Battling the beast in our breasts
In honor of Breast Cancer Awareness Month this October,Dana DuGan reveals the life-affirming stories behind four womenís struggles with the disease. Photos by Kirsten Shultz.
When cancer strikes, any kind of cancer, it is death knocking on the door. It changes your life. It becomes all about survival.
Thankfully, helping hands exist. In the Wood River Valley, Expedition Inspiration for Breast Cancer Research, a Ketchum-based nonprofit, brings some of the most renowned researchers and oncologists from across the country to meet in Sun Valley each spring. The event includes a public symposium at which people can pose questions to the experts. Awareness is also advanced by such promotions as National Breast Cancer Month, observed each October.
In the United States, breast cancer is diagnosed in more than 200,000 women annually. In their search for its cause, researchers have focused on a number of variables including environmental factors, diet, exercise, age of first menstrual period, age at childbirth, breast feeding, smoking, family history and age at menopause.
Despite the increasing beneficial research, being an advocate for oneís health is still the best form of preventative medicine. Pap smears, which can detect ovarian and cervical cancer, become a yearly necessity for women of, and over, child-bearing years. As a woman reaches 40, an annual mammogram should be a required chore, just as renewing insurance and changing batteries in the smoke detector is.
According to the U.S. Census, in 2005 roughly a quarter of the 21,000 residents of Blaine County were women over the age of 18. According to the Idaho Hospital Association, 15 breast cancer diagnoses were made that year in Blaine County. Put another way, approximately three out of every 1,000 women in the county were diagnosed with breast cancer in 2005.
St. Lukeís Wood River Medical Center provides 1,800 to 2,000 mammograms per year. In 2008, the hospital will provide digital mammography, with an expectation of more early cancer diagnoses.
Each womanís experience with the disease is different. Yet similar strains of hope and life affirmation run through their stories. Being a breast cancer survivor is a club one doesnít want to join, but as survivor and Ketchum resident Renata Beguin put it, "Itís helped me remember to be grateful every day, to be thankful for my totally blessed life and look for the grace in everything."
As the millennium began, Prue Hemmings, art director, mother and, at the time, businesswoman, was diagnosed with Stage II metastatic breast cancer. She was 52, a prime age for a woman to contract breast cancer.
"I hadnít had a mammogram for 10 years," she said. "I had no insurance at the time and I saw something in the paper about a free mammogram and a nurse found it. I was going through a divorce and didnít have much money. I hadnít been feeling well, sort of a low-grade illness. I was working very, very hard.
"I donít know what caused it, but I had a cyst on my breast after William (her youngest of four children) was born," continued Hemmings. "We (she and her ex-husband, the late British actor David Hemmings) were filming in Tunisia. I was on antibiotics and had to stop breast-feeding. That may have caused a weakness in that milk duct. The tumor was in that exact spot."
Fortunately, her tumor, which had spread into her lymph nodes, was slow-growing.
"They told me I had to have chemo and radiation. I have four children, and I wanted the best possible chance to survive. I needed it out that week. I had a partial mastectomy in California, and I had chemo in Twin Falls every three weeks while still working at Thatís Entertainment (a Ketchum party rental business). That was followed by seven weeks of radiation. I wore wigs for a while, but finally said, ĎOh, the hell with it.í
"After my treatment, I told my partner in Thatís Entertainment, Janet (Fleming), that my values had changed. The pressure was too much, so I gave up my job. I was re-evaluating my life and didnít want to work every day. I wanted to see my children, to read and write. I made a list of things I wanted to do in my life.
"Just making money was not what I wanted to be doing. I wanted to work every day for something fulfilling that validates my life, which is why I am now working for a nonprofit (Ketchumís nexStage Theatre). I wanted to make sure my kids got through college, and they have, amazingly.
