Breast Cancer Support: Living on Both Sides of the Pink Ribbon
October is a time when pink ribbons adorn lapels and buildings light up in pink to recognize Breast Cancer Awareness Month. It’s a time when we collectively stand together to support those who have faced this formidable adversary and celebrate their triumphs. Today, I want to share my story and highlight the vital role of support in overcoming the challenges that breast cancer presents.
My Story, My Breast Cancer Diagnosis
It all began on a seemingly ordinary work trip with a friend. After our conference presentations were complete, we spent time sightseeing in Washington, D.C. I found a lump while showering. When I returned home, I quickly scheduled a doctor's appointment, and my doctor agreed the lump was suspicious.
After a pretty heavy-duty mammogram, an ultrasound, and a needle biopsy, I vividly remember a very kind nurse prepared me for the likelihood of a cancer diagnosis. A couple of days later, I received the phone call at work confirming it was cancer, and a shot of adrenaline went down my spine. I was catapulted into a world of medical jargon and uncertainty.
I learned about my diagnosis, stage, and tumor grade (Stage 2A, Grade 3 tumor, triple negative) and embarked on a treatment plan. Like many others diagnosed with breast cancer, I had more than my fair share of challenges at the time – my dear mother was in treatment for terminal lung cancer. It was a period of emotional turmoil that I wasn’t sure how to navigate.
I wasn't alone on this journey. I had two work friends who had survived breast cancer, and their experiences provided invaluable insights and emotional support. Kathy, my close friend (who happened to be one of those coworkers) had been diagnosed in January 2003 and was an 11-year survivor at this point. Being a breast cancer veteran, she offered to go with me to my first visit with the medical oncologist – which was very comforting. In fact, throughout my journey, Kathy did her best to reassure me that this whole experience would – in the end – be a nuisance and then it would over, and life would return to “normal.” Her survival, and that of others at my workplace, fueled my hope and determination.
So, my journey began with unwavering support from work colleagues, my work team, close friends, and even acquaintances. My boss at the time was particularly compassionate as he had lost his first wife to cancer. Ron would occasionally check in on me, but he also gave me more responsibility during my treatment because he respected and trusted me (and my team). Through my toughest months, colleagues and friends rallied around me, helping with meals, attending chemo appointments, and sending cards and small gifts to boost my spirits.
A Surrogate Mom
Two months into my treatment, my mom passed away from her battle with cancer, and her cousin (and best friend), Barbara, became my surrogate mom. Her love and care were like a guiding light. Not only did she provide a motherly figure in my life, but she was also a retired nurse who had extensive experience working with cancer patients. After standing alongside my mother during her battle, she took up her philosophical sword to assist me with my fight.
We remain close, and I’m forever grateful for what she did for my mom and me. Barbara, along with my husband Bob and son Liam, served as the backbone of my support. On a daily basis, Bob and Liam were so kind to me – so understanding – and a big help with, well, just about anything.
Friends, Family, and Colleagues United
During my treatment I continued to work, thanks to my amazing team's comprehensive support and understanding. On occasion, I had to miss a day of work here and there during chemotherapy, and never once did they complain. Together they filled in any gaps my absence created. And during weeks of radiation, I left work early Monday through Friday. These professionals in the Marketing and Communications Department were incredible – in their quality of work, productivity, and kindness (thank you … Ben, Brynne, Nick, Karen, Kelly, Amber, Aimee, Jan, Linda, Vicki, and Anna).
Photo 1: My husband Bob came to my first chemotherapy treatment with me. / Photo 2: Close friend Terri joined me at my second appointment. / Photo 3: Time passed more quickly at my third treatment with friend and colleague Kelley by my side. / Photo 4: Maja (left) came with close pal Laurie to my last treatment in the first round of chemo. Maja, who hails from Denmark and is the daughter of our good friends Jan and Jeppe, was a high school exchange student. / Photo 5: To start my second round of chemo, Laurie was the delivery representative for the Marketing and Communications gang who gifted me with all kinds of treats to occupy the hours of sitting ahead of me.
