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SurvivorshipStress ManagementBreast Cancer

Stepping Out from Under the Umbrella of Fear

Bonnie Annis reflects on her breast cancer diagnosis, dealing with worries of cancer recurrence, using natural remedies, and how fear and stress affect our well-being.
April 2022 Vol 8 No 2
Bonnie Annis
Newnan, Georgia

In 2014, while showering, I discovered a hard mass in my right breast. I was petrified, and before I’d even visited a doctor, I was sure it was cancer. It turns out I was right. I was diagnosed with stage IIB invasive ductal carcinoma.

Decisions

The breast surgeon presented several treatment options, and after weighing them all, I decided the best choice for me would be to have a radical mastectomy. Although the cancer was only in one breast, I also opted for a prophylactic mastectomy of my left breast. I didn’t want to go through the trauma of surgery and treatment for cancer on one breast, only to have it return in the other months or years later.

Testing revealed that my cancer was associated with the hormones estrogen and progesterone. The oncologist suggested that I receive chemotherapy, radiation, and anti-hormone therapy. After doing a lot of research, I decided to refuse the chemotherapy, because of the many potentially dangerous side effects it could cause.

Treatment

Approximately 3 weeks after both breasts were removed, I started with radiation therapy.

After 28 rounds of radiation (which caused damage to the anterior portion of my right lung), I began anti-hormone therapy to prevent the recurrence of cancer. Because I was 56, my doctor prescribed the drug Arimidex, which is used for postmenopausal women with hormone-positive breast cancer. I took it for a month, but when I had many unwanted side effects, I contacted the doctor, who prescribed a different medication called Aromasin. I tried it for several weeks, and had worse side effects than I had with Arimidex. I felt like an 80-year-old woman, barely able to walk across the floor. I was crying all the time, and my bones hurt terribly.

Once again, the doctor changed my medication, this time he suggested I should try tamoxifen, another medication used to prevent recurrence of breast cancer. He also added an antidepressant, Effexor, to my drug regimen. I was a basket case, and after a few months of using those medications, I decided to call it quits.

Quality of Life

I wanted to have good quality of life, even if it meant the quantity would be reduced. That decision was one of the best decisions I made. Within 3 weeks, I felt myself again. That’s when I decided to do research on fighting cancer naturally. I read every book I could find about supplements and Chinese medications. Changing my diet, I added what was recommended as cancer-fighting foods and herbal supplements. I gained significant knowledge and was thankful that there are potentially natural methods to fighting cancer.

It has been more than 7 years since my diagnosis; in July 2022 I will be celebrating 8 years of being cancer free, and I am still healthy and strong. I credit my life to the changes I made, and to my faith in God, but there are still days I wonder if the cancer may return one day.

Enlarged Lymph Node

I return to the cancer center annually to visit the oncologist. During the last visit, I received unexpected news. Everything went routinely, until it was time for the physical part of the exam. On the exam table, the doctor’s nimble fingers began palpating at my neck just behind the ears. Inching his way down, he carefully palpated my body, until reaching the base of my neck. Just above the collarbone, he stopped.

I could tell by looking at his face that something was not right. He palpated the area again and again. I watched his face, waiting for some indication as to what was wrong. Sensing my fear, he looked up and explained that he’d found an enlarged lymph node. I was surprised when he said that it was the size of a plum.

Because of the size of the lymph node and my history of breast cancer, the doctor thought that an ultrasound would be a good idea, and explained that he would perform a biopsy at the same time.

The radiology technician performing the ultrasound scanned the suspicious area but was unable to find the enlarged node. Placing the conducer on my skin, she repeatedly searched the area, with no success, and reported that to the doctor. Without a visible node via the ultrasound, no biopsy was performed. Instead, the doctor suggested that a repeat positron-emission tomography (PET) scan was appropriate.

The doctor said that the PET scan would scan all my bones, tissues, and organs. A radioactive tracer would illuminate any trouble spots, indicating a probable recurrence of cancer. I was nervous about the test and fearful about what they might find. I was not ready to receive the news that my cancer had come back.

The test was over quickly. It only lasted about 15 to 20 minutes. I asked when I might expect to receive the results, and a nurse assured me that I would hear from the oncologist within a day.

Under the Umbrella of Fear

All night long I tried my best not to worry. I didn’t want to think about the possibility of a recurrence. As I prayed before bed, I told God that I’d accept either verdict. By coming to terms with whatever God chose to bring my way, I fell asleep peacefully and slept soundly through the night.

I woke up bright and early waiting patiently to hear from the doctor. I sat by the phone expecting it to ring any minute. While I waited, my mind began to wander. I began to play the “what if” game, playing out different scenarios in my mind.

What if the cancer had returned? How would I react? Was I brave enough to endure surgery and treatment again?

How would I break the news to my family? Would a recurrence mean death was imminent?

Worry and fear began to overwhelm me. And that’s when I realized that I’d been living under the umbrella of fear for a very long time. In fact, I’d been under it since discovering the lump in my breast in 2014.

When the phone rang, I was afraid to answer. Bracing for the worst, I accepted the call and was relieved to hear the good news that no cancer was discovered. The doctor’s words, “You are still NED” (which means “no evidence of disease”), were sweet to my ears.

For those who have never had breast cancer, it’s hard to explain what living under an umbrella of fear feels like. It’s challenging to be on guard constantly against results from bloodwork, scans, or other tests. Every visit to the doctor can cause anxiety and stress.

Cancer is a tricky disease. A recurrence can occur any time after the initial diagnosis. No one knows when or if their cancer may return. For those touched by cancer, living under an umbrella of fear can be debilitating.

The Damage of Stress

For the person with cancer, it’s important to find a way to continue living. Stepping out from under the umbrella of fear is scary, but we cannot live in a state of constant fear; it’s a very unhealthy place to be.

Fear and worry affect a person’s well-being. According to an article by the Mayo Clinic on the impact of chronic stress on health, cortisol, “the primary stress hormone, increases sugars (glucose) in the bloodstream, enhances your brain’s use of glucose and increases the availability of substances that repair tissues. Cortisol also…alters immune system responses and suppresses the digestive system, the reproductive system and growth processes.”1

As cancer survivors we understand the importance of protecting our immune systems, and if that means avoiding fear, we need to find ways of doing that.

Managing Stress

Learning to identify stressful situations can help us to learn how to manage them. Some strategies recommended by cancer experts include eating a healthy diet, getting enough rest, taking time to do things you enjoy, surrounding yourself with community, and seeking professional help when necessary.1

Possessing proper coping skills can help us take the first step from underneath the umbrella of fear and may even help us to close it completely. By refusing to let fear constantly hover overhead, we can enjoy a more peaceful, healthy lifestyle.

Reference

  1. Mayo Clinic. Chronic stress puts your health at risk. July 8, 2021. www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/stress-management/in-depth/stress/art-20046037.

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