My grandmother, Jan Johnson, was diagnosed with breast cancer in 1991, but it had been spreading since 1988 when her mammograms were diagnostic of carcinoma. Her doctors at that time had told her it was fibrotic changes. Her mass continued to grow, so she went to another doctor who, after reading the mammograms from three years prior, told her that her doctors had deluded her into thinking she had nothing to worry about. She had been misdiagnosed and now the cancer had spread to her lymph nodes.
Her cancer was infiltrating duct cell carcinoma, and she had a radical breast resection including lymph nodes, chemotherapy and radiation. The pathologist confirmed that 20 of the 24 lymph nodes showed metastatic carcinoma. She was 57 years old when she received combination chemotherapies: Adriamycin, Cytoxan and 5-FU, as well as chest-wall radiation, to treat her cancer. She did everything she could to beat cancer and now, at 80 years old, is sharing her tips:
1. You were happy before cancer, you will be happy again after. When she was first diagnosed she went into the bathroom, looked into the mirror and screamed. She thought she would never be her joyful self again -- for a split second, that is. Right then, she made herself a promise that she would be happy again and she is.
2. Get second opinions. This tip is well-known but often ignored. If a mass otherwise diagnosed as scar tissue or something "not to worry about" continues to grow, begins to dimple, or you just feel something is wrong, go see another doctor.
3. If you are misdiagnosed, get over it quickly. The anger isn't going to help you stay positive through the fight for your life. There's nothing you can do about it but move quickly into a plan of action. She didn't sue, she let it go, she focused on her health and lived.
4. Ask your doctors lots of questions. Ask them why they want to do the test and tell them your concerns. This isn't a game of Simon Says. It's your life, and you make the decisions with your doctors input, not his commands.
5. Believe in your treatment, 100 percent. Never doubt as you're going through your plan that it won't do its job. Mentally, it is important to visualize the drugs going through your body and eliminating every cancer cell.
6. Do as you damn please. Don't let anyone in your life, including friends and family, make you do something you don't want to. You're the one who has to deal with the effects of the treatments. One doctor told Grandma she should do an autologous bone marrow transplant. Even if our family had told her she should, she knew she didn't want to do it, so she didn't.
7. Eat healthy. Jan was lucky to have a husband who made her fresh carrot juice everyday and made sure she ate fruits and vegetables from his own garden. Don't eat poorly or you will feel poorly. The chemo and radiation make you feel bad enough, do yourself a favor and at least eat good, healthy foods and stay hydrated.
8. Don't smoke. Although smoking isn't associated with breast cancer directly, there have been studies to suggest otherwise. Why risk it? Jan owned a store and refused to sell cigarettes way back in the 1960s. She's always been a trendsetter and now is a huge supporter of CVS, who took tobacco off their shelves, too.
9. When someone is ready to die, let them go. She has told me more than once, "When I'm ready to go, let me." I've already had to do that when my mother, her daughter, died of melanoma and carcinoid cancers, so I am ready to let her go when I have to. Not anytime soon, though.
10. Tell your survival story. The side effects can seem to be more difficult then just letting cancer take full effect, but if the survivors of cancer educate others on how great life can be after cancer, then there will be a higher usage of readily available cures.
My grandmother taught me how to survive cancer, and I used her strength and tips when I fought thyroid cancer. She wasn't born when her own grandmother died of breast cancer but she did have to let her father go when he decided to stop fighting colon cancer when she was just 31 years old. When I found out that Grandma also had melanoma, I had genetic testing done. I don't have any genes that they can test for that are associated with any types of cancers that have been in my family. Grandma believes that her breast cancer was caused by the hormones she was prescribed that actually have a warning of that side effect.
I guess I just hit the cancer lottery when I was diagnosed with the sixth type of cancer in our family tree that we know about. Grandma and I both feel that we appreciate life much more on the other side of cancer. We both believed that we would survive, and we did.