FU­TURE IM­PER­FECT

Canadian Living - - Advertisement - BY JILL BUCHNER & STACY LEE KONG

Breast can­cer sur­vival is on the rise, but be­com­ing can­cer-free brings its own set of chal­lenges

Breast can­cer sur­vival rates are on the rise. But life af­ter a di­ag­no­sis is still tough, and not just on your body—your re­la­tion­ships, men­tal health and body im­age can suf­fer, too. Here’s how two women are re­build­ing their lives.

WHEN JOANNA, WHO ASKED US

not to use her last name, thinks back on her 20s, they’re di­vided into two dis­tinct eras: Be­fore and Af­ter. Be­fore, she was liv­ing in a Van­cou­ver apart­ment with her boyfriend, pre­par­ing to take the exam that would earn her a cer­ti­fied hu­man re­sources pro­fes­sional des­ig­na­tion and get­ting ready to launch her ca­reer. Then, she found a lump in her breast, and she was ir­re­vo­ca­bly pushed into Af­ter.

“I truth­fully don’t re­mem­ber what I was do­ing when I felt it,” says Joanna. “I didn’t even sus­pect it might be can­cer; I was 26 and I had no fam­ily his­tory, so I didn’t have the im­pres­sion that there was con­cern for my health. I just wanted to un­der­stand why there was a lump and how I could have it re­moved.”

When she went to the doc­tor, there was noth­ing to in­di­cate she was wrong. Point­ing to Joanna’s age, her doc­tor said the lump was al­most cer­tainly a cyst. (Ac­cord­ing to the Cana­dian Breast Can­cer Foun­da­tion, 82 per­cent of new breast can­cer di­ag­noses hap­pen in women 50 or older.) While ini­tially re­lieved, Joanna wanted to be ab­so­lutely sure, so she asked for a mam­mo­gram. Doc­tors be­lieve the pos­si­ble risks of the pro­ce­dure (such as ra­di­a­tion ex­po­sure or un­nec­es­sary biop­sies) usu­ally out­weigh the pos­si­ble ben­e­fits, so they don’t tend to OK mam­mo­grams for women un­der 40 who don’t have any risk fac­tors. But, af­ter con­vinc­ing, her doc­tor even­tu­ally re­lented, and Joanna had a mam­mo­gram on Christ­mas Eve. When the re­sults came back neg­a­tive, a weight was lifted. “I thought it was just a cyst, but I wanted some­one to op­er­ate on it, to get it out,” she says.

Her doc­tor didn’t think surgery was nec­es­sary, but Joanna kept push­ing for one. Fi­nally, af­ter four months of back-and-forth, Joanna per­suaded him to re­fer her to a breast can­cer spe­cial­ist, who was wor­ried enough to ex­pe­dite a biopsy. That’s when Joanna found out it wasn’t a cyst, af­ter all. She had Her2-pos­i­tive in­va­sive duc­tal car­ci­noma.

The most re­cent stats say 25,000 Cana­dian women are di­ag­nosed with breast can­cer ev­ery year, but mil­lions of dol­lars in re­search fund­ing, im­proved screen­ing meth­ods and aware­ness cam­paigns have led to a steady rise in sur­vival rates since the 1980s. Though breast can­cer re­mains one of the most com­mon can­cers among Cana­dian women, it’s also one of the most sur­viv­able: To­day, the five-year sur­vival rate is 88 per­cent.

Now 33, Joanna fin­ished treat­ment—a bi­lat­eral mas­tec­tomy, chemo­ther­apy and ra­di­a­tion—five years ago. Af­ter her last ra­di­a­tion ap­point­ment, she and her boyfriend trav­elled to Ice­land to cel­e­brate and, when he pro­posed, shifted their fo­cus to the fu­ture. “The trip sig­ni­fied a fresh chap­ter, one where I wouldn’t be de­fined by be­ing a can­cer pa­tient,” says Joanna. But re­turn­ing to nor­mal wasn’t easy. “I felt re­lieved to be fin­ished with chemo, ra­di­a­tion and surgery, but I also suf­fered from anx­i­ety and de­pres­sion,” she says. In fact, fam­ily and friends might not re­al­ize just how dif­fi­cult life as a breast can­cer sur­vivor can be; for many women, emo­tional up­heaval, body im­age is­sues and un­cer­tainty about the fu­ture linger well af­ter treat­ment is over.

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