Surviving Breast Cancer
Dec 17, 2015
The American Cancer society estimates 231,840 new cases of breast cancer will be diagnosed this year. They also estimate that 40,290 women will die from breast cancer this year alone, as it is the second leading cause of death in women. Early detection of breast cancer is the best way to make a full recovery and it’s something that everyone can do. The most effective ways to detect breast cancer – early – is a high quality screening mammogram and regular clinical breast exams.
Dana Sanders knows the process all too well. She always scheduled her gynecological exam for the first week of January because it’s easy to remember. When she turned 40, she started getting x-rays of her breasts, or mammograms, as recommended. She did everything she was supposed to.
Two weeks before her scheduled exams in 2011, Sanders felt a knot in her left breast, a knot that had been a tender spot a month before. While at her gynecological exam, she told her doctor right away that she had felt the lump. The doctor agreed that something was there.
She immediately got a mammogram. The mammogram looked suspicious and so the radiologist followed up with a sonogram. Sanders said, “The radiologist looked at it and he said that he was 99 percent sure that it was breast cancer.” A biopsy was done right there and sent off to be processed. Within 24 hours, she knew that she had breast cancer.
The most commonly discussed symptom of breast cancer is a lump or tender spot in the breast tissue. Other signs of breast cancer include breast pain, nipple discharge, and changes to the size or shape of the breast. People may also notice a thickening of the skin. Any of these symptoms should be followed up with a mammogram or an appointment with a health care provider as soon as possible.
Sanders’ doctors explained her surgical treatment options. With that, she decided to go see an oncologist in Columbia, Mo. Surgical treatments can include lumpectomies and mastectomies. Mastectomies remove the entirety of the breast tissue. Lumpectomies remove only the cancerous tissue and leave the remainder of the breast intact.
“I was diagnosed January 5, 2011,” Sanders said. “I had a lumpectomy January 18. Once they remove the lump, they consider you cancer free." Even though the cancer was technically gone, her cancer treatment was just beginning.
She went through chemotherapy from around the middle of February until the end of June. Chemotherapy uses cancer-killing drugs to treat the disease. It can be taken intravenously or orally. Typically, chemotherapy treatments last between three to six months and are broken into different rounds with recovery periods in between. Chemo can be administered before or after the surgery to remove the cancer.
Sanders had six rounds of chemotherapy total. She says for her it was the fourth round of chemotherapy “when things got real.” That was when she lost all of her hair, including her eyelashes and eyebrows. "It didn’t bother me not having hair but boy, it sure bothered me not having eyebrows because for the first time, I looked sick,” she said. This also marked the round of chemo that left her unable to work everyday. She cut her hours from full time to three days a week and then, by the fifth round, she wasn’t able to work at all.
In July, she had a bilateral mastectomy, meaning that she had both of her breasts removed. Her left breast had to be removed completely because of the angle they needed to take to remove the lump without disturbing her heart and lungs. Sanders made the choice to have her right breast removed as well. “I would rather remove it and then maybe lessen the worry or cut off any breast tissue that I could,” she said.
July was also when Sanders started radiation treatment. Radiation treatments damage cancer cells by attacking them with a high energy beam. Breastcancer.org states that, "radiation can reduce the risk of breast cancer recurrence by as much as 70 percent." As treatment continues, normal cells may be damaged along with the cancer cells but normal cells have an easier time recovering from the effects of radiation than cancer cells. Sanders had thirty days of radiation. She admits that after a while it did hurt her skin. “It was a lot of burnt tissue but you know, thirty days later you’re healed. It’s interesting what your body can endure.”
Sander credits the help of her family, friends, and close-knit community for getting her through the rough times. "I was very fortunate. When I got the diagnosis, I turned it all over to my husband. I was just like, ‘okay, you’re going to manage all my doctors’ appointments, my medications, you’re going to manage that and I’m going to manage my frame of mind.’” She also received a tremendous amount of support from her community. She lives in a town of only 400 people. "I didn’t have to worry about food. Everyone brought food."
This coming January she will be five years cancer free and in remission. She still goes every six months to the oncologist for blood work and a physical exam. At one appointment, she asked her oncologist how she would know if the chemotherapy and the radiation worked and her oncologist told her that she would never know for sure. The doctor explained that she’d done everything she could to keep the cancer from coming back but there was no way to know if what she chose was the right treatment for her or if she was going to get cancer someplace else.
“There is never a finish,” Sanders said. “You just have to learn to listen to your body, becoming in tune with your body, with every bump and bruise and funny looking mole and all of that is your job. Anything suspicious you take it to your doctor and then they have to make the decision of whether you need a screening of something."
When friends say to her, “Look at you, you did everything right and you still got breast cancer,” she laughs and says, “That’s like saying you bought insurance and you still got in a car accident.”
That’s what regular exams are for. They can’t prevent you from getting breast cancer but they can alert you to its presence while there is still time to do something about it.
“Once someone in your circle gets cancer, then everybody becomes proactive for a limited amount of time,” she said. Some of her friends went out and got breast cancer screenings once but then forget to keep up with their yearly appointments. She wants everyone to know how easy it is to stay on top of your health screenings. “It takes longer to buy groceries then it does to make an appointment and go to it.”