Fran Edstrom Headshot

By Fran Edstrom

 

A diagnosis of breast cancer can be paralyzing. But there are the decisions to make, while you still can’t even decide if your brain accepts this diagnosis or not.

I was diagnosed in 1997, and again, quite unfairly, I thought, in 2011, when the cancer recurred.

The first time, my first thought was, “Why me?” The second time, my first thought was, “Why me?” and my second thought was, “This can’t be right! There is some mistake! I had the horrible chemotherapy, and I had the horrible radiation! Don’t I get any credit for that?”

It was right, though. There on the X-ray, plain as day. I was very lucky, for being unlucky. I had, both times, found the lump fairly early. Considering my family history of cancer — grandfather, father, uncle, brother all died of lung cancer after years of smoking, and a sister who died of a rare cancer — you might think I would have a defeatist attitude when it comes to cancer, especially a recurrence. However, I was married to a man who put great store in statistics. “What is the survival rate,” he asked.

It turns out that the survival rate is pretty darn good! If the invasive breast cancer is located only in the breast, the five-year survival rate of women with this disease is 99 percent. Even if the cancer has spread to the adjacent lymph nodes, the rate is 84 percent.

I wasn’t always an A student, but even I know that 99 percent is fantastic! And I’ll take 84 percent, too, any day.

With my husband’s help, I decided that my diagnosis, even the second time, was not a death sentence, and I decided that I would do the recommended treatment, and even throw in a little post-op plastic surgery.

I can tell you that taking an optimistic approach certainly makes the process easier. I even embraced my bald head. I figured if so many men could handle being bald, I could, too. What I didn’t figure on was losing my eyebrows and eyelashes. Did you know that one of the functions of eyebrows and eyelashes is to keep rain and sweat out of your eyes? Neither did I.

In the 10 years since I went through chemo the last time, there have been wonderful advances in the treatments. Now, there are scalp-cooling systems that will help some patients keep a lot more of their hair. Cooling your mouth with ice chips helps prevent mouth sores from chemo, too, they have found. I had mouth sores and still managed to gain weight during my chemotherapy treatment. Instead of swishing ice chips, I was eating chocolate chips.

Also, radiation before of after surgery for breast cancer has become more targeted, so it doesn’t affect healthy tissue as widely as in the old days.

Breast cancer is very treatable, and it is not necessarily the death sentence that it seemed in years past. Between 1989 and 2015, the death rate fell about 39 percent. See? Those statistics again, all good.

To make those statistics work in our favor, however, we have to do a few things. Have a healthy diet, don’t drink too much alcohol, exercise, get annual medical check-ups, get an annual mammogram if you are over 45, and examine your breasts monthly. Both times I had breast cancer, I found the lump during a self-exam.

No one really wants to do all those things, but one out of eight women will be diagnosed with breast cancer this year. Early detection is the best indicator of survival. Be one of the survivors!