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A survivor's guide to beating cancer

Posted: October 28, 2012 - 9:19pm  |  Updated: October 29, 2012 - 12:02am
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Debbie Chalmers talks about battling breast cancer as her twin sister, Kathie Brown, listens during an interview on Wednesday. Both are breast cancer survivors. They both teach at the Montessori Borealis program.  Michael Penn / Juneau Empire
Michael Penn / Juneau Empire
Debbie Chalmers talks about battling breast cancer as her twin sister, Kathie Brown, listens during an interview on Wednesday. Both are breast cancer survivors. They both teach at the Montessori Borealis program.

“I thought I was, before I even went in, I thought I had prepared myself for the worst, and prayed for the best — but you can never prepare yourself. You can never prepare yourself for that word that they’re gonna throw at you.”

Thea Brown is a cancer survivor. She celebrated her one-year anniversary of being cancer-free one year after her final surgery Sunday.

Kathie Brown and Debbie Chalmers are also survivors. Identical mirror twins, the two received the exact same diagnosis only years apart.

“I was diagnosed in June 2004 and Kathie just two summers ago. We were diagnosed with the exact same tumor, same side, same size and same type. Invasive lobular cancer. I thought that was really interesting.” Debbie said.

“Who would know until you get breast cancer that there are so many different types.” Added Kathie.

Aside from being breast cancer survivors (and identical genes in the case of the twins) these women have a few other things in common. They all had to travel for portions of their treatment, they all received help from Cancer Connection, and they all list family as one of the most crucial aspects of their recovery from cancer and treatment.

There is still much about cancer that is unknown, from questions of heredity to quests for a cure — but without extensive testing, we can learn a thing or two about strength from talking to the people who faced cancer.

Bad news

“I was visiting my daughter in Istanbul, Turkey, she was an exchange student, and noticed something different, but I thought it was nothing, frankly, I attributed it to aging, and came home. My insurance changed, I would never have gone to a doctor, I thought everything was great — but had a change in insurance which required that I get a general physical. I went in to get a general physical and Dr. carolyn Brown, who practices here in Juneau, asked “When was your last mammogram?” and I was 49 and had never had a mammogram, so I was like, “I’ve never had one, I guess it’s time for a baseline,” and she said, “Yeah, well, we will have one today.” And that was the beginning of the journey.” Debbie said.

When her cancer was caught, it had spread to her lymph nodes.

“I definitely was much more vigilant than Debbie was. I recognized my signs early on. It was just a really minor dimple that basically I didn’t even think the doctor would be able to see. And when I pointed it out and said, “This is probably nothing, but I’m noticing a change,” and the doctor said right away, “Let’s get you in immediately.” It was the last day of school, and doctors wait until the last day of school to make their doctors appointments and it’s funny because we had the option of getting cancer insurance that day, so I was thinking, “I’ve got to get to the doctor that day, and I’ve got to get this insurance before I get to the doctor!” but it turns out I wasn’t eligible because I’d had an iffy mammogram six months before. Just a little questionable with calcification. It was considered a pre-existing condition.” Kathie said.

She tells people she sailed through it. “I was tied to a hospital, but I enjoyed the leaves every day on the way in and the way out.”

“I discovered it myself and went right into the clinic.” Thea said. “I was told that I would not be able to have imaging done for six to eight weeks, and at that time I didn’t know it was cancer — it was just a lump, and I walked out of there and said, “I need to know now. Yesterday.”

The gap

“There’s this gap time before everything’s in place, and I think that’s the most frightening time.” Kathie said.

The cancer diagnosis is shocking, and it is at that point that a patient must make difficult decisions about what steps to take and where to seek treatment. Some things can be done in Juneau, but for treatments like radiation, patients must travel.

When Thea received the results from her biopsy, she acted fast.

“I was talking to the doctors and I said, “I want surgery. Now.” I didn’t think about the fact that my husband was in Prudhoe Bay, and surgery was set up for two days later, and I don’t know how — I don’t even remember calling him — but they had him in Juneau the next day. There’s only like two flights out of Prudhoe Bay. I don’t know if they flew him out in a small plane or what.” Thea said.