"I wanted to be financially secure again and buy a house; and I did. I bought a house in Fairfield, and I commute. It was just because of the positiveness of the whole thing. What changed was my whole perception. I was just more aware of my true value and started enjoying myself. Cancer doesnít diminish your lifeóit aligns you more correctly in your life.
"I feel very confident now. Iím one year cancer-free. Thatís huge. Itís such a blessing. Such a feeling to know Iíll be here to enjoy the rest of this incredible life. It sharpens your ability to enjoy things. Itís amazing how much I can enjoy waking up to birds singing. I love my life. Itís brilliant."
In 1999, when Carol Tessierís
young son Connor was still crawling, she found a lump in her breast. At
age 36, sheíd yet to have a mammogram. Shortly thereafter, she was
diagnosed with breast cancer.
"First, I felt shock," Tessier said. "Second of all, I had a small child. I had to do everything I could. He was only a year old. I went right into survival mode."
A lumpectomy, two rounds of chemotherapy and seven weeks of radiation in Twin Falls followed, ending in spring 2000. Not long after, Tessierís marriage also ended. "Itís really tough on the husbands," she said. "It changes the relationship dynamics. Youíre thinking of surviving. Itís way bigger."
Fortunately, Tessier had a good job managing The Galleria in Ketchum, where she was not only needed, but cherished. "I had the most awesome friends and employersóI never drove myself to Twin. Someone drove me every day, five days a week."
But, because her surgical scars didnít heal properly, the journey continued and the fear remained. "It hurt, so I kept after the doctors. Finally, Dr. Alice Police realized it needed to be re-excised. It was done three separate times and each time proved to be scar tissue.
"You are your only advocate," she continued. "Doctors donít have time. Thatís not their job. If you have a feeling somethingís wrong, you need to go with your gut. You need to keep on it."
More than anything, Tessierís cancer clarified issues in her life.
"I have the best friends. Iím much healthier. I exercise a lot, and I make better life choices. I donít live the disease. I donít want to, and Iím not going there again."
As for her diet, she said she eats lean proteins, vegetables and no wheat. She exercises regularly and can be found at the gym every day of the week. "I try to lower my stress. Thatís my focus."
In November, she will participate in the 60-mile, Susan B. Komen Breast Cancer 3-Day Walk in San Diego. In order to simplify her life, Tessier also recently opened her own business in Ketchum, Carolís Bookkeeping. Her cozy office is sunny and plant-filled, a place thatís quiet and, yes, stress free.
Bellevue resident Karen Rossi
was 42, and the mother of two young children, when she found a hard,
pea-sized lump in her left breast.
"It was a small tumor," she said. "I had my yearly mammogram in October 1998; in January I went to Dr. Kathryn Woods for a check up. And in May I found the lump. Thatís how fast it was."
Dr. Alice Police, who now works in California, did the lumpectomy at the former Moritz Hospital in Sun Valley. Based on several recommendations from doctors, in and out of state, Rossi opted for radiation only. For five years following, she took the estrogen-blocking drug tamoxifen. Nine years later, Rossi is the picture of health: fit, busy and happy. Sheís never had a recurrence and said she barely thinks about it.
When Dr. Police told Karen her about her diagnosis, her reaction was, "I have a four- and a six-year-old. I canít have cancer."
Tracing the genetic source of her cancer was difficult. "I have no family history," she said. "I tell my daughter, ĎWe donít have a family tree. Weíre a limb.í" Her late mother had always refused to speak about her past to Karen.
She said her now-former husbandfound the situation difficult. "He was scared he would lose the mother of his childrenĖcommunication was a factor."
But she never let the
situation depress her.
After her surgery, Rossi made a daily trip to Magic Valley Regional Medical Center 70 miles away in Twin Falls for "one minute on the table for radiation," she said with a laugh. "I was the oncology departmentís poster child. They said they wished everyone did as well as I did."
A hairstylist, Rossi worked every morning and quit at noon to drive to Twin Falls. "Sure, I was tired," she said. "I was scared to death at first, but I didnít let it get me down. I entertained (the oncology nurses), but thatís my nature.
