Raising Awareness by Sharing Her Story

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October is breast cancer awareness month. The Gazette Record sat down with a local St. Maries woman who is a breast cancer survivor to learn about her experience and what advice she would give to others.

St. Maries resident and breast cancer survivor Miriam Foster is featured in the Oct. 8 10 Questions section where she discusses her breast cancer diagnosis and treatment.

St. Maries resident and breast cancer survivor Miriam Foster is featured in the Oct. 8 10 Questions section where she discusses her breast cancer diagnosis and treatment.

1. When and how did you first find out you have breast cancer?
I had always been very conscientious in having regular mammograms. When I had my yearly mammogram in 1997, I expected the same results that I always heard i.e. nothing suspicious, keep on doing what you have been doing. That was not the case; I was diagnosed with lobular carcinoma in situ. Inland Imaging had recently upgraded their equipment, and I was told that their old equipment wouldnít even have picked up this cancer. They recommended a biopsy which I had. Again, I was sure this was a formality and it would prove to be nothing; nothing could be wrong with me. So I had the procedure and left to visit family in California. I called from a pay phone for the results while we were on the road between Salem and Grant’s Pass in Oregon. The nurse could not tell me anything; the doctor wanted to speak with me. He told me I had some decisions to make because the results showed cancer in my left breast.

2. What were your main concerns after being diagnosed?
Once I got over the ‘this-can’t-be-happening-to-me’ feeling, we continued on with our trip because my mother had just taken a downward step in Alzheimer’s and family decisions had to be made. But I had recently watched a fellow teacher and a grammar school friend die from breast cancer. My sister had just finished treatment for breast cancer as had another teacher friend. Based on what I knew of these situations, I did not want to waste time. Handling ambiguity is not one of my strong points. I wanted to be cancer-free and not have to look over my shoulder for it to recur.

3. How did your family react to the news?
My family was supportive, to say the least. They wanted me well again. Whatever course of action I chose they would support.

4. What treatment did you undergo?
There is no one right solution for this condition; I wanted to do what was right for me. This type of cancer, I was told, would likely “mirror” in the other breast. I consulted with my gynecologist, a surgeon, two plastic surgeons, friends and family who had faced the same decisions, and I read Dr. Susan Love’s Breast Book. (I learned far more than I ever wanted to know about breast cancer, surgical options, reconstruction options, etc.) At first, I asked each doctor what he would recommend; then I got more specific and asked what course of treatment he would recommend for his mother or aunt. Based on my family history (a sister and my grandmother and her sister all had breast cancer) and my biopsy results, all of the doctors recommended mastectomy, in my case bilateral mastectomy. And dependent on the results of the tissue analysis at the time of surgery, I could have immediate reconstruction. I took their recommendations. When they performed the surgery, the margins were clear; therefore no further steps as far as radiation or chemotherapy were needed. The plastic surgeon could then begin the process for reconstruction.

5. When were you declared to be in remission and what did that mean to you?
Remission was not a term applied to me. I went in for checks every three months for a year, then every six months for a year, and then it was every year for three more years. After five years, I was cancer-free. It has now been seventeen years. I felt fortunate that a) the cancer had been found as early as it had and b) the treatment, drastic as it had been, had been effective.

6. What was the hardest part for you as a breast cancer patient?
I had felt that things were wrong/out of sync; I wanted things to be ‘normal’ again. At the time, this meant ‘BACK to normal’ in my frame of mind. There was, however, no ‘back to normal,’ but I learned that there can be a new sense of what is normal.

7. How did you cope emotionally during the experience?
My faith, my family, and my friends all helped in coping. It seemed as though everywhere I turned there were people who were willing to share their own stories of finding their way through this maze. The mutual sharing led to deeper friendships.

8. How has breast cancer affected your outlook on life?
This experience, as well as other tragedies I have experienced, has underscored the fact that we have no guarantee of side-stepping negative things that may happen. We can, however, be assured we do not walk through them alone.

9. What advice would you like to give to women who are currently fighting breast cancer or have been recently diagnosed?
To all women, I would first remind them to get regular mammograms. It is an easy thing to put off, but it is the only way to find cancer early when it can be handled most effectively. Second, if they do have had a breast cancer diagnosis, I would advise finding out as much as possible about all the options that are available. New and better treatments are being developed all the time. And last, women should be proactive in helping decide which treatment is best for them; one size does not fit all.

10. Is there anything you’ve done to help raise awareness about breast cancer?
Since my experiences with cancer, I have taken part in several Race for the Cure runs/walks. Just attending one of these is a staggering visual reminder of the number of women who are battling this disease or who have been touched by it in the past. But sometimes I think that the most important thing that survivors can do is be open to talk about their experience. Whether it is talking with those who are presently facing their own battles or whether it is just talking with oneís own family members about the importance of annual check ups, any discussion that raises breast cancer awareness is helpful. The disease is pretty non-discriminatory, and I would encourage any discussion that promotes a greater understanding of its potential consequences.

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