FIGHT Against Cancer: Stories Of Survival

You have breast cancer.

Four words- big, impactful, life-changing words – that no woman ever wants to hear.

Yet, every day In America; every day in Alaska, women hear those four words of diagnostic dread.

They have already navigated the emotional turbulence of screening and the waiting. Next begins the arduous process of treatment and recovery.

In alphabetical order, below are the stories of four Alaskan women who have braved the sea of cancer and now willingly share intimate details of their battle against this invasive disease.

Margaret Cichoracki  

With no family history of any type of cancer, diagnosis for this Eagle River woman was nothing less than a shock.

A routine mammogram showed a miniscule spot that prompted her doctor to order an ultrasound for a closer look.

Even though her doctor wanted to do a biopsy, at that point, Cichoracki was not concerned.

When her sister asked if Cichoracki was worried, her immediate answer was, “No, I am not scared. I don’t have cancer. We don’t have a family history of cancer.”

Previous mammograms revealed she had dense breasts. With that knowledge, she was consistent in getting her yearly mammogram. She was vigilant.

Turns out that usual predictor – family history – did not excuse cancer from Cichoracki’s life.

Early detection was indeed a life saver in her case.

But not something that spared her from other cancer-related hassles.

The first was a matter of timing – that is, timing of her doctor’s maternity leave which began when Cichoracki was being screened.

Cichoracki’s biopsy was on a Tuesday. She was told that if she did not hear anything by the following Monday that she should call the doctor’s office.

Monday arrived with no contact from the doctor’s office so she decided to call inquiring about her results.

When she did not get a quick return call, she took that as a sign that all was indeed well.

Yet something nagged at her, so she called back and was told another doctor would call her. She thought perhaps the lack of urgency meant that she was in the clear. Still, that voice in the back of her mind kept the questions coming. She called back and firmly stated she wanted an answer that day.

“I said, ‘I believe I deserve an answer today,’” Cichoracki said.

She got that answer. It was not the one she expected.

“Yes, you have breast cancer,” a doctor covering her original doctor’s maternity leave told her.

Cichoracki was at her son’s Tae Kwon Do practice when the evening call came in.

She felt uncared for in the delivery of the cancer news. She was told the cancer was located in a milk duct.

“Okay,” she said to herself. Her first thoughts were that she had heard that was the “better” kind of breast cancer to get if one was going to have breast cancer. At least it was contained.

“I thought, well, okay, no big deal,” she recalled. “I will be waiting to hear from the surgeon’s office to schedule a lumpectomy.”

But then the next day her radiologist called to verify Cichoracki had received her results.

“She asked me, ‘Margaret, did you talk to your doctor?” Cichoracki said. Confidently, Cichoracki  told her radiologist she knew she had cancer in a milk duct. There was a momentary pause. “Margaret, you have two types of cancer.”

Stunning words.

Words she was not ready to hear or even begin to process.

The cancer contained within the milk duct was still there but it had also escaped. The portion outside of the milk duct is considered by cancer specialists to be “invasive.”

“Then, I was shocked,” Cichoracki said. “Shocked. No one in my family had breast cancer.”

The previously calm and composed Cichoracki immediately became panic striken.

“I had to call my husband ... at his workplace,” she said.

Her first clear thoughts were of her young children – now ages seven and six.

“I thought to myself, I have to fight for my kids,” she said. “I have to be here for them. They need me.”

She opted for the recommended lumpectomy.

Its result was the second hassle.

Her margins – a term used in breast cancer treatment to describe the space existing between where a tumor was and where non-affected tissue is – were not clear. The surgeon would have to perform the procedure again.

After the second lumpectomy, the margins still were not clear. Nagging thoughts that she should have just had a double mastectomy to begin with taunted her.

“At the time, when I had the lumpectomy, I knew there was a 20 percent chance that the margins would not come back clear, but again, with no family history, I really thought I did not have anything to worry about,” she said. “Now, I did have something – a very big something – to be worried about.”

The radiation oncologist was confident the rest of the cancer could be destroyed with radiation with a possible chance of some chemotherapy being required.

