My husband Bill and I on my last day of chemo.
As a Registered Nurse Health Coach at Independence Blue Cross, I help members who are diagnosed with cancer. I educate them on their diagnosis as well as managing side effects from chemotherapy and radiation. I also provide emotional support where needed, and direct them to the resources available to them.
Many of the members I’ve worked with had breast cancer, which is one of the most common cancers diagnosed in women. For example, did you know:
- About 1 in 8 U.S. women (approximately 12 percent) will develop invasive breast cancer over the course of her lifetime
- There are more than 3.5 million women (as of January 2020) with a history of breast cancer in the United States, which includes women currently being treated and women who have finished treatment
- Breast cancer is the most commonly diagnosed cancer among American women besides skin cancer
These might just seem like numbers to you, but there is a person behind each one of these numbers. I know this firsthand because last year I went from nurse to patient: I became one of the faces behind these numbers.
My Cancer Journey
Last April, I started having an itching sensation in my left breast. Although I had no other symptoms, I knew I had to get it checked out, so I made an appointment. Right before my scheduled appointment, I found a lump in my breast. I went to my appointment and had a mammogram and ultrasound. I could see the ultrasound technician’s face change as the exam was happening, so I suspected she had found something. The technician told me that a letter would be sent to my doctor so she could begin scheduling additional appointments.
A few weeks after the mammogram and ultrasound, I had a biopsy. Two days later, the biopsy came back and revealed that there was a 2- to 3-centimeter mass in my breast. By this point, I already had my plan in motion. Ten days after my diagnosis I met with the breast surgeon and scheduled surgery. By the time I had the surgery a month later, the mass had grown to 6.5 centimeters and it was stage 3 breast cancer.
Luckily, the surgeon was able to get the entire mass out. However, after testing, they found the cancer had already spread to one lymph node. So, after surgery, I underwent chemotherapy and then radiation. The first four weeks of chemotherapy were brutal. I had nearly every side effect: nausea, mouth sores, loss of hair and nails, “chemo brain,” etc.
I decided to cut my hair short because I knew it would start falling out. When it started coming out in clumps, I shaved it off, and I was happy that I did. When I lost all of my hair, I wore my shaved head proudly.
I also lost my fingernails, which was difficult because I like to get manicures. I couldn’t wait for them to grow back. I lost my two big toenails and had some neuropathy, mostly in my feet. That said, I would take these side effects over cancer any day!
Advice for Other Patients
The biggest piece of advice I give other cancer patients is to make sure they have emotional support. My husband came to every treatment and my girlfriends provided emotional support as well. They listened to me, let me vent anytime I needed to, and sent me thoughtful and encouraging gifts (such as ginger drops and an inspirational mug).
My Independence Blue Cross team was amazing as well, and I could not be more grateful for them. They listened to me, sent me flowers, and even pitched in and bought my wig. Their support meant the world to me and made a difficult experience easier to endure.
In addition, I also tell other patients to:
- Try to maintain a positive attitude and reach out for mental health care if needed. It’s normal to have good days and bad days, but your attitude makes a big difference. There were rough days — such as the first weeks of chemotherapy — but I never thought “woe is me.” If you’re struggling with a diagnosis or depression, don’t be afraid to seek mental health care.
- Continue with preventive screenings and follow-up appointments. Find a doctor you are comfortable with and don’t miss your follow-up appointments. During these appointments, your doctor will check for symptoms and run labs. Sometimes the side effects of some medications can put you at higher risk for other cancers, so screenings for other types of cancer are important. And of course when it comes to cancer, early detection is your best defense. So, make sure to keep up with your regular preventive screenings.
- Communication between you and your care team is very important. You have to do your research and have confidence in your care team. I also recommend talking to other people who have the same diagnosis as you. It can be a support group or just one other person who understands your specific diagnosis. I reached out to others with the same diagnosis and now, others who were recently diagnosed are reaching out to me with questions.
- Use the resources available to you. Independence Blue Cross Registered Nurse Health Coaches can help you understand your diagnosis and provide resources. I had a Health Coach who was amazing. She directed me to resources I wasn’t even aware of, such as chemocare.com, cancer.org, and breastcancer.org.
Supporting Women Through Unite For Her
As a Health Coach, I often promote Unite For Her — an organization that empowers breast cancer patients by focusing on wellness programs that complement their treatment plan and positively impact their health.
This time, I was on the receiving end of that recommendation. I was grateful that I could participate in the Unite For Her annual Wellness Day, where fellow breast cancer patients come together to share support and resources. Their Wellness Day, and other wellness events (currently virtual), are important because they allow you to focus on yourself, and not your diagnosis or your side effects. During last year’s Wellness Day for example, I was given a cookbook and box of vegetables since diet is a huge part of immune support.
A Sense of Community
The Unite For Her wellness events (as well as events held by other cancer centers) help in the healing process because they provide a sense of community. They support you on your entire journey, not just when you’re going through treatment.
Embrace Your Story
Your cancer diagnosis doesn’t define you, but it does become a part of your story. I began writing down the story of my cancer journey so I wouldn’t forget. I was told that “chemo brain” can affect you for about 9 to 10 months, and I found that to be true for me. Chemotherapy affected my memory, and I felt like I was in a fog. Luckily, I’ve recently started to feel more like myself.