Pink Ribbon Divas
Surviving Breast Cancer With A Little Help From Friends
By Lisa Hanchey
At age 36, Kristal DeMahy, a busy mother working as a managed care coordinator at Iberia Medical Center, was the picture of health. But, after her father was diagnosed with brain cancer around Thanksgiving of 2010 and died four months later, she decided to get screened as a precaution. “I was dreading the fact that I had to get undressed in front of my co-worker more than I was afraid that they would find anything,” she recalls.
While her OB/GYN did not believe that anything was wrong, he recommended that she have a baseline mammogram based on her family history. Her paternal grandmother had been diagnosed with breast cancer at Kristal’s same age. Kristal got the order, but put off the screening for two months. Shortly before her birthday on Nov. 16, she had a nagging feeling that she needed to have the test. “I just felt like someone was urging me,” she says. So, she finally went in for the mammogram.
Do Whatever You Have To Do
The technician found a suspicious area, and Kristal was sent for an ultrasound. Again, she was nervous about having such an intimate test – this time, in front of a male colleague. Thankfully, he made it very comfortable for her. After the test, the radiologist came in and told her that she needed to see a surgeon for a biopsy right away. She cried a little, then returned to her desk. Still, she never imagined that anything could be seriously wrong.
Exactly one year after her father’s diagnosis, Kristal was assessed with invasive ductal carcinoma of the breast, Stage 1, Grade Three, Triple Negative, an aggressive form of breast cancer which could not be treated with hormone therapy or Herceptin. Her only options were the most brutal – surgery, chemotherapy and radiation.
In December, 2011, Kristal’s surgeon, Dr. Kurt O’Brien of Iberia Medical Center, performed a lumpectomy and sentinel lymph node biopsy. “Kristal’s tumor was small, less than one inch in size, which was very favorable,” O’Brien reports. “It was not in the lymph nodes. From a surgery standpoint, she did great. We’ll be following her over time to see how she does and check for any recurrences.”
Post-surgery, Kristal underwent 19 rounds of chemo from February to August. She had bad reactions to all of the drugs and lost her hair. Despite this grueling treatment, Kristal remained optimistic. “I told the doctor, ‘I know I’m having these bad reactions, but I’m more worried about you curing my cancer so I can see my son go to fourth-grade,’” she recalls. “Your number one mission is to do whatever you have to do, and cut off whatever you’ve got to cut off, as long as I can see my children at least to high school, then college. God put me here on earth to be their mother. You’ve got to do what you’ve got to do to ensure I can be here and finish that job.”
At press time, Kristal was halfway through her 30-dose radiation regimen and had just returned to work. “Once I’m done with that, I should be good,” she reports. “I have a checkup in November, and we’ll see if everything took.”
Bald Is Beautiful
Like Kristal, Amanda Thibodeaux was diagnosed with ductal infiltrating carcinoma at a young age – 31. She underwent a double mastectomy, then had chemo and lost her hair. “When I was diagnosed with breast cancer, my hair was the last thought in my mind,” Amanda says. “I don’t think that image is important. I think that what’s within holds true value.”
Amanda decided to shave her head, and told her 5-year-old son, Gavin, about her decision. “I told him, ‘Whenever you’re ready, you can shave my head.’”
He wasn’t ready right away. About a week later, Amanda’s best friend and roommate, Stacey Trim, whose late mother had breast cancer, decided to show her support for Amanda by having Gavin shave her head. Two hours later, Gavin told Amanda that he was ready to shave her head. After doing it, he turned to Amanda and said, “Now, I want to shave mine.” Surprised by his reaction, Amanda told him that he did not have to do it. He responded, “I wanna be like you.” This time, Amanda did the shearing.
Amanda had her last chemo treatment in January. Although her hair started growing back, she and Stacey decided to continue shaving their heads. Now, Amanda is training for races. Her goal is to run the Susan B. Komen Global Race for the Cure in Washington, D.C. next year.
Treatment Side Effects
Hair loss is not the only side effect from cancer treatment. Accordingly to the Susan B. Komen website, ww5.komen.org, the most common side effects of chemo, such as nausea and hair loss, occur during treatment and usually go away shortly afterwards. Some drugs can also stop regular menstrual periods or trigger early menopause, which can result in loss of bone density and lead to osteoporosis.
Other chemo side effects for young women include hormonal changes, including hot flashes and sexual or reproductive issues. “All of those are very special issues for the young women,” explains Linda Rose, Administrator of the Breast Center of Acadiana. “They wonder, ‘What’s going to happen? Am I going to be able to have children?’”
A common side effect of chemotherapy is weight gain, usually about five to 10 pounds, especially in women who are menopausal. Recently, Dr. Joseph Sparano of the Albert Einstein College of Medicine’s Montefiore Medical Center in New York and his research team explained in the journal Cancer that obese and overweight women are more likely to experience breast cancer recurrence than women of normal weight. Being overweight or obese does increase the weight, because the excess fat tissue usually will be converted to a hormone, like estrogen. There are some breast cancers which are dependent on estrogen and will grow because of the high amount of estrogen, particularly in patients who are overweight or obese and have gone through menopause. What Dr. Sparano found was that patients who have breast cancer and were treated with estrogen positive receptors tended to have a higher recurrence if they continued to have excess weight on them.
When Should Screening Begin?
Younger breast cancer patients like Kristal and Amanda are atypical. According to WebMD, women under the age of 40 have a less than seven percent chance of developing breast cancer. Although Kristal found her cancer through mammography, recent studies have questioned the use of this test in younger women.
