Breast cancer patients, families counter challenges with healing

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With breast cancer survival rates increasing steadily due to advances in technology and research, providing for early screening and better treatment, researchers believe there will be a cure in the near future.

In the meantime, those who have been affected by the disease are using their own alternative forms of healing.

On Nov. 21, after having completed 60 miles of walking over the course of three days, five young women stood together at the Susan G. Komen 3-Day for the Cure closing ceremony, arms linked, overcome with emotion.

The fundraiser to raise money for breast cancer, which started at the Del Mar Fairgrounds and ended at Petco Park, yielded its usual obstacles walkers face every year:  hills, blisters, long waits at bathroom breaks and camping outdoors in tents each night.  To add to this year for the first time in ten years: rain.

But to the five who made up the walking team self-titled Five for Fighting, it was what, and more importantly whom, they walked for that far outweighed the challenges.

And due to the turnout of the 4,000 other participants of the walk, this sentiment was likely widely shared.

“It was a very emotional experience knowing how many people are affected by cancer,” said Five for Fighting team member Emily Noyes.

For Noyes, 22, inspiration to participate in the fundraiser was drawn from the memory of going to every one of her mother’s chemotherapy sessions and sitting in the waiting room in the company of not only her mother, but 50 other women there for the same reason.

According to the National Cancer Institute, there have been nearly 210,000 new cases in the U.S. this year.

NCI data also shows, however, the death rate for the disease is gradually decreasing.

In 1990, the death rate peaked at 33 for every 100,000 women in the U.S.  In the most recent update of this information gathered in 2007, statistics show this number dropped to 23 for every 100,000 women in the U.S.

Now, 90 percent of women in the U.S. who receive the diagnosis are expected to survive at least five years.

The greater survival rates are attributed in part to the advances in technology as it applies to more modern treatment methods, including screening and early treatment in the early stages breast cancer.

In 1975, a mastectomy was the only accepted surgical option for the diagnosis.  Now, the breast-conserving lumpectomy is the preferred surgical approach for treating the early stages.

Routine mammographic screening is also the accepted standard.

The results of eight randomized trials conducted by the American Cancer Society in conjunction with the National Institutes of Health for Breast Cancer Detection Demonstration Projects showed mammograms reduce the mortality rate of breast cancer patients.

Current breast cancer treatments, Noyes’ believed, saved her mother.

Her mother was diagnosed in May 2009 with invasive breast cancer.  After a double mastectomy and eight rounds of chemotherapy she is now cancer-free.

“After all my mom’s doctor’s appointments I gained a lot more knowledge about the disease,” said Noyes.

Among the information she gathered through her mother’s experience, Noyes learned of the several cancer susceptibility genes which have been identified, including BRCA1, BRCA2, TP53 and PTEN/MMAC1.

Of those who are tested to have inherited the mutation in BRCA1 or BRCA2, 60 percent will develop breast cancer sometime in their lives.

“My mom decided that she wanted to take the test for my sister and me,” said Noyes. “And it’s expensive.  Insurance does not cover this test yet, so my mom had to pay $3,000 out-of-pocket.”

Studies have shown U.S. cancer costs have doubled in nearly two decades.

The studies have also shown, however, that private insurers now cover about 50 percent of treatment costs, and patients’ out-of-pocket costs have fallen as well.

But even for patients who are well-insured, out-of-pocket medical expenditures were reported to be between $1,500 and $18,000 in 2003-2004.

Because most people do not plan for the event they will be diagnosed with cancer, money isn’t saved, and thus, most cannot afford the treatments when faced with the diagnosis.  Many patients are forced to take from or deplete their savings in order to keep up with payments.

Breast cancer remains to be in the category for largest expenditures among the different types of cancers in the initial phase, continuing phases, and last year of life phase.

Due to the high costs of treatment, early detection is strongly urged and advocated by medical professionals.

California’s Every Woman Counts program provides low-income women with the opportunity to detect breast cancer early on.  The program accepts applications for women age 40 and over who want to have a mammogram screening.

“Early detection can save a life, and I strongly encourage all eligible women to take advantage of this service,” said Dr. Mark Horton, director of the Department of Public Health.

However, as breast cancer survivor Pam Stephan added, these costs do not even include additional costs that come up, such as extra child care for those with children, transportation, housing, wigs, special diets and other comfort and health items.

In addition to the physical toll breast cancer takes on the body and increasing monetary costs, there is the psychological and emotional distress associated with the experience.

Women tend to feel an array of emotions during this traumatic experience, from fear and anger, to depression.

According to the American Psychological Association, family members can also experience similar emotions.

Two years ago, just as Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising student Elizabeth Elmer was preparing to move across the country, her mother was diagnosed with breast cancer.

With the diagnosis, Elmer’s mother asked the family to remain normal and continue with whatever it was they were doing in life.  For Elmer, this meant resuming her plans.

In moving to San Diego, Elmer was not able to be with her mom on the East Coast.

“Not being there for my mom while she went through everything – every surgery, every doctor appointment, every chemo appointment – made me so sad,” said Elmer.

Elmer’s mom is now cancer-free, but the struggle she and her family endured during that period of time inspired her to participate in the walk.

Research conducted at Hiroshima University in 2003 suggested patients who tended to cope negatively with feelings of helplessness or hopelessness were likely to be subjected to higher levels of psychological distress than patients who adopted a response characterized as fighting spirit.

Studies also show there is a correlation between family functioning and the psychological well-being of cancer patients and their family members.

San Diego State University graduate Ashleigh Vickers chose to participate in the 3-Day for her mother, who was diagnosed with breast cancer when Vickers was just two years old.

“I got to walk with the banner that read ‘My Mother’ for a while,” said Vickers.  “I know it sounds stupid, but as long as I was holding that banner it was like all of the pain in my body was gone.  I knew I was doing this for something bigger than me.”

According to Annette L. Stanton, researcher at the University of Kansas and author of the Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, emotional expressive coping predicts psychological and physical adjustment to breast cancer.

In finding outlets to release emotion, breast cancer patients and their families are able to reaffirm the power they lost to the disease.

San Diego alone offers several resources for patients and their families.

The San Diego County Cancer Navigator offers hundreds of resources, including free support, personal service and case management, locating cancer resources, matching clients to local services and health professionals, support groups, and more.

The Cancer Coping Center, also located in San Diego, offers coping strategies through creative expression, which is often overlooked.

“If you think of a patient, you can’t just cure sickness; you have to cure spirit,” said Rosalinda “Bing” Milla, chief operating officer of the Cancer Coping Center.

For the Five for Fighting team, the Susan G. Komen Walk for the Cure posed as a life-changing healing experience.

The most rewarding part of the experience to Elmer was finishing the 60-mile walk with her team and not giving up.

During the closing ceremony held at Petco Park, survivors were honored and asked to stand on top of the hill.  The crowd of women in matching pink t-shirts dancing and celebrating was a notably emotional point in the experience for the whole team.

“I just cried and cried and thanked God I would have the privilege of seeing my mom when I go home for the holidays,” said Elmer.

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One thought on “Breast cancer patients, families counter challenges with healing

  1. I have lost several friends and colleagues to this terrible sickness, while witnessing and experiencing the pain, suffering, and sadness endured by everyone involved. In recent years, a few women beat the disease but still deal with fears about recurrence and future health issues. I enjoyed reading your article and hope to see more opportunities for early detection and a cure in the near future. Thank you for sharing and look forward to reading and learning more about this important health issue.

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