Jennifer often has occasion to visit with other survivors and women in treatment. She gains knowledge, wisdom, understanding, and compassion from her time with the Sisterhood. Here Jennifer shares what she has learned from them as well as her thoughts about those interactions.
I have long said that the statistic that reports one in eight women will get breast cancer is an underestimation. Surely it's at least one in five. I finally have support for my hypothesis that cancer afflicts more than one in eight women. Dr. Heather Kaneda, a radiologist at Lake Norman Regional Medical Center (LNRMC), reported that the one in eight statistic only includes those diagnosed with invasive breast cancer. That cancer designation means that the tumor breached the milk duct in the breast. There are many more patients that are diagnosed with non-invasive breast cancer, which means the tumor is contained within the duct. A non-invasive tumor can be staged as a zero, but it is still malignant. It is my opinion that women in this latter category should be included in the reported prevalence of breast cancer.
Another issue that I have campaigned for in spite of the current recommendation is that people still need to do their breast self-exams (BSE). The reason that the monthly BSE is no longer encouraged was explained by Dr. Michelle Bertch, a breast surgeon at LNRMC. The American Cancer Society dropped their campaign for the BSE because women and teenagers were getting anxious and fearful about every lump they felt, which led to an increase in unnecessary testing. It is my opinion that fear can be reduced with adequate education on breast health. For example, if a mass is found in one breast, the other breast should be checked for a mass in the same position. If there is a match, it is unlikely that either mass is a malignant tumor. When I found the lump in my own breast, I knew to get it checked because there was no match in my other breast. Many women have "lumpy" breasts, and the size of the lumps may feel larger closer to menstruation. Therefore, a BSE should be performed one week after a period. If boys and girls were taught these things as early as their high school years, it is likely that fear and unnecessary testing would decrease significantly.
Everyone has a story. I often hear women describe their experience in the context of their treatment plan. The spectrum ranges from a single procedure to long and complicated treatment. Regardless of the differences, there are several commonalities.
The news is almost always a gut-punch. Even if a woman thinks she's doomed by her family history, there is no preparation for the moment that the doctor says, "You have cancer."
A cancer diagnosis affects more than just the patient. Family, friends, and entire communities can be shaken by the traumatic news.
Questions flood a woman's soul like, "How will I take care of my family," "Will I have to have chemo," "Will I lose my hair," and, "How will I tell my children?" Not all of those questions can be answered immediately, and the wait time can feel long and scary.
Regardless of the protocol used to remove the cancer and reduce the possibility of its return, fear often takes up residence in the patient's heart and mind about the cancer coming back.
Women are often told that reaching the five-year mark of being cancer-free means that the likelihood of a recurrence is significantly reduced. Doctors share that statistic as a fact in patient education, and I'm sure they think it will generate hope as survivors rack up years of cancer-free survivorship.
It's common for the Sisterhood to celebrate reaching that milestone. And Sisters collectively hold their breath for every bump and tickle that shows up within that five years fearing that the cancer has returned. As a survivor myself, I am surprised that I continue to carry that fear even though I am past the five-year mark.
The PA at my oncologist's office is warm and compassionate. She gave me the gift of the advice to "embrace the fear." She said I don't have to be hard on myself for being afraid, and that gave me courage to ask about anything that concerns me.
When I was in treatment I encountered some debilitating side effects that my doctors didn't know how to address at the time. I was able to find some solutions that my medical team approved.
**Please do NOT receive this advice as having come from any medically regulated source nor the FDA. These are only my personal experiences.**
Around the time of my third chemo treatment (almost four months after my diagnosis) I started getting horrendous headaches that radiated down through my neck and back. My doctor prescribed hydrocodone, but it didn't help. I did some research on my own and found a little online forum where some cancer patients were discussing this very issue. The solution they found--which also solved my problem--was a medication that is a combination of acetaminophen and caffeine. The generic name is butalbital, and it worked like a miracle.
Another source of excruciating pain was the white blood cell booster shot, Neulasta, that I had to have after each chemo treatment. It was after my second chemo treatment that the shot caused horrible pain in my bones, and there wasn't any remedy for it. Fast forward to my Reclast infusion I have every two years now for osteopenia (bone density loss) from cancer treatment. Because I had a lot of pain the day after my first Reclast infusion, I was hoping for some sort of solution to follow after my next one. I recently heard that taking Claritin for a few days before the Neulasta shot has helped to relieve the ensuing pain for some patients. I took Claritin the day of my Reclast infusion and had zero pain the next day. It worked like a miracle.
The heartburn I had in treatment was so severe that it felt like I was having a heart attack. The pain I had went down to my ribs and up through my back. My doctor put me on 20 mg of famotidine twice per day. I have continued that regimen all these years because heartburn remained a problem after my cancer treatment ended. Strangely, there have been times recently when I felt heartburn coming on even though I'm taking famotidine, and indigestion is now becoming a problem. The remedy I use is an essential oil blend called "Tamer" from doTERRA. It relieves my symptoms instantly. It works like a miracle.