilliant,” says Holcomb. “My breasts do not define me, but they are nonetheless a part of me, so much consideration and thought went into how the bilateral mastectomies would ultimately affect my life.”
With the information she had garnered from her oncologist and surgeon, and with her family behind her, Holcomb ultimately decided to have both breasts removed. Stewart says that her family including her husband, daughter, and mother were a tremendous support to her. Her close friend also took one day a week off during her treatment to help in any way she could. “I did not hold back from telling anyone because I felt the more support I had the better outlook I would maintain,” says Stewart.
With the guidance of her doctors, Stewart chose to have a modified radical mastectomy. “After I had my surgery my oncologist was wonderful. He treated me like an individual (not a number). Even now, he always asks me personal questions like how my granddaughter is doing.” Marple says, “I looked to my caregivers Tyleia Robinson and Bess Dubose and family for comfort and support. They were my source of strength by encouraging me that everything would be okay.” After much consideration and seeking a second opinion, Marple decided to have a bilateral mastectomy on May 1, 2009 and reconstruction surgery on October 12, 2009.
Smith agrees that “you need a good support team behind you. I had my husband and family. Prayers don’t hurt either. I never considered having a mastectomy, and I’m not a big fan of pain pills. I consider myself a lucky person because I was not only given a second chance, but also a third.” Dr. Ross adds, “The most important thing is to tell your doctor everything. When you’re going through treatment, you will experience side effects, which are usually manageable either with drugs or other measures. But your doctor will not be able to help if he or she does not know what is bothering you.”
Life after breast cancer
Dr. Ross outlines some important post-treatment practices: “After treatment and a reasonable recovery period, patients slowly go back to their normal routine. Eventually, they should go on a fitness regimen, which could be anything from walking regularly to joining a gym. It is recommended to maintain a healthy diet: 5-10 servings of fruits and vegetables a day have been linked to decreased risk of several cancers, including breast cancer. Limit the amount of alcohol consumption. Also, you need to develop a routine of maintenance care including examining your breasts monthly. This plus regular mammograms and office visits to the oncologists help to detect early signs of recurrent disease.”
As a last word of encouragement for those of us still on the front lines of the fight against breast cancer, take with you another sentiment of Audrey Heburn’s. “Nothing is impossible, the word itself says ‘I’m possible.’” — For a list of local breast cancer support groups visit us online at www.CentralFloridaHealthNews.com and search “Breast Cancer Support Group.”
story by SARAH-JANE POTTER