Kindnesses small and large ease path for cancer survivor

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I have always gotten my annual mammogram starting at age 40 because doing this is an important part of my health.

Last March, as usual I got my annual mammogram. But this time I received a message from my doctor’s office saying I needed to go back for more images because there was something unusual found.

Knowing that over 70 percent of women called back for a follow-up mammogram are told there is no reason for concern, I went back for further images. The radiologist said he thought that I had an inflamed gland and to come back in six months. Six months later I was told I had “concerning calcifications” and I needed a biopsy. Again, knowing that over 70 percent of women who have a biopsy find they do not have cancer, I was not concerned.

I was shocked and totally unprepared when a day later my doctor called telling me I had “invasive ductal carcinoma!”

My life suddenly turned upside down. I could not believe I had breast cancer. I had no family history; I was young and VERY healthy. Suddenly I had to find a surgeon, an oncologist and a radiation oncologist.

Even though I have worked in hospitals for over 30 years, I knew nothing about what to do. I immediately threw myself into researching breast cancer. I found out that there are MANY different kinds of breast cancer. I also learned that women now have many options regarding their treatment, whereas in the past their only option was a mastectomy.

After much research and discussion I decided on a lumpectomy knowing that I would have to follow with radiation. My surgery was uneventful except that five days later my surgeon called to tell me that I did not have “clear margins” (this meant that not all the cancer had been removed.)

About 20 percent of women who have a lumpectomy have to have a second surgery because removing all the cancer can be tricky. I was in that 20 percent. The second surgery removed all of my cancer. I then was told that because my cancer was caught so early (due to the regular mammograms), and because of the type of cancer I had, I did not need to have chemotherapy.

Radiation was my next step in my treatment. Receiving radiation is not painful but because the radiation is meant to kill cancer cells, a person often has skin problems as healthy cells are killed too. I found two items that helped my skin immensely. Lindi cooling strips helped cool and soothe my red, irritated skin and Wick’em liners helped prevent problem causing moisture and chaffing. Radiation was a challenge but one that is very doable.

It has been eight months since my last treatment. For the next five years I will be taking an anti-hormone medication to help prevent reoccurrence. I am being watched carefully but I have been told that my outlook is great.

Many people have asked what helped me get through treatment and what I did not expect. I give the following advice if you have a friend or loved one dealing with cancer.

Do: Tell them positive stories about persons who survived cancer. (Many people told me their “horror” story regarding someone who had reoccurring breast cancer and was “dead six months later.”)

Do: Bring meals to them, help clean their house or mow their lawn.

Do: send them encouraging notes, books etc. The best thing a person said to me was that my breast cancer is “a bump in the road. You will get through this.”

What I did not expect is the kindness of the Providence St. Mary Medical Center staff, especially the physicians. I spent most of my career working in another state at another hospital. At that hospital, the oncology physicians were very competent and very knowledgeable but they were cold, distant and insensitive. I was so happily surprised at how caring Dr Ashton was. I would recommend Providence St. Mary Regional Cancer Center to anyone.

I tell every woman who will listen to get your regular mammogram because 80 percent of women who are diagnosed with breast cancer have NO FAMILY HISTORY of breast cancer.

Ruth Blair is a cancer survivor and the director of food and nutrition at Providence St. Mary Medical Center.

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