"My cancer is in my past; it really is. I still have my breasts, my hair and my period," she said with a laugh. "Itís been a pretty simple go of it. Where we live makes such a difference. People are in shape. Theyíre fit. If youíre not healthy to begin with, itís harder to recover from this. The other day in my salon, there were four women, and we were all survivors. Thereís an overall awareness here, and itís easier to get help."
Shelley Kuder, 50, has lived
in the Wood River Valley since 1975. Unlike most people hereabouts,
sheís next to a native, having been born and raised in Jerome. Her
father was a logger in Stanley, and her mother lived in Jerome with her
eight brothers and sisters. Ketchum was their meeting place.
Last summer, Kuder felt a lump the size of a quarter and thought, "Something is going on here." She called a doctor in Boise, who could not see her for two weeks, and even then would only do a consultation at that time.
"I wanted it out, so I called Dr. Ralph Campanale at St. Lukeís Wood River Medical Center. He removed it two days later right there in his office. It was triple negative metastasized breast cancer. It couldnít be treated with hormone therapy such as tamoxifen. Two weeks later, Campanale removed lymph nodes and the sentinel node that proved free of cancerous cells."
Kuder, who is a single mother to one son, Sam, was determined not to submit herself to chemotherapy or radiation. So, she found an alternative treatment center nearby, with naturopath Harold Klassen, who runs a biomechanics clinic in Aberdeen, Idaho ("of all places," said Kuder).
He put her on a strict diet of herbs, minerals, vitamins, chelation and essiac tea. She cut her hair off, which was down to her back, and had it sent to Locks of Love, a program that uses donated hair to make hair pieces for people with cancer.
"I lost 30 pounds and felt great," she said. But at the urging of her family she went to Boise oncologist Dr. Norman Zuckerman. "They call him Storminí Norman. He talked to me about being there for little Sam. He said, ĎWhy not do all threeóalternative, radiation and chemotherapy.í Itís a metastatic disease; you have to do everything you can. You donít know if a little teeny cancer cell got away."
Her family agreed. With Klassenís approval, and the approval to continue her alternative treatment, she began a four-month course of chemotherapy in Meridian, followed by radiation in Twin Falls. She finished her treatment in June.
"I am 99.9 percent convinced that Iím done with it. The chemo wasnít too bad, I think because I was so healthy from the alternative stuff. But I had my chemo days, when you get up and vomit and are tired and donít want to see anyone. I had a lot of help between my family and my church, the Life Church. Sam really came through and helped me; heís very independent."
For Kuder, the hardest aspect of the entire ordeal was dealing with insurance. She is a bookkeeper with her own business and had a healthy-person type of plan through Regence Blue Shield.
"Itís not for people with breast cancer," she said. "Wood River Insurance called me and said I could switch back to my earlier program, which was a better policy. From July to December 2006, I was still on my old plan. But I was racking up doctor bills. There was something like $20,000 that insurance didnít cover. People assume things."
She called her life insurance policyholder and found that they would pay disability because she was unable to work full time.
"Call people. Talk to your insurance company. You have to make sure your insurance will cover things. There were travel costs, food, hotels when I was getting chemo, $120 a week in gas. I did get a donation from the church, but the financial burden is so great. You think, ĎOh my gosh, how am I going to get through this?í Iíve really had to rely on my faith. Iíd get my Bible out and read. It seemed those verses were written for me."
This past summer, a benefit was held for her by friends in the valley to help defray the reminder of her medical bills, which were close to $60,000.
"Itís amazing, once again, how people will offer help," she continued. "Our community has brought forth people that are very caring. Iím grateful to have the friends I have in this valley, to have my son whoís been a trooper, and my church, who I call the prayers of the saints. Thatís what gave me the courage to go on.
"Iím not glad I got breast cancer, but Iím grateful I got to go on this journey. You have to live your life everyday as best you can."