Shoutout also to colleagues and friends Kelley (the meal team organizer), Jennifer (a fellow pink “sister” who provided comic relief), and Kathy and Terri – my BFFs. I have to also give thanks to many colleagues who were no longer a part of my team, college friends, and colleagues/friends from my professional organization who kept in close touch with words of encouragement and love (so many cards!). And the people who inspired this blog (Jodi, Laurie, Liz, Sally, Karen, Julie, as well as Pamela, Jackie, Jim, and Mia) came to visit, sent cards, and consistently checked in on me. And, finally, I can’t forget my hairstylist (and more) of 30 years – Joan – who shaved my head and custom cut my wig.
Photo 1: Joan helped me feel confident by helping me pick out my first wig and giving it a custom cut. / Photo 2: I chose a short bob for my second wig – in hopes of making the eventual transition to my own hair a bit easier.
The Journey of Treatment
My treatment included two rounds of chemotherapy, lumpectomy surgeries, and three weeks of daily radiation that was completed right around my 52nd birthday in September 2015. I later started different medications designed to prevent a recurrence but ultimately settled on Tamoxifen. Regular checkups and survivorship became a part of my life, and I am proud to call myself an eight-year survivor since my diagnosis in November 2014. To celebrate the completion of my treatment, Andrea whisked me off to Kauai in October for an “I kicked cancer’s ass” vacation.
Photo 1: The nurses who helped with my chemo treatments at BJC Siteman Center in St. Peters gathered to celebrate the end of my chemo. / Photo 2: In September, the radiation technicians stood by me as I rang the bell signaling the completion of my treatment.
The Importance of Paying It Forward and Lending an Ear
After I was labeled a breast cancer survivor, I realized the significance of lending an ear and being a source of strength for others. People like Lisa, a long-time friend, and Karen, a friend to my dear friend, Andrea, were two women with whom I listened to during (and after) their diagnoses and treatments. Karen, who lives in California, needed someone to share her thoughts and ask questions, especially during the start of her journey. Andrea connected us, and we spoke many times over the phone. Sometimes chatting with someone you don’t know is a bit easier. We’ve kept in touch, and in February we’ll finally meet in person when Andrea and I meet up with Karen in Los Angeles – I can’t wait!
Jackie (mentioned above) was diagnosed after me, and though we lived in different states, we kept in touch. My sister-in-law, Alice, has had to recurrences of breast cancer and is bravely living with breast-related cancer. And then, one my closest friends and the most recently diagnosed, Laurie was diagnosed last October and completed her treatment in early January. I was glad I could be there for her (along with my fellow survivor and friend, Kathy). Her grace throughout her treatment was amazing – but that is classic Laurie because she is grace personified.
Advice to Others Who Want to Help
Listen, Always Listen
The most vital lesson I learned was to listen actively and empathetically. Being there, offering a shoulder to lean on, and providing a safe space to express feelings are critical for a friend.
Share, Don't Compare
In supporting someone facing breast cancer, it's important to share your experiences without comparing your experience to the person’s you are helping. Every journey is unique, everyone's feelings are valid, and their treatment and healing timelines are different.
Take the Initiative
It’s almost a reflex to say to others in need – “Let me know how I can help.” But I would say –don't wait for others to answer that question. Jump in and assist with appointments, meals, notes, and more. Offer your help but just respect their autonomy in accepting it.
Encourage and Be Positive
Your role is to encourage, support, and cheer them on. Avoid making predictions, and instead, maintain a hopeful and positive outlook.
Remember, those facing breast cancer are more than their diagnosis. Do what you can to help them maintain a sense of normalcy. Continue inviting them out, converse about other topics, and don't assume they are helpless in all areas of their lives.
My breast cancer journey has taught me that with the power of support, it’s so much easier to navigate the most difficult days. As we mark Breast Cancer Awareness Month, let's continue to raise awareness, support survivors, and offer our strength to those who need it – no matter what their diagnosis is. Together, we can make a difference and inspire hope for a brighter, cancer-free future.