I'm a 15-year breast cancer survivor. It feels really good to say that. I wasn't sure I would make it this long.
I remember looking forward to finishing treatment and getting back to "normal" — whatever that is. My joyful anticipation of being finished with chemotherapy quickly changed to fear when I was told I didn't need to return to the oncologist's office for months.
My care team, with whom I had spent time every week since my diagnosis, was turning me loose to find my new normal; to face my fears of cancer reoccurrence; to answer my own questions about what I could or should be doing to improve my overall health; to deal with my anxieties, depression and guilt; to help me, my husband and then-16-year-old daughter adjust to this next phase of my cancer.
I left the clinic, sat in my car and cried.
October was National Breast Cancer Awareness Month, and it was wonderful to see all the activities, education, awareness, celebration and fundraising. Record numbers of people participated in the Susan G. Komen Wichita Race for the Cure. Events like these help raise awareness of the importance of screening and early diagnosis of breast cancer, and raise money for education and outreach, screening for the uninsured, survivorship services and research.
Because of these efforts, 89 percent of those treated for breast cancer will survive five years, and 82 percent will survive 10 years. That's good news.
I'm a researcher, so when I was diagnosed I went to the scientific literature to try to learn about the multiple short- and long-term side effects of breast cancer and its treatment. Though there wasn't much information back in the mid-'90s, I'm happy to report that's no longer the case:
* The National Cancer Institute established the Office of Cancer Survivorship to provide education for care providers as well as survivors and their families and support research in that area.
* Susan G. Komen for the Cure offers a number of educational resources and programs for breast cancer survivors and their families, including a survivorship guide specifically for African-American women.
* The American Cancer Society has established an online survivorship network.
* Locally, survivors now have options for follow-up screening and care, such as weight management as a result of treatment, fertility preservation, menopause management, psychological counseling for emotional and quality-of-life issues, "chemobrain," body image, sexual and marriage issues related to breast cancer, and both facilitated and unfacilitated support groups.
And most insurance companies reimburse for these services.
It's exciting to see the huge advances the health care and public health communities have made in prevention, early detection, treatment and palliative care for breast cancer, affecting rates of survivorship.
It will be even more exciting for this survivor to see the same level of advances in research, treatment and support of the survivorship stage of breast cancer over the next few years. The impact on quality of life for survivors and their loved ones will be tremendous.