A DNA test was ordered.

Cichoracki again thought it would come back with nothing to be concerned about.

Its results showed a 13 percent chance of cancer reoccurrence. If she did chemotherapy, that probability dropped to five percent.

The decision was a no-brainer. After all, she was fighting to stay alive – and dare she think, even healthy – for the sake of her young children.

Her first two chemo sessions were nearly textbook. She was a bit achy, but she had begun a new job right after the first weekly session.

The third hassle Cichoracki experienced in her treatment plan came after the third chemo session.

Something just wasn’t the same after the third session. Something felt very wrong, but she did not know what until she broke out in hives everywhere on her body.

No one had warned her that this was a possibility.

Her neighbor – an emergency room doctor – came over and called for an ambulance. She was having sharp chest pains every couple of minutes that lasted approximately 20 seconds.

“I would totally lose my breath,” she said. “I was just bawling.”

Cichoracki had an allergic reaction to the chemotherapy. There was a hive on the top of her head that was the size of a watermelon.

Chemo was dropped and radiation began right away.

She did 38 treatments – Monday through Friday – and was put on an estrogen blocker that gave her unbearable headaches.  She stayed on it for a month before telling her doctor that she just could not live with a permanent headache.

Now she waits to schedule a surgery to have her ovaries removed because without the estrogen blocker, taking her ovaries is the only way to ensure the cancer does not return, she said.

She tells her story because she wants women to remain vigilant in monitoring themselves. She also wants other breast cancer patients to know what she did – that the medications and the treatments can cause the body to revolt.

“This is huge,” she said. “I did not know there could be a delayed reaction to chemo. A lot of people do not know that. I want to raise awareness so that people do not think that just because their first or second treatment does not cause a reaction does not mean that it might not happen.”

Amy Lawton

She is a single mom of two kids and lives in Palmer. She is very close with her parent – whom she lived with for a few years including the time frame in which she was being treated for breast cancer.

Her story begins with frustration that previous physicians did not take her concerns seriously.

She’d try to tell other previous physicians that something was wrong. She was super itchy so she did some online research and checked off the symptoms listed as ones she was experiencing.

Lawton had a full hysterectomy at age 38 and had gone in for a checkup when she told the doctor something just wasn’t right with her breasts.

“I took my bra off and said I have something for you to look at,” she recalled.

Lawton was sent over to Imaging Associates and within two hours had been screened. She was given the difficult news that she had stage three breast cancer in seven lymph nodes. She had four tumors on her right breast and three on the left.

It was a tough day. It was made even more difficult as it was a friend who performed the revealing mammogram. Lawton felt horrible and told her friend that someone else could do the procedure.  But her friend insisted.

“She had such a hard day,” Lawton remembers.

That was June 30, 2015.

Lawton began chemotherapy immediately. The doctor wanted to shrink the tumors before performing the double mastectomy. On Aug. 7, 2015, her cousin – a hairdresser – shaved her head.

On Nov. 23, 2015, surgery removed her breasts and the infected lymph nodes.

She did 33 days of radiation. She was tired, her bones ached and she felt like she had constant flu. Yet, she kept working. Her job as a life skills instructor for those with disabilities provided distraction from her own troubles and motivation to keep moving forward, she said.

“I could not have done it without my job,” Lawton said. “My job and my family are what really helped me through it all.”

Her family and friends cooked and cleaned and let her rest. Her daughter drove her to appointments. It was a role reversal, but a welcome one.

“Ah, so what if I was the one in the passenger seat, now,” she said.

Lawton knows that not every cancer patient has the support she did. Thus, she started a Facebook group called “Cancer Group in the Mat-Su Valley” where patients and supporters can share their stories and needs. She hopes others will join the group.

Her message to the newly-diagnosed: “Don’t let cancer stop your life. Get out there and live.”

She also wants to encourage women to be assertive regarding their health.

“If you know there is something wrong keep pushing,” she said. “Do not stop bugging the doctors. Keep bugging and bugging until something is done.”

