Cancer reflections: Part 2: Let’s remove any remaining stigma

By Maria Saporta

After nearly a month of radiation treatments five days a week, I’m happy to say that today (Monday) was my last day.

It is one more step along the way towards my recovery from breast cancer.

When I wrote my first column about having breast cancer, I promised I would keep folks informed at key steps along the way, The response I received from that column was overwhelming, inspiring and heartfelt.

So first, I want to thank all of you who have sent over messages of support – whether it was emails, texts, phone calls, flowers, visits and even cookies. It certainly felt the love and support, and it made the tough days easier to handle.

radiation machine

As I finished my radiation treatment at Piedmont West this morning, I took a picture of the machine that’s been zapping me for the past month. Modern medicine never ceases to amaze me (Photo by Maria Saporta)

A brief recap. I was diagnosed with breast cancer in October. It was a relatively small lump, but it had spread to at least one lymph node. I had a lumpectomy and 11 lymph nodes removed, of which two were positive. Because my breast cancer was not that aggressive, my breast surgeon, William Barber, advised me to have an Oncotype DX test to see if I would benefit from having chemo. The genetic test, which my insurance ending up covering, showed that chemo would not decrease my chances of recurrence.

My oncologist, Perry Ballard, agreed that conclusion. Then my radiation oncologist, Adam Nowlan, told me I could do a shorter course of radiation – 20 days instead of 33 – and have a similar outcome.

So I feel as though I have gotten off easy – especially when I hear of all the tremendous challenges the sisterhood has to go through with months of chemo and more than six weeks of radiation. The next step with will be to meet with my oncologist to determine what hormone blocker I will take for the next five years.

Because I decided a couple of months ago to go public and write about my experiences, I was fortunate to hear from dozens if not hundreds of women who have had their own experiences with breast cancer as well as men who either had it themselves or lived through it with a loved one.

A couple of thoughts. First, every case is different. And listening to people’s stories, I found that everyone has to make a personal decision about how to respond to their particular cancer diagnosis.

Every story I heard actually made me feel optimistic about the whole process and the future of cancer treatment. So many women who were treated more aggressively 10 or 15 years ago are models of strength and survival.

radiation machine

Radiation therapist Kelly opened one of the panels to show the intricate technology and wiring that goes into the radiation machine.I feel fortunate to have received such great care from the entire medical team at Piedmont (Photo by Maria Saporta)

Although women are still dying of breast cancer, my anecdotal evidence is that they are in the minority – and if we continue to practice early diagnosis and state-of-the-art treatment – we will see that percentage continue to decrease.

The most distressing conversations I had, however, were with women – several of them friends of mine – who had hidden the fact that they had breast cancer. Most told me it was for professional reasons. They didn’t want people to view them differently or think they were unable to meet their work obligations during treatment.

Whether we want to acknowledge it or not, a stigma does exist whenever someone is going through a medical challenge.

But if we can tell people in our world what we’re going through and then prove that we are still capable of functioning and performing during our treatment, can we help remove that stigma?

Can’t we accept that we are only human? We do get sick – be it cancer or heart disease or mental illness or any of the other health issues that are part of life’s journey. Once we understand it is normal to not always be normal, then we can be more accepting of each other.

Most importantly, we can be more open, we also can better support each other when the need is there – whether it’s doing the simple daily chores or making sure people are getting the treatment they need.

And I have been blessed by having so many friends and family members offer their help. Because I’ve had it so easy, I really haven’t needed to call on folks that often. But it’s been so reassuring to know that if I needed help, there were so many people willing to offer that helping hand.

Lastly, I have noticed that I’ve had less energy these past few weeks as I’ve been undergoing radiation. I’m told that is to be expected and that I should be getting back to my normal self in the next several weeks.

When I was complaining about feeling tired, my best friend, Francie – a nurse and a healing soul, told me to just accept what my body was telling me. She encouraged me to rest and let my body recover.

