By Pat Kushaney
Back in July, I wrote an article about surviving breast cancer for the Bennington Banner. I called it “The Year I Was Blessed With Cancer,” admitting it was an odd choice for a title. But the whole experience has had such a profound effect on me I can think of no word more appropriate. People hear the word cancer and immediately conjure this nightmare vision of their future. But breast cancer is curable. You have to follow your medical treatment, and you may have to change your lifestyle. But it can be done, and there is personal, professional and financial support in this community to guide you every step of the way.
I first felt the dime-sized lump while in Florida caring for my father, who was terminally ill with lung cancer. It was in a weird place, near the rib. I ignored it for several months as I continued to look after him, rationalizing that the lump and lingering bruise might have been caused by my bathing suit fitting too tightly. I always used to think I wouldn’t know what a lump would feel like. How would I tell it from a gland? But it was obvious this was something very different. Trust your instincts. You know when you feel something that isn’t supposed to be there.
When I returned north, a close friend urged me to go to the Free Clinic in Putney. I hadn’t had a mammogram in about six years until Maggie Lake, a nurse practitioner with Putney Family Healthcare, examined me and ordered one. To be honest, I didn’t think I was high risk and didn’t realize I should be getting annual mammograms whether I was high risk or not. The clinic put me in touch with Ladies First, a Vermont Department of Health program for underserved women, and they paid for my mammogram.
It turned out the lump was part of a tumor about the same size as the bottom of a coffee cup. Later on it was discovered the cancer had also spread into my lymph nodes, pectoralis muscle and skeletal muscle. If I had been getting annual mammograms it would have been spotted before it grew so large. A lot of women don’t get regular tests because they don’t realize there is help out there to pay for it. The earlier it’s found the less treatment it will need. Since being diagnosed with breast cancer on August 23, 2011, I have had three surgeries, undergone two rounds of chemotherapy and am currently getting radiation treatments. I will be eternally grateful to Ladies First and say to all Vermont women that not having money is not a reason to put off this life-saving test. When you find a lump, immediately see a doctor and have them order a mammogram.
My surgeries were at Dartmouth because I was going to need breast reconstruction, but all of my pre- and post-operative treatments, including chemotherapy, were at Brattleboro Memorial Hospital. The care I received from the Comprehensive Breast Care Center went beyond medical treatment. Kelly McCue, the breast care nurse navigator, talked to me about the importance of nutrition. She asked about my mental well-being and put me in touch with someone I could talk to when I needed it. She sent me to yoga classes specially designed to help breast cancer survivors reduce stress and be more relaxed, and which the hospital provides to patients at no cost.
My body did not handle chemotherapy well. You name a side effect and I had it. But the nurses in the Oncology Department helped me see the joy in my life. Altogether, I’ve done seven months of chemo. After seeing those women every other week for six hours or more at a time, they become like your family. They know every day they are coming to a job to work with people who aren’t well, yet the positive outlook they bring is amazing.
It is because of the support from so many individuals and organizations that I am now cancer free and I want to find ways to give back, like this article and the one I wrote in July to support the Komen Race for the Cure. I have a master’s degree in education but I want to find a way to work in breast care and help other women in the community know that they too can overcome breast cancer. Kelly is helping me research programs for becoming an x-ray technician, and maybe later, get certified in mammography.
When I told my mother about my cancer, I remember telling her that all those women and men out there wearing pink and organizing National Breast Cancer Awareness Month benefits and parades were giving me hope. I never thought I wanted to be a role model, but now that I represent breast cancer survivors it feels good to think maybe I can bring that same hope to others in the community.
Pat Kushaney is a breast cancer survivor living in Putney, Vermont. For questions about mammograms, finding a doctor or financial assistance, please contact Breast Care Program Administrator/Nurse Navigator, Kelly McCue, RN, MSN, CNS, OCN, CHPN at 802-251-8437.