One year ago this month, my mom, Nancy Rowe, learned she had breast cancer. She was treated for the disease, which is now in remission, but it was a life-changing event.
According to data from breastcancer.org, one in eight women in the United States will develop invasive breast cancer, and 316,120 new cases of breast cancer in women are expected to be diagnosed this year. The statistics are high, yet few people think it will be them, their mother, grandmother, or sister who will be included in that data.
October is National Breast Cancer Awareness Month, and I’m writing a four-part, weekly column about my mom’s experience with the disease. For this installment, I went to my mom’s survivorship appointment to learn about what the future holds for her after treatments end in December. I also talked with a Seattle Cancer Care Alliance oncologist, who explained how exercise is kind of like the Holy Grail for self-care and reducing the risk of cancer reoccurring.
The years after breast cancer
In July, my mom had her survivorship appointment with an oncologist that gave her a four-page packet of life-after-cancer notes. The first paragraph looks like an equation with her breast cancer type written out in acronyms sandwiched together by mathematical characters. To a regular person, the packet entitled “Breast Cancer Survivorship Note” is partially an undecipherable series of text, but to my mom and her care team, it’s her entire treatment plan and a map of the next 10 years written in 10-point font.
In drafting this series, I think this part is the hardest to write because my mom isn’t there yet. Yes, she’s cancer-free, but she’s still in the midst of treatment with so many unknowns ahead. In the last year, her short-term memory is has gotten fuzzy — known colloquially among cancer patients as “chemo brain” — her eye sight and hearing has faded, and unsurprisingly, she told me she’s felt more depressed and anxious.
The oncologist we met with for the appointment, Dr. Susan Jouflas with Northwest Medical Specialty in Puyallup, said her memory loss could be present for 12 to 18 months following her last chemotherapy treatment in December. Her hearing and eye sight could prevail, but it also might not. It’s common for depression and anxiety to linger, and sometimes people’s intimate lives continue to be affected after treatment ends. She’s been told all the side effects she’s feeling are common. But one thing my mom has heard over and over again is that every person is different and it’s hard to know which symptoms will lift and which will remain.
Jouflas went over expectations and appointment outlines for the next five and 10 years, and my ears perked a little when she said “exercise,” which seems to be the magic ingredient for a healthy life. To help prevent cancer from coming back, she said exercise four times a week and get your heart rate into an aerobic state. Those with a Body Mass Index over 35 percent have a much higher risk of cancer reoccurring, Jouflas said.
So, when I talked to Dr. Julie Gralow, the director of breast cancer oncology at the Seattle Cancer Care Alliance and professor of the oncology division at the University of Washington School of Medicine, I asked her about exercising. She said the U.S. Center for Disease Control officially recommends 150 minutes a week of some sort of aerobic exercise, which could just be a brisk walk, and including resistance training two times a week to increase muscle mass. Those who are able to exercise during their treatment find they feel less fatigued and nauseous, she said
“We all know we should eat healthier, be active, and maintain a good body weight,” she said. “It’s hard to get that incorporated into an America lifestyle. We’re too busy and overworked. We have unhealthy lifestyles. We have to find a way to fit into a normal, everyday life. We all know what we should be doing … It’s not 100 percent guaranteed (to prevent cancer), but if you already have breast cancer it can decrease it coming back. It reduces heart disease and helps the heart, too.”
Gralow said as patients are going through treatment and getting back to their normal schedule once it ends, it’s important to feel like they have some autonomy over their lives. Take charge of the things you can control — eat well, exercise, do things that make you feel better, and get your mammograms. Focus on those things, she said. And seek help in accepting the things you can’t.
My mom is doing well. She just renovated the downstairs of her townhome in Bonney Lake, which I know she’s very excited about. And she has a 7-month-old grandson, Jayden, who is the new light of her life. Just last week she took him to the pumpkin patch at Maris Farms. He wore a little bear hat and she looked so happy holding him.
I wish this series had a satisfying ending, something that rounded out the story with closure, a punctuated chapter that we’re closing. But, life in general, I guess, rarely has that kind of ending. For now, all I can say is that my mom is getting through it. She wasn’t going to let this strangle her physically and emotionally. In a lot of ways, this year was like any other year. And, as I’ve said before, life goes on.