by Libby Sternberg
It’s breast cancer awareness month (although I have to say that it’s hard to imagine folks who aren’t aware of this disease by now).
The campaigns to raise awareness have been pretty successful. What might still be a challenge, however, is getting women to actually get tested for breast cancer. I speak from experience. I found it extremely difficult to schedule a mammogram for a very simple reason: fear. My mother had died of the disease. My sister is a breast cancer survivor. Many other women in my family have faced it, too. I was in the ignorance-is-bliss category.
So, my advice to those who shake and quake as I did: Be not afraid, ladies. You will be able to face it, whatever “it” happens to be. And “it” might be nothing. Most women do not get breast cancer. That sometimes gets lost in the breast cancer awareness campaigns. The flip side of that good awareness is a wrong implication–that testing means cancer diagnosis. No, testing often means “all clear.”
In fact, while I think of it, a good campaign might include a lot of those “all clear” voices offering reassurances to women, with the underlying message being, however, that for the minority who don’t get the positive mammo outcome, a positive future can still await.
Anyway, for me, part of the “it” I feared was losing my hair if I had to face the Big C and its treatment. I had a real problem with that. Until I got two wigs. I loved them so much I took one to a hairdresser and asked her to cut my hair in that style after it grew back.
If you’re afraid of the test, however, let me offer some advice: Find a good breast health center and have your mammogram done there. The center I go to seems to do everything possible to take the stress out of the event. The decor is soothing; background music calming; staff helpful and solicitous. They seem to go out of their way to minimize the wait, and you need not wait in a public room but can read quietly and deal with your fears alone, if that’s your style, in single small dressing rooms.
This particular center also assigned a nurse to me once the diagnosis came in. She provided me immediately with a helpful booklet and acted as my “shepherd” through the process. I was shocked–and delighted–when she showed up for my first visit with my oncologist. When I had questions about direction, I often turned to her first; then she helped me figure out how to approach my doctors.
My second piece of advice, actually, comes from her: You are the captain of your ship. That is, you do what you want to do after weighing all the advice and information given to you by the experts. In my case, that meant opting for doing the whole enchilada in one surgery, not two–mastectomy and reconstruction at the same time. It was a lollapalooza of a surgery, but I didn’t want to go under the knife twice. Yes, I knew I risked some tissue damage if I needed radiation (I did), but opted to take that risk. This meant arguing with doctors at times. I’m good at that, though. Arguing, that is.
Being captain of your ship, by the way, means choosing the right doctor’s practice for you. Notice I use the word “practice.” You might find a terrific oncologist, but if the staff seems surly, do you need that stress? When you’re in distress, you don’t want a curmudgeon as the gatekeeper to the doc.
Being the captain of my own ship also meant thinking of ways to ease my tension. Anyone who’s faced breast cancer knows that any lump raises concerns. But after surgery, some lumpiness can be….nothing. To reassure myself, I cut out a piece of a dress pattern in the shape of one particular hard spot and used it to judge if there were changes occurring. My oncologist was impressed.
And being captain of my ship sometimes has meant saying no to procedures I don’t want. Every year my doc would ask me to get a bone density scan to check for osteoporosis because one of the meds I’m on can apparently lead to bone weakness. But I am not interested in taking any meds to correct that condition, should I have it (and there’s no evidence I do), so why bother with the test? At one recent visit, the office nurse asked me if I’d gotten the test. I said no and explained why. She smiled and said: Good for you.
More advice: subscribe to a magazine called Cure Today if you or a loved one faces a cancer diagnosis. Of all the waiting room reading material, this magazine stood out. It’s upbeat without being sappy. It’s intelligent and speaks of research and treatments, while also covering the psycho-social aspects of this disease. It was in this magazine that I read of the fearsome “cast off” feeling after treatment ends. After being seen by medical professionals virtually every week, suddenly you’re told: see you in a year. Feeling apprehensive then is normal. Good to know.
More advice, but this is for friends and loved ones of those facing a cancer diagnosis. A few do’s and don’t's:
- Don’t say “My mother/sister/friend died of that” upon hearing of someone’s diagnosis.
- Do tell a cancer patient about survivors you know.
- Don’t send cancer patients stories or tips about “cures the pharmaceutical industry doesn’t want you to know about.” If just eating lots of ginger and drinking certain teas could cure cancer, it would be gone by now, doncha think? Besides, when you send these “no side effects” cure ideas to cancer patients undergoing the grueling slog of chemo or radiation, what you’re really saying is “Aren’t you the fool for putting yourself through that when you could just drink this tea instead?”
- Do think of thoughtful, helpful things to do to help a patient through that treatment regimen. My sister-in-law visited during one session and cleaned and cooked with no instruction. My sister sent me a gift package with magazines to read during chemo and other fun things. My kids sent flowers on my first day of chemo.
And an aunt sent me one of those breast cancer pink items that companies manufacture, using part of the proceeds for research or awareness. It’s so lovely I include a picture here–a Lennox vase with a faint pink pattern. I use it often. It’s a reminder of family, love, hope and beauty.
And that’s what this month should be about, too.