Dr. Lan Nguyen, an OB/GYN at the Woman’s Clinic in New Iberia, follows the guidelines recommended by the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG), the nation’s leading authority in women’s health. ACOG recommends mammograms every one to two years starting at age 40 and annually beginning at age 50. O’Brien believes that women should have mammograms yearly starting at age 40.
For younger women who are at high risk – those who have a palpable lesion or a strong family history of breast cancer in a first-degree relative — Drs. Nguyen and O’Brien suggest screening earlier. “Even if you are less than 40 and you feel something new or different in your breast, you need to see your doctor, probably your ob, and have it checked out,” O’Brien says.
When choosing to have a mammogram, O’Brien recommends digital technology. “I think digital gives us better images than the old mammograms,” he says. “We have a good machine at Iberia General. That’s a big benefit for the community.”
A European study in the “British Medical Journal” indicates that radiation from mammograms might increase chances of breast cancer for some high-risk young women. For women in their 20s, who have denser breast tissue, mammograms might not be the best method for finding tumors. “Mammograms are really not recommended for young women unless, on clinical exam, there is a concerning lesion,” Nguyen says. “An ultrasound may be better in younger women who have a palpable lesion to evaluate as opposed to a mammogram. Because, when you are dealing with x-ray studies, you do have to worry about the exposure to radiation, even though it’s small.”
The Launch Of The Pink Ribbon Divas
In Acadiana, help is available for young women who are diagnosed with breast cancer. After Kristal’s diagnosis, a childhood friend battling Stage 4 breast cancer contacted her about the Pink Ribbon Divas, a support group for young breast cancer survivors. “She was a life saver,” Kristal says. “When you get diagnosed with cancer, you are kind of just left there wondering, ‘What in the world do I do now?’ There are so many things to take into consideration. She was really my lighthouse in the storm.”
Two years ago, the Breast Center of Acadiana developed a foundation to provide services, resources and support to the women of Acadiana prior to and after the diagnosis of breast cancer. In 2011, the foundation launched the Pink Ribbon Divas, whose mission is to educate and inspire others to grow and live beyond breast cancer and reach other young breast cancer survivors facing similar fears, issues and concerns. These young breast cancer survivors often have small children or are just getting started in their careers. Says BCA Foundation Chair Linda Rose, “They sometimes have to miss quite a bit of work if they have a difficult time with chemotherapy, so there is a break or interruption in their careers. They also have issues with children not understanding why Mom is losing her hair and why she’s tired all of the time.”
The Pink Ribbon Divas meet monthly on the fourth Wednesday at 6 p.m. at BCA, 935 Camellia Boulevard, Lafayette. A group for older women with breast cancer, Elaine’s Sisters of Hope, meets the third Tuesday of every month at 5:30 p.m. “It is so encouraging to hear their stories and to see them,” Kristal says. “They all root for you. The support is just amazing. I don’t know how I would have made it without the group.”
Kristal’s message to young women is that breast cancer can happen to anyone— it’s up to you to get checked. Prior to her biopsy, she did monthly breast self-examinations. “The funny thing was, right before the biopsy, the surgeon examined me and said, ‘You know what, I never would have felt it either,’” she recalls. “So, even though I was doing my own breast exams, the only reason that we caught this and it didn’t kill me right off the bat was because of a mammogram. I was a 36-year-old woman with no signs and no symptoms, just a recent family history. Just because you are under 40 years old does not mean that you cannot get breast cancer. I’m living proof that it does happen. If you feel like you have something suspicious or if you have that family history, you’ve got to fight for that mammogram.You have to fight for everything that you get in this life, and that goes for mammograms, too.”
For more information about the Pink Ribbon Divas, contact Linda Rose at (337) 456-7477.
The Stuff Called Hair
By Amanda Thibodeaux, Breast Cancer Survivor
There are women who think that this bad stuff called cancer has taken what most women value most, their breast and their hair. I don’t feel that my cancer has taken anything. What I have been through has only made me stronger. Women must know that they have to be aware of their body and its changes.
I was told two years ago that I didn’t need a mammogram; there’s no history of breast cancer in my family, and I was too young. My OBGYN wanted me to wait until I was 40. I was diagnosed with breast cancer one year later at the age of 31. Persistency saved my life and may save someone else’s.
After having a bad day a couple of weeks ago and getting criticized for shaving my head, I wrote this poem. I didn’t only write it for me, but for every woman out there facing that fear. Bald is Beautiful!
The stuff called HAIR!
“It grows how it wants, in many different ways,
We put lots of products with hopes that it stays.
Some like it short, others like it long,
At times it grows where it doesn’t belong.
It doesn’t define what soul is within,
With or without, it’s sure not a sin.
What truly matters is what means the most,
That’s to love, to pray, and to keep God engrossed.
So I have no hair and I’m missing some skin,
Being alive is a bigger win.
I don’t have to shave it, but I do it loud,
There are thousands of people who are afraid to be proud.
It should never matter exactly how it looks,
It’s who we are inside that’s writing that book.
There will come a day when our time must end,
That stuff called hair won’t get us in.”
First Friday, a community program of Iberia Medical Center Foundation, offers free mammograms to qualified applicants.
To qualify, you should:
• Have a physician’s order for a screening/routine (not diagnostic) mammogram;
• Be age 35 or over;
• Have no insurance reimbursement for a mammogram, no Medicare or Medicaid or have a high deductible;
• Have special circumstances that make it impossible to pay.
For more information, call (337) 374-7383.