In their own words: Sharon Whittemore, 63, of Dennis
Even when women are told their breast cancer is in remission, for many the fight continues.
One in eight women in the United States will develop invasive breast cancer over the course of their lives, according to Breastcancer.org. Today, there are tools that can help them cope with the diagnosis, the treatment and the journey that follows.
Locally, many women turn to the survivorship program at Cape Cod Healthcare Oncology Services. The program offers counseling and long-term support services. Here is one women’s story:
For Sharon Whittemore, who was diagnosed with an invasive tumor in 2010, the support from her family, as well as the doctors and nurses, was key.
Her journey began on her grandson’s birthday, as she was getting dressed to take him whale watching. As she put on her shirt, she brushed her breast and felt a “significant lump.” She knew immediately what it was.
She underwent a mammogram, ultrasound and a needle biopsy all in the same day. Whittemore says she had to reach deep inside herself to find the courage to undergo each test. Support from the medical staff, her daughter and her aunt made the testing, as well as the eventual surgery and radiation, bearable.
“I cried throughout these procedures,” Whittemore says. But the most awesome tech was holding my hand and reassuring me. My doctor even gave me a ride home afterwards, giving me instructions along the way.
“Later, I was mentored by two wonderful women who came to my house to share their stories. I am so grateful for that. A core of friends and family also rallied around me. My parents couldn’t help me very much as my mother was entering the land of dementia and my dad is physically disabled.”
“My wonderful aunt took over the role my mother couldn’t fulfill. My daughter accompanied me to every appointment and took charge of any decisions that needed to be made during my breast cancer surgery. It made me realize that every moment, and every relationship really matters.”
The six weeks of radiation therapy hit her hardest. Whittemore says her mind would often go blank and her weight plummeted as her body underwent extreme stress. She joined a radiation club and met with Gaudet. He assured her that what she was going through was normal and prescribed her additional medication that streamlined the process and the discomfort she was feeling.
“Radiation kicks the hell out of you after a couple of weeks and I had no idea how much extreme fatigue was on the horizon. I couldn’t even read a book. I had trouble attending any type of social event and I would back out of things often. It was tough,” Whittemore says.
Her primary care physician prescribed an anti-depressant, she says. “I thought, ‘I am Sharon, and I am strong.’ Depression was not in my vocabulary.”
But after talking with Gaudet, Whittemore filled the prescription. “I felt better after one week.”
Whittemore says her fight against cancer has made her realize what is really important in life.
“Breast cancer took three years out of my life but it made me realize that there are important things and not so important things. My advice to other women struggling to survive breast cancer is to love your family and your friends and help everyone you can.
“I also don’t judge people because you have no idea what they are facing. These are some of the many mottos that have developed from those lost years, but the most important one is this: ‘If something isn’t going to kill me, then it’s not a problem.’”