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Meet Ann

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It’s time to meet another one of our ‘neighbours’ here in our online community. For October, I’m pleased to introduce you to Ann- better known in our community as Gabby. Here’s a bit about Ann, in her own words -                                           
My name is Ann (aka Gabby), I'm 59 years old and live in Ottawa. I have three adult children, am married and moved to Ottawa from Vancouver in 2010 to take my dream job. I was diagnosed with breast cancer in June 2013. I suspected I had breast cancer before I ever got the official diagnosis. My right breast developed a bruise, got a red spot and was tender sore in February/March then started to collapse....all signs that something was very wrong. My husband was very ill at the time and I didn't have the time or energy to think about myself. I lived in fear every day that my husband would have a heart attack or I would come home and find him dead. He had open heart surgery on May 8 to replace his aorta, clean his valves and do a bypass, and the following week I phoned the GP to start looking into what was going on with my breast.
 
Getting diagnosed in the summer happens to be one of the worst times of year in the hospital year....summer holidays, long waits for appointment dates, and long waits for results. When I got the initial call from my GP confirming cancer in my right breast I thought, yup, my worst dream is happening to me. I knew breast cancer is very treatable, and thought that it's probably nothing big and really it's not life threatening like my husband’s situation. It wasn't until I had a biopsy on the right and then a biopsy on the left breast that alarm bells went off. I thought I would be put on the cancer treatment train quickly because it was obvious that I had a tumour, not so. I spent about three more weeks waiting for biopsy tests and results on my left breast and another three weeks waiting to see the surgeon.
 
Sitting down with the surgeon at the end of July to review the biopsy results and to discuss treatment options was a shocker....by now I was frantic. I still wasn't officially a "cancer" patient which meant that I couldn't access any counselling help or services from the Cancer Unit at the hospital. By then I felt like I had been waiting for a very long time to get onto the cancer train to get treated. I am thankful that both my daughter (a doctor) and husband came to the meeting with me, as I stopped being able to process the information provided once the surgeon said mastectomy. I knew I had cancer, what I didn't know was how big, how much or what kind?  I went into the meeting thinking that I would be offered a lumpectomy, and was told I had a large multi centric tumour in the right breast. I had a 50/50 chance that the cancer had spread to my lymph nodes. Oh and I would have also have a lumpectomy on the left breast to remove the area where micro-calcifications were found.
 
Mastectomy surgery on August 15 was uneventful and again I’m grateful that my daughter was able to talk to the surgeon post-surgery, I have no recollection of speaking with him about the surgery. More waiting for the pathology report which came three weeks later and confirmed that I had a multi centric invasive ductal carcinoma and the axial dissection confirmed that 5/20 lymph nodes had cancer. I was Stage IIIA, T2N2MO and estrogen positive. It was official, my copies of this report made it all very real, now I was scared. I finally got the referral to the Cancer Unit...I had joined the club none of us ever want to join.
 
I had a common form of breast cancer which meant that I would get 6 rounds of chemotherapy followed by radiation because the cancer was found in my lymph nodes. The good news was that the MRI showed no cancer in my bones. I met with the radiation oncologist at the end of September and the medical oncologist in early October.....and I was now firmly on the cancer treatment train. I received 3 rounds of FEC (Fluorouacil - EPIrubicin- Clyclophosphamide) starting in October followed by 3 rounds of D (DOCEtaxel). My last chemo treatment was at the end of January 2014. During the last three rounds of D, I made three trips to the hospital ER due to fevers and infections needing treatment. I found getting through the first three treatments was manageable though not easy and by the last three, some days I just got through the day one step at a time.....it wasn't pretty but I did it. 25 Radiation treatments finished at the end of March and then I was done. For the first time in 8 months cancer treatment wasn’t the focus of the day! Here are a few things I’ve learned along the way,
 
Join a support group
One thing that made a huge difference to my cancer treatment experience was joining the breast cancer support group offered through the hospital psychosocial oncology program. I'm a pretty private person, I'm good at hiding behind a smiling face and I don't like talking about feelings or how I am doing. My gut told me I needed help, I was scared, I was very lonely and I was feeling like an emotional wreck. Somehow I missed the first meeting, so walking in the door to the second meeting was very hard as it made my cancer public and real.  I told myself if it was too much I didn't have to go back. Every meeting we gave an update on how we were doing, what had changed, and after the first group cry we were no longer strangers. We were 10 women, each with different stories, different ages, all with breast cancer, and all scared. We all “get it”, we don’t have to explain how we feel or put on fake smiling faces. One of our group passed away in April due to an aggressive form of breast cancer. Several have moved on but there is a group of six that still stays in contact and continues to meet through our recovery.
 
