Sisterhood of survivors
By Tiffany Esshaki
C & G Staff Writer
Odds are most people have had breast cancer, the most common cancer among women, touch their lives in some way.
But only those who’ve received the devastating diagnosis themselves can testify to how truly life-altering the experience can be.
Though major strides have been made for treating the disease, it’s only been in recent years that many doctors have started to pay attention to the second leg of a woman’s breast cancer battle — the journey that takes place after breast cancer treatment is complete.
Investment advisor Janette Schad is a survivor of breast cancer, along with her mother and aunt. She said that when she received the diagnosis at age 33, she had a good idea of what her treatment might entail. But little did she know that her experience would be quite different from the other survivors in her family. Just one week after doctors diagnosed her with stage 2 breast cancer in November 2010, she learned she was also pregnant with her first child.
“I went through many different emotions — some of life’s greatest moments and most difficult at the same time,” said Schad. “We didn’t know how it would all unfold, but I had an amazing team of physicians at Beaumont, and they said, ‘Janette, you can do this. You can have a healthy baby without compromising your cure for cancer.’”
With that, Schad knew she had even more of a reason to beat the disease — not just for herself, but for her baby on the way. About a month after her initial diagnosis, she underwent surgery to remove the cancer, and when she had passed the first trimester of her pregnancy, she began a series of five chemotherapy treatments, which doctors assured her wouldn’t harm her baby. Three months later, she gave birth to an early but healthy baby girl.
“She’s doing amazing; she’s our little miracle baby,” said Schad. “It was definitely an added motivator. She brought us a lot of hope and joy through such a difficult period.”
After her daughter was born, Schad underwent more chemotherapy, as well as radiation, and she eventually had both breasts removed. Her path was made a little more complicated, but also a little brighter, since she had a new baby to keep her focused. Now, she’s a mom first and a survivor second.
“Every woman has their own story, and every story is inspiring. It’s a sisterhood that you become a part of. You don’t have a choice to become a part of it, but you do, and it’s a bond: survivors and current patients together,” she said.
For some women, the road to recovery can be a little tougher and life after cancer can be hard to settle into, according to Dr. Nayana Dekhne, director of comprehensive breast care at Beaumont Health System. She said that immediately following treatment, many patients expect to bounce back into their old daily routines. Much of the time, however, the lingering side effects of aggressive cancer treatment can present new obstacles.
“There are so many unaddressed issues after treatment. The emotional effects from treatment, fertility and parenting issues, follow-up care, what to eat and lifestyle choices to prevent recurrences, sexual and relationship issues — now we realize the value of these survivorship issues,” said Dekhne. “Even as a physician, (I recognize) for years we were ignoring these.”
Dekhne said she often advises patients to obtain two items from their doctor: a summary of their cancer treatment plan and a detailed follow-up plan. She said some women don’t know which specialists they need to see post-treatment, and once they do, the specialists will need to know exactly what cures were implemented in order to correctly help a patient in the future.
“Each drug has unique side effects. Some drugs are known to affect bones. And there’s actually something called chemo-brain, which is a fogging and clouding of mental state after chemo,” said Dekhne. “There’s a real quality of life issue for breast cancer patients.”
Dekhne suggests using any or all of the resources available to patients, including holistic treatments like herbal and dietary supplements, and acupuncture, as well as counseling and psychological care.
At the Barbara Ann Karmanos Cancer Institute in Detroit and Farmington Hills, current patients and survivors alike are encouraged to join the women’s wellness group, a support group for those who share the bonds of coming through breast cancer.
Kathleen Hardy is an oncology social worker for Karmanos who manages the wellness group sessions. She said that while ongoing support from loved ones is vital to a woman’s success when battling breast cancer, it’s helpful to spend time with those who’ve been there.
“I think it’s very encouraging; they don’t feel alone,” said Hardy of the women who attend the groups. “They get it at a different level, and they have practical knowledge. It’s inspirational because (patients) look around and say, ‘You’ve been through it. You’ve survived it.’ It gives hope to see women who’ve had cancer and they still take trips and have a life.”
Hardy said one-on-one therapy can be helpful to women who don’t want to discuss their feelings or fears in a group setting, but she insists that it’s important that any woman who’s had breast cancer find support, even months or years after treatment.
“When treatment comes to an end, family and friends and coworkers want to celebrate the fact that treatment is over. But for (the patient), it’s just beginning. They’ve been so busy with treatments and side effects and testing that they don’t have time to deal with all the emotions of how it’s changed their life,” she said. “There’s a loss of innocence. They’re not the same as they were before. The cancer may be gone, but now they have to deal with the lingering side effects — cognitive, sexual. It can take six months to a year before they can feel normal again.”
It’s been nearly a year since Monique Cushingberry was first diagnosed with stage 2 breast cancer. She discovered the lump herself after she felt a sharp pain in her breast as she was walking out the door of her Ferndale home to go to dinner. Just as the holidays were nearing, the then-40-year-old was gearing up for six rounds of chemotherapy before a single mastectomy. At that time, she said, her anger and hurt over her diagnosis nearly overcame her.
“Oh, it was hard,” said Cushingberry. “I have two kids and a husband. I lost my mother at a young age, and I’ve always been fearful of not seeing my grandkids, because I never knew my grandmother and my kids didn’t know my mom. It was a very, very hard pill to swallow.”
For several months Cushingberry withdrew from her family, and would often come home to lie on her bed and cry. But she credits her husband with the change of attitude that has helped her to deal with the disease, now in remission.
“He said, ‘No more. Wake up and get yourself together,’” she said. “I was bargaining with God, saying, ‘If you give me my life back, I’ll do this, I’ll do that.’ But one day I said, ‘Monique, you still have your life.’ I lost some weight, I lost my hair, but other than that, I’m good.”