As you see, I am one of the lucky ones. My experience with cancer so far has opened my eyes the good that is all around us.

Maria Saporta, Editor, is a longtime Atlanta business, civic and urban affairs journalist with a deep knowledge of our city, our region and state.  Since 2008, she has written a weekly column and news stories for the Atlanta Business Chronicle. Prior to that, she spent 27 years with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, becoming its business columnist in 1991. Maria received her Master’s degree in urban studies from Georgia State and her Bachelor’s degree in journalism from Boston University. Maria was born in Atlanta to European parents and has two young adult children.

29 replies
  1. GabyPerez says:

    I am happy your treatment is going well. I have one thing I would like to disagree with and that is that is 1 in 5, or 20% still dying of breast cancer. This is not a small minority. It is the same number that was dying from breast cancer 30 years ago: 20% of those diagnosed.  They want us to think it is a small minority because metastatic patients don’t not get any press or any coverage from the organizations like Komen. Because this saddens the happy message they want us to hear. 40,000 American women will die this year of breast cancer. same number as in 1972.Report

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  2. GabyPerez says:

    Also early diagnosis actually does not help if you have the type of breast cancer that comes back and spreads. If you have that type, early detection won’t save you. There are so many different types of breast cancer that behave in different ways. One size fits all is not true like in some cancers which are progressive and progress 1-2-3-4- breast cancer does not!!!. Most metastatic patients were diagnosed at stage 1 or 2. Breast cancer is not progressive. It depends so much on which TYPE you have. 65% of breast cancers would never kill you even with NO treatment, the tumors would get larger, but they would never spread, which is how you die from it. Early diagnosis and treatment is not the answer to lessening deaths from breast cancer. We need to research which types will spread and recur, how to recognize if you have that type that is going to spread no matter how early you find it. Science still can’t tell those types of cancers apart from the types that are basically not going to ever spread. They have NO idea! 
    Anecdotal evidence  to you seems like a small number dying because while you are in treatment, no one is going to relay to you a story about how they died or their friends that didn’t make it, you are only going to hear positive stories. It bothers me the message “early detection saves lives” because it just is not true Scientific evidence does not bear this out as the same percentage is still dying after all the money spent on early detection, still 20% still 40,000 American women every single year.Report

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  3. Julie Davis Salisbury says:

    So happy to that you are sharing your journey. Genetic testing is really changing the face of cancer treatment AND outcomes. I’m so glad it shifted your course of treatment in a positive direciton!Report

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  4. Beverly Molander says:

    Maria — Thanks so much for sharing your experience with us.  It would be helpful to us, down the line, for you to share something like “what to say and what not to say to someone who (has been diagnosed, is going through treatment).  That will be of service many — especially the receiver and the giver of the comments. Love and best to you, BeverlyReport

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  5. Patty Durand says:

    Congratulations on getting state of the art treatment. I didn’t realize that genetic testing was already making a difference in treatment options. It is GREAT to read that. Thank you for sharing, and congratulations on both finishing treatment and on having a type of cancer that meant you could bypass chemo. 

    One of the things that needs to happen to drive breast cancer rates down, in my opinion, is the public misperception that if a chemical is dangerous, it is regulated. Under the 1976 Toxic Sub­stances Control Act, the E.P.A. can test chemicals only when it has been provided evidence of harm. “This arrangement, which largely allows chemical companies to regulate themselves, is the reason that the E.P.A. has restricted only five chemicals, out of tens of thousands on the market, in the last 40 years.” – excerpt from NYT magazine article titled “http://www.nytimes.com/2016/01/10/magazine/the-lawyer-who-became-duponts-worst-nightmare.html?smid=fb-share”Report

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  6. JWK says:

    Keep up the good fight! I am glad to hear you are through the radiation. When you are feeling like it, let’s have that coffee date that we talked about before the treatments started. Stay well.Report

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  7. Jim Stanton says:

