Facing a fateful diagnosis Women deny, mourn, and rage then move on

October 13, 1992|By Linell Smith | Linell Smith,Staff Writer

Breast cancer catapults women into an unpredictable world, a place that often seems landscaped with prickly reminders of mortality and images of healthy breasts. It's also a place, many survivors say, in which each day can suddenly seem richer than ever.

And life after breast cancer is increasingly familiar to women in America: One out of eight will get the disease. Roughly 180,000 women will be diagnosed with breast cancer this year, according to the American Cancer Society. More than 150,000 will have one -- or both -- breasts removed.

As support groups and coping workshops proliferate, breast cancer survivors are sharing their experiences. More and more women are letting each other know what to expect and how to cope with the aftermath of cancer; and they are finding a forum for their own feelings as well.

"Things often happen so fast: You walk in without a symptom, then wham-bam you're in the medical system in this snowball experience," says Patty Wilcox, co-director of the Breast Surveillance Center at Johns Hopkins Hospital. "And, despite the odds of getting breast cancer, very few women are actually prepared for 'Well, what if it happens to me?' "

After surgery for breast cancer, many women undergo months of chemotherapy often followed by radiation therapy -- which may prevent them from dealing with the psychological aspects of their condition, she says.

"I've heard a lot of women say 'If I stop to think about this, I can't do it.' You can't afford to let go enough from the process to take care of yourself," she says. "When the patient finally begins to experience the reality of what has happened, many of the people around her think, 'You had your mastectomy a year ago, what's happening now?' Well, the woman didn't allow herself to feel her mastectomy a year ago."

The struggle to live through breast cancer, says Ms. Wilcox, can send a woman on an emotional journey similar to that experienced by someone who loses a loved one. Waves of denial, anger and grief often follow breast surgery as women come to terms with their new lives.

"Women will say to one another, 'Oh my God, you did that too?' Talking to other survivors helps women recognize that what they're going through, that what is happening to them, is normal."

Here are three women's stories:

The tale of how she discovered her cancer becomes as important to a breast cancer survivor as the story of how she met her spouse. For 48-year-old Jay Farmer, each moment of the event is still painfully vivid.

Ms. Farmer discovered a lump in her breast in November 1990. A woman who had had annual mammograms since she was 40, she was unalarmed and waited for her already scheduled mammogram the following week. The mammogram was negative. Ms. Farmer remained suspicious, however, and asked her gynecologist to check her breast.

The physician recommended she wait a month and try to treat the lump as if it were a cyst.

After the Christmas holidays passed and the lump was still there, Ms. Farmer got an appointment for a biopsy: Jan. 22. When the diagnosis of cancer came, she was rushed into surgery the next week. Breast reconstruction took until April. Then there was chemotherapy for seven months followed by radiation five days a week for another six weeks.

"The hardest thing I had to do was to tell my children," she says. "My youngest daughter, Molly, was still at home and she felt all the responsibility of Mom's health on her shoulders. The stress ,, on her was almost unbearable, that fear of abandonment."

A single mother of three, Ms. Farmer continued to work while being treated. She would schedule her radiation appointments at 7:45 a.m. in order to be at work on time.

Then, abruptly, the treatments were over.

"All of a sudden you start thinking about the future," she says. "You think, 'Is the future next week? Next year? Thirty years?' "

She began rebuilding her physical connections to life. An active woman who enjoyed sports, she discovered a year of treatment had severely weakened her. At first, each pulled muscle suggested her cancer had spread.

It also took a while for her longtime companion to feel comfortable with their physical relationship, she says, because he was concerned he might hurt her.

As a recent breast cancer survivor, Ms. Farmer has her blood tested for cancer every three months. To prevent recurrence, she is taking tamoxifen, a drug which makes her prone to hot flashes she treats with 49-cent fans from Pier One.

"The stage I'm at now with this is whether or not to make long-term or short-term investments," she says. "I do appreciate things like beautiful sunsets and a beautiful day a lot more. But you have a lot of highs and lows. Sometimes I feel as if I'm walking around with a grenade with a loose pin in my pocket. The pin could fall out 20 or 30 years from now -- or tomorrow.

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