September 15, 2010
Column: Breast cancer can be a learning experience
By SUSAN WEST
learning that I had breast cancer, I was sure the skies would part and
a light would shine down from heaven revealing the true meaning of life.
To my surprise, life went on pretty much as it had before my diagnosis,
and I can’t say that knowing I had cancer helped me unravel the world’s
Maybe I missed the signs. What seemed like an endless round of doctors’
appointments and medical tests didn’t leave much time for philosophical
Waiting for the pathology results that confirmed that the suspicious
lump in my breast was cancer was probably the most difficult period for
me. I told myself over and over again to stop anticipating the results
and rehearsing my reaction, but for several days my thoughts bounced
from “this can’t be cancer” to “I better get my affairs in order.”
When my surgeon confirmed that I did have cancer, he explained that I
had treatment options. I could have a lumpectomy followed by
chemotherapy and radiation, or a mastectomy and chemotherapy. I waited
a few minutes for my doctor to offer a more appealing option, but none
followed. He said there was no urgency in making a decision – most
breast cancers grow slowly and taking time to decide on a course of
treatment was appropriate.
After meeting with my oncologist, I decided that a lumpectomy,
chemotherapy, and radiation was the best choice for me.
With that decision, I was anxious to get started.
Despite assurance from my oncologist that many side effects of
chemotherapy could be managed, I approached my first chemo treatment
with apprehension. After the drugs designed to kill blood cells
finished dripping into my veins, I was surprised that I didn’t feel
different. But a few days after each treatment, a heavy exhaustion that
didn’t respond to napping set in and only eased as my blood count
I didn’t experience that sort of extreme exhaustion with radiation.
Oddly enough, though, there were times during radiation treatment that
I missed the social setting of chemotherapy where I sat with other
patients for hours while drugs with long names coursed through our
Sometimes we talked about cancer and chemotherapy, but, as often as
not, we talked about other things. I remember an elderly woman from
Elizabeth City describing her family’s Thanksgiving meals in such
detail that I vowed to perfect an oyster stuffing.
So maybe the meaning of life wasn’t revealed to me as I faced my breast
cancer, but I did learn a few things that year.
I learned that some people know exactly what to say to boost a cancer
patient’s spirits. I never figured out if that characteristic was
learned or instinctive, and never identified a common denominator
shared by that group of people.
I learned that diversion and distraction can be therapeutic. Don’t get
me wrong – I wasn’t unappreciative of the concern of family and friends
who called to ask how I was doing. But talking about cancer all the
time grew boring.
I learned that life can be a crap-shoot.
I learned that it is important to remember that the world is full of
people who have survived unimaginable situations with the greatest
dignity and strength.
Since my diagnosis, my mother and several friends also have faced
breast cancer challenges, and I have learned that their stories are not
the same as my own.
Now you don't have to leave the Outer Banks anymore for chemotherapy.
Chemotherapy treatment is one of the services available at The Outer
Banks Hospital. For information on chemotherapy at The Outer Banks
Hospital, contact 449-5637, Monday–Friday from 7 a.m. to 5 p.m.
West is a freelance writer who specializes in fishing issues and who
live in Buxton.)
the Get Pinked! Campaign
How can you Get Pinked? Raise $1,000 and partner with The Outer Banks
Hospital's Get Pinked! Campaign to fight breast cancer in Dare County.
The goal is to give every woman and man in Dare County the very best
chance to survive the disease of breast cancer. For more information
call the hospital's Development Office at 252-449-9183.
The Outer Banks Hospital Development Council is a subsidiary of
University Health Systems Foundation in Greenville. The mission of the
council is to develop relationships and secure financial resources to
support the health and wellness services of The Outer Banks Hospital.
Council members have raised funds to underwrite the costs of projects
from the opening a Cancer Resource Center located in the Medical Office
Building adjacent to the hospital and purchasing technology and
equipment for the identification and treatment of cancer and other