“What helped us tremendously was the Cancer Connection.” Kathie said, “They came over with a bag and it had all sorts of facts in it, wonderful books, and Debbie’s husband Bill and I started poring through those and all of a sudden we felt empowered. It took away that tremendous fear and helplessness that goes with a diagnosis. We could say, “This is this stage and these are the steps we’re going to do today. I mean, it’s a lot, you have to figure out doctors, diagnosis, hospitals, where you’re going to do treatment and all that.”

Choices

Thea chose to do treatment in Seattle. Kathie and Debbie both went to the east coast, where they could stay with family.

“Everyone, you know, basically has to travel out of town. I went back east to Yale because I have family there and didn’t know anyone in Seattle and didn’t want to be in a hotel.” Debbie said. “The other thing is having an apartment down in Seattle is a really positive thing Cancer Connection has been able to provide to cancer patients from Juneau. That might have made a difference for me, I might have stayed in Seattle, closer to my family.”

The apartment is a newer offering for Juneau cancer patients. It is conveniently located two blocks from Virginia Mason Hospital and three blocks from Swedish and Harborview hospitals. It is a one-bedroom available for use during testing, treatment and follow-up care.

“I went to Seattle. Cancer Connection set me up with an apartment. It was wonderful, I mean, it was just like two blocks away. My husband went with me and the hardest part was during that time my husband lost his mother, so he had to fly back home and my daughter flew down to be with me.” Thea said.

Aside from choosing where to go, there are different treatment options one must choose. There are options for chemotherapy, radiation treatment, full and partial mastectomies — and decisions are made for a host of different reasons, from health, obviously, to comfort and affordability.

Kathie and Debbie spoke a bit about insurance options. They both work for Montessori Borealis school and described their insurance as being adequate, but Debbie commented on the differences in treatment she saw while at Yale Cancer Center.

“It was a very good experience for me to be in a huge hospital like that, to recognize the quality of care that is required or provided. And what a good job these doctors do. But also the differentiated care depending on the type of insurance you have was interesting to me.” Debbie said, “Patients would get the same core treatments, but some wouldn’t have the anti-nausea medications and other supplemental treatments covered.”

She voiced concern at political decisions that might limit access to healthcare. The sisters said preventive care is of the utmost importance and mammograms should be covered for everybody.

Thea stressed mammograms as well.

During treatment

“I think as normal as I could keep it was to keep coming to work. I worked all the way up to the day I flew to Seattle. The day after I got back I was back at work. That’s about as normal as you can get out of me.” Thea said, she does shareholder relations for Sealaska. “There were times I wanted to go fishing with my brother, you know, just do something, and I just didn’t have the energy. There were times when my feet would swell up. I actually had to drive home one time with no shoes on because my feet swelled up so big. And so fast.”

“People assume that those going through cancer treatment are not viable in their jobs,” Debbie said, “And certainly they have up days and down days, but I know I came back and teaching is an incredibly high energy job, especially with middle schoolers, and I think I came back with a whole new enthusiasm and energy for the work I do, and an appreciation for the energy I put into it.”

While treatment has many physical effects, each woman said it was hardest to cope with being away from family, and that family was what made getting through everything possible.

“When I was back east, I stayed with my sister and my parents, back and forth. Bill, my husband, wrote me every day. I’d be getting these letters, the mail man in Connecticut couldn’t believe it, it was just a day-to-day thing. He was amazing — hand-written letters every day, love letters.” Debbie said.

Thea said family was there for her to help and for support when she needed them. Her sisters would cook for her family and she had a friendly face at treatments, even when her husband couldn’t be there.

“I have one brother and I have traditional sisters. My mother passed away years ago and my auntie, in the traditional way, became my mother, so my sisters, my sister by choice is Kathy Willard, who was there with me when my husband went back to work. Because I was working, I said, “You need to go back to work if I’m working.””

