Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Surprising things that helped me deal with breast cancer

These seven women are proof that motivation can be found in unlikely places. Each started her journey with a breast cancer diagnosis but went down a separate path to discover her own way of fighting back. From exposing scars to walking against the winter chill, these survivors are examples of how strong we can be at our most difficult times.

By Torie Temple / Photos by Melissa Donald

Today's Woman Magazine

An Upcoming Wedding 
At the age of 55, Valeria White and her husband made the decision to leave their home in Shelbyville to move in with her dad. Valeria’s father had just finished the disheartening task of moving his wife into a nursing home. 

It was just after the move when Valeria found a lump in her breast while in the shower.
“I wasn’t looking for it,” she says. 

“I was just washing and found a lump.”

Denial and the fear that her family would worry kept her quiet. She told no one of her discovery for two weeks. “I should’ve known better,” she confesses. “We had seen so many buried because of cancer.”

Valeria wanted to live. Her daughter’s wedding was just months away, and she wasn’t going to miss seeing her walk down the aisle or any other event in the lives of her four children.

After her diagnosis, Valeria had a mastectomy followed by four months of chemo, then six weeks of radiation. During her treatments, the deceased kept her living. She continued her work at the funeral home she and her husband managed, determined not to let cancer bury her. She says taking care of the nonliving taught her to just live and be a part of every moment. 

Slow down and take care of yourself,” Valeria advises. “You’ve made it through today; now concentrate on tomorrow. Don’t think about next week. Take one day at a time.”

Valeria is a 15-year survivor.

Today's Woman Magazine

Cleaning Houses
Robin Ames winced each time her arm would brush against her right breast. It had become so tender she had no choice but to see her doctor, who would later diagnose her with breast cancer at the age of 36. Before her diagnosis, Robin considered herself “the world’s biggest weenie.” She didn’t realize what she was capable of enduring or how cleaning would help her tackle breast cancer.

After her mastectomy, Robin went through eight chemo treatments and 12 weeks of Herceptin injections. She feared becoming ill while receiving her treatments, which prevented her from going out in public often. But instead of being trapped in her own house, Robin found contentment in cleaning others’ houses. She took on as many clients as she physically could, and along with a friend as a co-worker, she got lost in the routine. 

At the end of the day, cleaning satisfied the physical activity Robin needed as well as the friendship she enjoyed. Her work provided her with the distraction she needed to go from “the world’s biggest weenie” to a survivor.

Today's Woman Magazine

A Spanish Class and Genealogy
In the spring of 1990, when Lois Cox was 59, a chest X-ray revealed a lump behind her right breast. 

During her treatments, Lois not only took a Spanish class where she learned to recite the Lord’s Prayer in Spanish, but she also became deeply engrossed in her genealogy. After being told her type of cancer was genetic, Lois tried to find out who in her family might have had her type of breast cancer. 

It was during her research that she found her Native American heritage and her connection to Louisville. She was able to trace her lineage to a distant cousin, and together they continue to complete the Louisville family tree. Lois’ extensive research was a much-needed distraction through her treatments, and it’s turned into a passion she still has after 23 years as a survivor.  

Today's Woman Magazine
Tai Chi
“I kept putting it off. I couldn’t feel a lump,” Rose Phillips says as she describes how a routine mammogram discovered the lump that started her journey with breast cancer at the age of 52. Instead of letting stress take control during her treatment — which consisted of a lumpectomy, four sessions of chemo, and six weeks of radiation — Rose chose to quiet her mind in order to heal her body.

After practicing yoga for 30 years, it felt natural for Rose to transition into Tai Chi. This ancient Chinese tradition is practiced today as a series of graceful movements to maintain health. Rose describes it as “moving meditation.” 

Practicing Tai Chi allowed Rose to remove herself from the present as it uncluttered her mind and helped heal her body as she went through treatments. Throughout her last 10 years as a survivor, Rose continues to practice Tai Chi.  She believes it’s an untapped resource for breast cancer patients, and her passion to spread the word has led her to teach her own Tai Chi class.

Today's Woman Magazine

Running and Walking
Valerie Hall went into the first leg of her race to beat breast cancer with a marathon runner’s mentality. Having completed the 2010 Boston Marathon, she knew the mental strength it takes to push through each stride, and she carried this training with her after her diagnosis in 2011 at the age of 50. 

Valerie was already ahead of the race by knowing what to expect on her journey. The year before her own diagnosis, she supported a friend — who wished she had been more aggressive in her treatment plan — through her second diagnosis. 

Valerie knew immediately that she would elect for a mastectomy. 

Going into surgery, Valerie’s cancer was considered stage I. But after surgery, she learned that nine of the 11 lymph nodes the surgeons removed were cancerous, which raised her diagnosis from stage I to stage III.

Valerie’s entire family kept the marathon mentality through her mastectomy, eight rounds of chemo, and 28 radiation treatments. Her husband, Dave, continued the running theme as he documented her race on Valerie’s daughter, who was 18 at the time, cheered from the sidelines by posting inspirational quotes. 

When Valerie couldn’t run, she walked. Even through the coldest winter months, she continued to walk, saying, “Walking got the chemo fog out of my head.” Comparing each mile of her breast cancer journey to her passion for running marathons helped Valerie cross the finish line to celebrate a 2½-year victory.

Today's Woman Magazine

A Photo Session and Documentary Photo by Sue Bryce
The day before her 32nd birthday, Jill Brzezinski-Conley was diagnosed with stage IIIC breast cancer, just six months after she’d gotten married and moved to Louisville. Jill underwent several surgeries, including a double mastectomy, along with 16 rounds of chemo and 33 radiation treatments. After a two-year fight, she went into remission and for this considers herself a survivor.

Unfortunately, a year later, Jill was diagnosed with stage IV incurable bone cancer. “My battle has been brutal,” she says, “but I see myself as a survivor. All I want is to help others.”

Since her diagnosis, Jill has made it her mission to show other women with cancer that their bodies are beautiful and to be comfortable in their own skin. She teamed up with photographer Sue Bryce and began the photo shoot in Paris, France, that would tell her story. Not wearing her prosthetic, Jill bared all for the shoot, proudly displaying her scars.
She continued her quest by producing a documentary, “A Light That Shines,” which quickly gained national attention and landed her a spot on the Today Show. 

Jill continues her pursuit in helping all women, saying, “If I could change one woman’s life, I’d feel like I would die the happiest woman.”

Today's Woman Magazine

Keeping My Day Job
Despite routine mammograms, Sheila Nation found a lump herself while showering. She immediately made an appointment with her doctor, who diagnosed her with breast cancer at the age of 54. After a mastectomy, Sheila went through four months of chemo, which put her into remission. 

Four years later, she discovered another lump in the same area. Her oncologist insisted it was just scar tissue, but Sheila had her doubts. At a routine colonoscopy appointment, she asked the doctor if he would be willing to examine the lump she had found. He agreed and later would give her a second breast cancer diagnosis. 

“It is important to be your own advocate,” Sheila says. “That’s what saved my life.”

During her journey with breast cancer, Sheila’s work as a hairstylist kept her spirits up. She kept up a routine and went to work, where she knew she would find normalcy. The relationship and support from her clients kept her motivated each day. A job might not sound appealing when battling something like breast cancer, but for Sheila, it is what kept her going.

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