    Great news Maria! Prayers answered! Congratulations on your victory over this vicious microscopic disease, but stay vigilant! My sister is a two time survivor.Report

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  8. SteveHagen says:

    Here is to hoping the radiation got it!   When I discovered I had prostate cancer I told many people and because of that I ended up talking to many friends of friends some who I did not know, about the their courses of action.   You are right that all cases are different.   I chose 40 days of radiation and it seems I am cancer free after five years………Glad I live now and not 20 years ago…..Report

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  9. John Wolfinger says:

    Congrats Maria on finishing up your radiation treatments.  I can feel for you as to your tiredness, as I had radiation for my prostate cancer, but you will regain your strength as you rest and take it easy.  Don’t worry about needing to take an afternoon nap – this need will pass. I am now cancer-free for two years – so this nasty radiation treatment does work.  A great part of your total cancer treatment program will be your public notification – it helps to let your feelings and fears out.  I did the same thing by letting my community know what I was going thru and it helped me too.  My best wishes for a total recovery and to being cancer-free.Report

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  10. Dave Mc says:

    Thanks for sharing your experience, Maria.  And more importantly, your courage in fighting and beating the greatest enemy we face as a nation…cancer!  Also, greatly appreciate sharing Kelly’s photo. I work at Gwinnett Tech College and know first hand how the outstanding technicians and therapists we graduate and place in healthcare sometimes go unrecognized for the tremendous support they provide to patients and families.  Unsung heroes, indeed!Report

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  11. Jean Logan1 says:

    Kudos to you Maria for publishing your experience.  I was diagnosed in February last year, surgery April 1, and completed radiation late July.  Because the tumor was over my heart, they opted for lesser doses over a longer period to avoid long term heart damage.  But the important insight I want to share is this:  I sailed through all the treatment fine, although I did hide my DX from my business colleagues until I had no choice because I couldn’t meet deadlines.  However, about three months after radiation ended, I experienced serious depression.  Happily, I recognized it quickly and asked my MD to put me back on an anti-depressant I had used successfully 20 years ago.  Also, I finally began going to the breast cancer support group on Tuesday nights at6 pm at DeKalb Medical Center.  It’s open to survivors from any hospital.  That group has been wonderful, and I wish I had started long ago.  They told me that depression about 3 – 6 months after treatment ends is NORMAL!

    Come visit with us some week.  The sisterhood is terrific.  I can give you the contact offline, or you can just call Rose McKeever at 404-501-3739.  This group is 25 years old.Report

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  12. Lynn Rainbow says:

    Thanks for sharing Maria.  Its important for everyone to get checked regularly for not just breast cancer but for all types of cancer.  Everyone needs to be proactive.  I am personally familiar with your oncologist and know you are in great hands.  Only positive thoughts are coming your way.Report

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  13. Obse Ababiya says:

    I did not know Maria. I am so glad you are one of the lucky ones. You are a courageous and wonderful woman. Congratulations and thanks for sharing.Report

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  14. Pam Auchmutey says:

    Hi, Maria,
    I enjoyed reading this column. So glad your treatment has not been as onerous as others and that it’s over-yeah! Take time to rest–that’s the hardest thing to do in this busy, demanding world. But keep writing!—Pam AuchmuteyReport

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  15. Star Lamont says:

    I went to the same practice as you for my surgery almost 4 years ago; to Emory Midtown for radiation. Be sure to ask your surgeon to prescribe physical therapy post radiation. Radiation can be the gift that keeps on giving as my PT told me. I didn’t go soon enough (after 3 years) and am paying the price with soreness that will probably never go away. Exercises help. Piedmont has an excellent out patient PT dept (bldg 77). Gwen is my PT. I highly recommend her.Report

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    • Arwen Fine says:

      Maria, thank you for sharing this piece of your life with me as well as your presence in my life. You are an inspiration to me in so many ways. Also, I would say by being open with folks, you may find a great doctor, nurse, caregiver and cohort (as I have with you.)Report

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