Thea also tried to keep her family from getting bogged down by the difficulties of dealing with the cancer and treatment.

“I made a big deal about the haircut thing, I said “You guys don’t want to make an appointment for me? You’re going to do it.” So they all sat around and they each took turns shaving my head. We just kind of made it a fun thing. We told jokes and were playing old music.” She said.

Kathie worried that those without family ties might have the hardest time with cancer.

“We know women in this town who have gone through it alone because they don’t have family here and they have felt like, “Well, I guess I’ll just have to do this alone,” but having a friend with you for the appointments or if they can get down to Seattle with you, it just is so much less frightening, and so helpful.” she said.

Finding support in Juneau isn’t hard, they said.

“I was on the airplane with this big bag, this cloth bag with angels on it that friends had made for me, going through all these letters and everything as I was leaving Juneau to go do my surgery in Seattle. And I knew what to expect, I had Debbie and I think that it’s important for those who do get the diagnosis to please talk to other people through our network of friends in this town, you can get a tremendous amount of support and information. It helps a lot. It takes away that fear.” Kathie said.

Debbie said she also tried to be active while she was going through treatment, choosing to go for walks or run when she had the strength.

“I’m sure it’s very different for every cancer patient, but I think you embrace your health,” she said. “I just felt so, I’m going to grasp every day and every moment felt so precious. I went on long walks and I was running. I was active. When I wasn’t in the hospital waiting for the procedures, I was outdoors and I was active the whole time. It really helped me.”

In addition to support through Cancer Connection, there is a program called Team Survivor, a group that brings survivors together through physical fitness and emotional support. They have a Klondike Relay team each year.

After cancer

It wouldn’t be wrong to say that people are changed after cancer; physically, mentally and emotionally.

“I don’t think you’re ever past it. I’m ready if it comes back. I’ll fight it. And I’ll beat it again.” Thea said.

Her hair is growing back and she looks healthy and happy.

“I feel great today, I’m keeping busy, I see life a little differently. My husband and I and my grandson took a road trip. We drove through Montana and South Dakota, Denver, this summer. I said, “This is what we need to do. Life is just too short.”” Thea said.

It has been almost a decade since Debbie’s final treatment.

“I think the fear factor for me was very strong for a long time. I was thinking about that yesterday as I was walking my dog, it’s been, wow, eight years, and I think the fear factor is finally gone, but there was, for a long time, every little tinge I worried about metastasis and I worried about, “what can that be?” and right now I have shin splints and I thought, “Oh, bone cancer,” but I went in and had x-rays done and the orthopedic specialist said, “You’re fine… stop stressing about this.” Debbie said, “The fear of recurrence is a very real thing for cancer survivors, of course; I try to control those feelings as much as possible and try to keep them in perspective as much as possible, you know, thank goodness for healthcare.”

Despite all the fear, each woman is focused on living.

“I consider myself cured, I don’t think I’m a walking time bomb.” Debbie said.

Debbie is on the board for Cancer Connection. She talked about answering the hotline phone during school one day, because she says you never know what kind of call it will be.

Another thing Thea, Kathie and Debbie have in common is a willingness to share intimate details of their lives, their diagnoses and treatments with the hope that women and men will learn and take strength from their stories.

“I would tell them to gather their strength, their faith, and tell them that they’re not alone, and they’ll get through it.” Thea said, adding with urgency, “Mammogram.”

This may not be a complete survivor’s guide, but it does provide some important things to take with you, seemingly, most importantly, to find your family, whether it be your twin sister, traditional sister, spouse, brother or a local group like Cancer Connection or Team Survivor. Find your family and hold on for the journey.

For information on Cancer Connection, visit www.cancerconnectionak.org or call 796-2273.

For informatino on Team Survivor, visit www.teamsurvivorak.org or call 364-4663.

• Contact reporter Melissa Griffiths at 523-2272 or at melissa.griffiths@juneauempire.com.

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