Breast Cancer Survivor Series: Ruth

"I always thought it was something that happened to other people and never imagined it could ever happen to me!!"

"I always thought it was something that happened to other people and never imagined it could ever happen to me!!"

"I always thought it was something that happened to other people and never imagined it could ever happen to me!!"

"I always thought it was something that happened to other people and never imagined it could ever happen to me!!"

Every Tuesday in October, we’ll be highlighting the story of a breast cancer survivor for Breast Cancer Awareness Month. This week we talked to Ruth, who had little knowledge of breast cancer before her diagnosis.

What was your knowledge or understanding of breast cancer growing up and as an adult?

I grew up in the UK and arrived in Canada in 1982 with my young family. I had little knowledge or information about breast cancer at that point – it just wasn’t on my radar, until my cousin was diagnosed with breast cancer about 20 years ago. Since my own diagnosis, we have talked in more depth about her treatment. In those days, I believe the chemo drugs were similar, but the major side-effects, such as nausea, were not as well managed as they are today.
I always thought it was something that happened to other people and never imagined it could ever happen to me! I felt well, kept fit and looked after myself so I was doing everything right, wasn’t I?  

Did you do breast exams prior to your diagnosis? How has your knowledge of self-exams evolved through your journey?

Prior to my diagnosis, I wasn’t too concerned about keeping up to date with mammograms. After all, this wasn’t going to happen to ME! Occasionally, my GP would do a breast exam and I would do random self-exams. So, when I discovered a lump while lying in bed reading, I was a little concerned but dismissed it as just me being a “worry-wart”! After all, I do have somewhat nodular breasts. However, a few weeks later, when the lump was still there, I thought it wise to get checked out. Lo and behold, I was diagnosed with invasive ductal carcinoma! 

Tell us about your diagnosis

At first, I was a little offhand about it as it was only a “smallish lump”, wasn’t it? However, reality set in when I met with my oncologist and his assistant. I took my daughter with me for support and I am so glad I did, because she was a tremendous help and asked some pertinent questions as well as doing a summary of the vast amount of information after the consultation.

It was determined that, due to the type of cancer cells, I must follow a regime which would start with a period of chemotherapy over several months in order to shrink the tumour, followed by surgery and then, after recovery, a period of radiation.

I was certainly not prepared to undergo chemo. My cousin had almost died from the side-effects of chemo and I was terrified! I did in fact suffer what has been described as a record number of side-effects, but my care was excellent and the chemo reduced the size of the tumour by one third. My surgery was therefore relatively minor.
It has been almost 6 months since my surgery and I am happy to say that I have no scars. Although my breasts are a little asymmetrical, I still have them both!

I have an appointment with my surgeon in a few weeks and I will discuss with her whether it is worthwhile to have a breast reduction on the right breast to match with the smaller left breast. The disparity isn’t really noticeable but I think I would prefer to be symmetrical

I recently asked my oncologist “at what point do I become a breast cancer survivor?” His answer was “as soon as you are diagnosed with breast cancer”. 

Ruth E

 

How did your diagnosis change the way you feel about yourself and your body?

Apart from the actual surgery, one of the most difficult things for me to deal with was my hair loss. During chemo, hair starts to fall out in handfuls after the first week. My hair was my “crowning glory” and formerly I wouldn’t venture out until every hair was in place. Foggy, wet days meant frizzy hair and additional time spent straightening and defrizzing. I did splash out on a nice wig, but I never felt like “me” when I wore it. In fact, I felt like a fraud. I acquired three more wigs over time but that same feeling of not being really myself persisted. I tried wearing hats as well but it still wasn’t “me”! Of course, all body hair falls out as well so not having eyebrows or eyelashes adds to the feeling of discomfort.

The chemo was very hard on my whole system and so going out in public was an ordeal. It was an ordeal because I looked awful and was terribly conscious of my lack of hair, eyebrows, etc. My stomach was turned upside down and I never knew when I’d need to use the bathroom! Consequently, I became anti-social and hoped that I’d never have to actually talk to anyone.

Once my hair started to grow back, post chemo, it just didn’t look anything like it did before, but I was thrilled that at least I was “me” again! I went from chin-length, straight and blonde to micro-short, brown and wavy.
I was pleased to find that the nausea I had endured had resulted in a figure that was slimmer than before! Even though my breasts were a little asymmetrical, my clothes still fitted fairly well and I felt really happy to be emerging from a long hibernation.

 The new me feels reborn and rejuvenated! I have a new perspective on life. I don’t fuss as much over my appearance. Rather, I care about my health, being kind, paying lots of attention to each member of my family and friends, enjoying life to the fullest - and waking up with the sunlight streaming through the window!  
I have a new life and it couldn’t be better! 

What’s something you wish you knew about breast cancer before your diagnosis?

The whole experience of going through breast cancer treatment isn’t something you can fully comprehend until you come face to face with it. It’s a different journey for everyone.

One thing I would have liked to be more aware of is how prevalent breast cancer is. Once I had been diagnosed, several of my friends and work colleagues came forward to tell me of their own experiences and everyone was very supportive to me in my journey.

I did not imagine how life-changing the experience would be and, coming through it, how it would change my outlook so radically - and for the better!

Did you feel supported by your family, friends, and the healthcare system?

I was very fortunate to be treated by some of the best, highly skilled oncologists and their teams in Canada, if not the world. The BC Cancer Agency has a well-deserved reputation for having a very high standard of care with many resources available to help patients deal with issues such as side-effects, diet, depression, family, work life, finances, etc.

I had lots of offers of support from my family and friends. However, despite everyone’s kindness, it was often a lonely time, particularly since everyone was isolating due to the Covid pandemic and most of my treatment happened during the dreary winter months. I found regular telephone calls and texts from my family and friends to be the most comforting. I didn’t feel like visitors due to my hair loss, appetite loss and general feeling of malaise. 

Are there any myths or misconceptions you’d like to dispel about breast cancer?

One of the biggest misconceptions is that “it isn’t going to happen to me”. It can happen to anyone, even if there is no family history.

Another misconception is that it’s a “one size fits all” diagnosis. There are many kinds of cancer cells, and each person reacts individually to different treatments. Some women will have a radical mastectomy, but others (like me) will be fortunate enough to have minor surgery.

I did not imagine after my initial diagnosis that I would be taking so many drugs (even drugs to treat the side-effects of the side-effects!) and visiting so many hospitals and medical facilities.

Any advice for women who have just been diagnosed with breast cancer?

  • Trust in your medical team; ask lots of questions and follow their instructions – they are the best! 
  • Ignore the well-meaning people that come out with irritating platitudes such as “keep your chin/spirits up”; “stay positive” (I always hated this one); “get well soon”. No-one really understands until they’ve been through it. 
  • If you’re scheduled to have chemo, try to buy your wig (if you decide to have one), and your head-gear before chemo starts. It’s amazing how fast your hair falls out! I ended up getting a strainer device to cover the shower drain so that my falling hair didn’t block it!  
  • Use a binder or a filing system so that you can store all your documents in one place. You will have a ton of paperwork such as instructions about medications, prescriptions, bloodwork requisitions, lists of numbers to call, booklets about treatments, appointment notes, etc. I put all of mine in a big filing box. This is one of the best tips I ever received!
  • Give yourself permission to slow down and be idle if necessary. Feeling guilty because you haven’t washed the dishes or done the laundry is non-productive during this time! 

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