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A family nurse practitioner's experience

Emerson exhorts dedicated study, exercising regularly and laughing as often as possible

Posted: Friday, October 17, 2008

For Family Nurse Practitioner Justine Emerson, the chance she would contract breast cancer seemed highly improbable. Nonetheless, she was diagnosed with infiltrating ductal carcinoma in March 2006.

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Courtesy Of Justine Emerson
Courtesy Of Justine Emerson

According to Emerson, 80 percent of breast cancers are this type.

"Mine was not an aggressive breast cancer," she said. "It was picked up on a mammogram done at Bartlett Regional Hospital. I had a mammogram every year from the age of 40."

Emerson said her initial reactions were unbelief and horror.

"I wondered how it could happen to me when I was so low-risk - not heavy, exercised regularly, ate correctly, had regular mammograms and had no family history," she said.

But according to Emerson, 70-80 percent of women diagnosed with breast cancer have no family history.

Emerson's family was sensitive to her diagnosis.

"Our oldest daughter was in medical school and understood that breast cancer was not a death sentence," Emerson said. "Our second daughter, who was back East in college, had a friend whose mother had just been diagnosed with breast cancer, so that helped her."

Emerson said her husband read up on breast cancer to better understand the disease, its treatment and her possible needs.

"My family was incredibly supportive throughout my entire treatment period and since then as well," she said.

As an outpatient, Emerson received a lumpectomy in March 2006 at Swedish Hospital in Seattle, Wash. She then began two months of chemo in May 2006 back home in Juneau and had to take off work for this as well as for the six weeks of radiation in Seattle that followed.

"I began six weeks of radiation in Seattle at Swedish in July 2006," she said.

Emerson completed her treatment with 12 once-a-week rounds of chemo starting in September 2006, just after a short trip she took to Mongolia - between radiation and final chemo - to do humanitarian medical work through the Alaska Army National Guard, which she planned before her diagnosis.

"For me, it was something to look forward to during those long months of treatment," Emerson said of her Mongolia trip. "I had been there the year before on a similar trip and wanted to help out again. I was able to go back to work as a family nurse practitioner at Valley Medical Care during my last three months of chemo and go back to playing with my husband on an ice hockey team then as well."

Also on a positive note, Swedish Hospital was "wonderful," according to Emerson. During her six weeks of radiation, she was only there for 10 minutes a day, Monday through Friday. She could then use the rest of the day to explore Seattle, exercise and visit old and new friends.

"I felt great during radiation, but this is not the case for all women," Emerson said. "There is a phrase in the breast cancer community about 'radiation vacation,' as usually when you move on from chemo to radiation you feel so much better. Many women, including me, find that it also is a time with few responsibilities and so quite relaxing. With having to go to a large city for radiation, you have to be off work."

Although some moments were relaxing for Emerson, others were intense.

"Perhaps the hardest part was adjusting to my diagnosis," Emerson said. "Also, the first type of chemo was not easy, nor was being bald."

But Emerson said exercise helped in her recovery.

"I exercised almost every day during treatment, which helped me feel better," she said. "Studies also are now showing it is important to try to do this. Going for regular walks with friends, something I do too rarely, was wonderful. We went on as many family hikes and picnics at the beach as possible."

"I felt loved and supported all during my treatment, by friends, family and women who had been through a similar journey. Many people prayed for me as well."

Thankfully, Emerson is now clear of her cancer.

"With breast cancer, you are either in treatment or cured unless it has spread throughout your body, in which case you can be in remission, but never cured," Emerson explained.

For others diagnosed with breast cancer, Emerson recommends dedicated study of the particular type of cancer and its treatment.

"Don't be upset if some people don't know what to say to you and so don't say anything, or if some make comments that they don't realize are not very supportive," Emerson said. She also endorses eating healthily and exercising regularly during treatment and beyond.

"Laugh as often as possible and remember that you too will get through this, just as millions of women have before you," Emerson added. "Make sure you follow the recommended treatment and follow-up unless you have made a very educated and considered decision why you choose not to do so.

"Accept support of all kinds from others. This is not something we do easily in our society."

To further support women's health issues, and including breast cancer, Emerson will give a presentation at the Women's Health Forum Saturday at Centennial Hall. Her presentation, "Vitamin D - What's In It For Your Health," from 12:30 to 1:30 p.m., will discuss how low vitamin D levels are increasingly implicated in many kinds of cancers, including breast cancer, as well as autoimmune diseases and other medical problems.

"I'll talk about these, what factors make one more likely to have low vitamin D levels, what normal levels are and how to bring one's level up," Emerson said. "Living in the far north in a place with little sunshine puts Juneauites at great risk for low vitamin D levels.

"Vitamin D can only be made through the sun shining, in summer and in the middle of the day, on bare skin which does not have sunblock on it. How often does this happen in Juneau?"

Like many breast cancer survivors, Emerson also advocates following through with annual mammograms.

"If breast cancer if diagnosed early, it is much more treatable," she said.

• Contact Neighbors editor Kim Andree at 523-2272 or neighbors@juneauempire.com.

To read this and other articles celebrating Breast Cancer Awareness Month,visit juneauempire.com/breast_cancer



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