Miriah Patrick

As strange as this may sound, she pretty much figured she would get cancer.

The disease; the word cancer is a condition her family is all too familiar with.

Her mother, grandmother and great-grandmother all died due to cancer. Each had breast cancer in common, but each also had different types: Her mother also had synovial sarcoma –an extremely rare form of cancer that spread throughout her entire body. Her grandmother’s breast cancer spread to her brain and lungs. Her great-grandmother was diagnosed with cervical cancer before breast cancer.

“I was kind of expecting it due to family history,” Patrick said. “Most people my age are not even considering they should be watching for it, but I was doing anything I could to watch for it. I just had that gut feeling that I was going to get it so I was very vigilant with my self-exams.”

Yet, she didn’t think she would be diagnosed just a couple weeks prior to her 32nd birthday.

She had endometriosis and asked doctors to start screening for breast cancer. Doctors kept telling her she had to be age 40 before getting a mammogram, but perhaps due to family history, they should order the genetic testing.

“The doctors were talking out both sides of their mouths,” she said. “I was pretty frustrated.”

She was toweling off after a shower when she felt something different – it was tiny. It felt like a grain of rice in her breast. It came and went – after that, she could feel it sometimes and other times not. She was sweaty and itchy.

She went to three different doctors before going back to her fertility doctor that had handled the endometriosis begging for a mammogram. She said she was considering going to Seattle to get medical care there since no one in Alaska would order a mammogram for her.

“My fertility doctor told me she did not feel it, but that she trusted what I was saying and she believed I knew my own body,” Patrick said. “She told me, ‘I can tell by the look on your face and so I am going to order the test.’ I am not a hypochondriac type of person. If I am complaining about something, it is serious.”

The mammogram came back abnormal – there was a pinpoint calcification that could be cancerous. A biopsy confirmed that it was indeed ductal carcinoma stage zero.

“Not that anyone wants to get cancer, but if you are going to get breast cancer, that is the one to get,” Patrick said. “The doctors were stunned. They kept saying they could not believe it was caught at this stage and they kept asking me how I knew it was there. I said I just had a gut feeling.”

A lumpectomy was an option but after genetic testing returned a higher risk for more breast cancer and colon cancer, Patrick said she immediately knew she would get the double mastectomy.

“I wanted to be as proactive as possible and hit it aggressively,” Patrick said.

She had a double mastectomy on Nov. 5, 2015, and her surgeon placed the expanders necessary for reconstruction while she was still under anesthesia. In March 2016, the expanders were removed and implants put in.

She believes the loss of her natural breasts is a small price to pay if it helps secure a healthier future. Yet, there was an emotional toll that came later for Patrick.

When she was diagnosed, her treatment process went by so quickly and she was so adamant regarding what option she would take, that she took little time to process the mental side of losing her natural breasts.

At first, the implants felt like a foreign object in her body, she said. It was a struggle to feel sexy again. She gained some weight. She was depressed. She had not allowed herself to process the emotions while going through the physical process.

She credits her husband for helping her get through the conflicting emotions.

“He never skipped a beat,” she said. “He told me that he would rather I had the implants than the natural than us ever having to worry about breast cancer coming back again. He said that as long as I was healthy, that was his concern. He went to every doctor appointment with me and he did everything he could to make me feel comfortable and reassure me that it was going to be okay.”

Now more than a year post-reconstruction, Patrick is resuming the activities she enjoys. Saturday night she went back to roller derby practice after being absent for two years. She knows it will take time to get back in competitive form. Her goal is to be back on the starting line-up sometime this season.

For now, she wants other women to feel empowered to be as proactive as she was.

This is especially true for women that have had endometriosis, Patrick asserts.

“I believe there is a link between endometriosis and breast cancer,” she said. “The medical community may not have documented it yet enough, but I have connected with other women that were diagnosed with breast cancer who also said they had endometriosis.”

Source : https://www.anchoragepress.com/news/fight-against-cancer-stories-of-survival/article_816166c8-411d-11e8-a62c-0be1bf0359e9.html

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