Keep moving
In addition to walking regularly either at the mall or outside, one thing that made a difference was continuing a yoga practice. On my good days I would go to Maplesoft, a cancer survivor facility operated by the Ottawa Regional Cancer Foundation, for Gentle Yoga or Restorative Yoga. The leaders were experienced in working with cancer patients and adjusted their practice to support the needs and challenges for those in treatment. It made a huge difference to be able to let go of my cancer world for an hour at a time and just breathe. On bad days, I would do my yoga practice at home. Once I was done treatment, I joined a cardio/aerobic class offered at Maplesoft and by July graduated to Survivor Bootcamp at a local gym. I can feel my endurance, energy and mobility returning week by week.

                                           
One of my loves is making pottery. I spent as much time as I could in the pottery studio throughout my treatment making bowls and plates, experimenting with glazes and being surrounded by the positive energy of my pottery buddies.
 
Kindness of Strangers
People I hardly knew brought meals, brought books, gave me hugs, and just let me talk....no platitudes about “staying positive” or winning “battles” just hugs and encouragement. Their support made a huge difference to how I was able to function and made a difference to our family. Meals were in the freezer when I couldn't cook, food I could eat was ready when I was hungry. Asking for help and accepting help wasn’t easy, I found their support enveloped me and gave me the energy and courage to keep going. Their openness in the pottery studio meant that I could talk without burdening my husband or son. I joined the discussion board on this site when I realized that I could help others coping with cancer by just being there and listening.
 
It’s all in your head
Going through chemo, I didn't feel that what I was doing was very courageous until I was into treatments 4, 5 and 6. It didn't get easier to do the treatments, and as I went along it got harder to accept that I needed to take these poisonous drugs. I remember hitting the wall feeling angry, then overwhelmingly sad that I might die, that this was all for nothing. I wanted to use the cancer treatment time for “transformational change”. I was no longer the person I had been but the problem was, who was I becoming?  
 
I wrote in my journal almost every night during treatment to give a voice to how I was feeling. Through Maplesoft, I took a short course on positive thinking through self-hypnosis. This course gave me tools to manage my fears about death, about recurrence and about healing. Positive thinking needs room, so what do I need to let go of? What am I trying to control?  While I can’t control the future, the cancer, or how I feel, I can influence how I respond and what I think. If I want the chemo and radiation to work, I have to believe that it will work, no maybes, if it works then no cancer. Period.
 
What does the new “normal” look like?
One of the harshest realities of having had cancer is facing the fact that while I had thought I might to live until I was into my eighties, I might not. My journal was full of fear and sorrow and then slowly, hope. What changed? The realization that I needed to live my life fully going forward, there is no putting things off for a better time, it is now. I realized I needed to be present, not look back and fuss about what I did or did not do right or to wish for a different future that might not come. I also realized that one thing I could control was to live the healthiest life I can. By far the hardest has been to learn to live with uncertainty, there are no guarantees in anything so staying present and living each day as it comes is my goal.
 
I currently have “no evidence of disease” which means that I am now in the great waiting game. I’m taking Letrazole, an aromatase inhibitor, to prevent recurrence. I have side effects from the Letrazole and from the chemo like joint pain, fatigue, continuing brain fog.  I am participating in the phase 3 Galena NeuVax clinical trial testing out a vaccine to boost the immune system to attack a protein found in breast cancer. It may mean that my daughter’s generation may have another tool to prevent recurrence and I see this as an opportunity to give back.

My focus now is on recovery and healing. Some days I find recovery more complicated than the treatment. I’ve been using a terrific book called Picking up the Pieces: Moving Forward After Surviving Cancer by Sherri Magee and Kathy Scalzo to help guide me.  So far I’ve lost some weight, I’ve proved to myself that I can still travel, I’m doing a Survivor Boot Camp twice a week, and I watch what I eat. I’ve registered for the CIBC 5k walk/Run for the Cure to prove to myself that I’m stronger than this nasty disease. My husband will walk it with me. I continue to practice my detachment skills of letting things go, of stepping away and not getting engaged in stuff that doesn’t matter. I’m thinking about returning to work later this year, but not just yet.
 
-Ann

                                   
 
 
I’d like to thank Ann for sharing some of her experience with us on here. So many times we all interact with one another, and it’s so nice to be able to get to know a member a bit better each month. Ann has shared a few things that she learned along the way throughout her cancer experience, if you’d like to join in on the conversation about what cancer has taught you, please do so here!
 




Comments

Date Posted: Oct 9, 2014 at 9:01 AM by Cancercannotconquor love: That is a fantastic story and so thankful that Ann was able to share it with the community. I know for myself personally, Ann's struggles as she reached the finish line of chemo are the same struggles I am now facing. It's good to know that I'm not alone. :-)
  • Posted Tue 21 Oct 2014 03:49 PM EDT

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