Breast cancer survivors share stories

This article submitted by Molly Connors on 10/15/96.

Arlene Sullivan and Shari Heitke both had surgery on Dec. 20 last year. Their surgeries weren't exactly routine. They were in the final steps of getting rid of breast cancer.

Sullivan, Paynesville, gets a regular physical every year. Following her physical, she gets a mammogram.

Last November at Sullivan's physical, Dr. Julie Youngs told Sullivan that her breast had a "different texture." Sullivan got her regular mammogram, and something was wrong.

She had a second mammogram. This one zeroed in on the questionable area. Sullivan had a one inch by one inch tumor. She had an ultrasound, then a needle biopsy. The biopsy confirmed that Sullivan did have breast cancer.

Youngs scheduled surgery immediately after the cancer was confirmed. Sullivan had a mastectomy two weeks after her original mammogram.

Sullivan is a "firm believer in medical check ups." She felt this way before her cancer was detected. That's why she has mammograms and physicals every year.

Sullivan's doctor felt a slight difference in her breast. The mammogram showed immediately that something was wrong. If Sullivan had not had a mammogram, she would not have detected any abnormalities for six more months through breast self-exams.

During her surgery, Sullivan also had lymph node tissue removed. The surgeon checks the lump that he or she removes and the lymph nodes for cancer. If the tissue is "clean," the doctors know they have gotten all the cancerous tissue, Sullivan said.

The sample tissues from Sullivan's lymph nodes were not clean, so she had six months of chemotherapy. She finished with her chemo last June.

Sullivan didn't have any major problems during chemotherapy. She wasn't even sick, "just tired," she said.

Sullivan kept working through everything. From her first mammogram through her last day of chemo, she "tried to continue on as usual."

"There's no choice," Sullivan, said. "You have to go ahead with the treatment they recommend. I didn't get a second opinion."

In fact, Sullivan said that she would have scheduled her surgery the same day that she was diagnosed with cancer, if it had been possible.

Even after a surgery and six months of chemotherapy, Sullivan isn't quite out of the woods. Her doctors will watch her carefully for the next five years. She'll get regular blood work and bone scans.

"It's always a scare that there's more there ... constant scare (and) worry," Sullivan said.

Sullivan had all of her treatment, with the exception of a bone scan, done at the Paynesville Area Hospital. The hospital staff was "very good, kind and caring," Sullivan said. She was able to schedule most of her treatment around her work schedule, and it was handy for her to have a local health care facility.

Heitke, also of Paynesville, went in for a routine mammogram last year, too. This is is something she's "just done for several years"

The technician found some abnormal calcifications in Heitke's breast.

First, Heitke had a stereotactic probe. This takes a small amount of tissue from a small area of the breast. These results didn't show any cancer.

Heitke's radiologist was concerned, and scheduled an open biopsy anyway. This biopsy took more tissue than the stereotactic one had taken. The results of this test were positive. Heitke had breast cancer.

She scheduled surgery right away. She had surgery the next week, which was about a month after the first test.

"It was a very frightening time. You are in such limbo. There's something serious going on and there's nothing you can do about it," Heitke said.

She told everyone (in her family) right away when she had abnormal mammogram results. Her family was very supportive.

"It was very scary for my kids," said Heitke, a nurse practitioner at the Paynesville Area Health Care System, said. "I"ve always tried to be healthy. I don't think they thought this should be happening to me."

When she was waiting for her various test results, Heitke found that "people were just wonderful. One of the blessings of something like that ... you realize how nice people were," she said.

Heitke talked to a Duluth woman - a "friend of a friend" - who was a breast cancer survivor. The two women talked for an hour on the phone. Heitke still hasn't met her in person.

"She was very helpful to me," Heitke said.

Heitke isn't a person that would have been considered at risk for breast cancer.

Her paternal grandmother had breast cancer. Breast cancer on the paternal side of the family doesn't indicate that women will develop breast cancer. If a sister, mother or aunt had breast cancer, that is a stronger indicator.

She exercises regularly and watches her diet.

"I don't really fit the criteria that well," Heitke said.

Now, when Heitke talks to other women about breast cancer, "the urgency is different." She knows the importance of increased awareness.

The Paynesville Area Hospital offers a cancer support group, but there were no groups especially for breast cancer survivors and patients. After her experience with breast cancer, Heitke started a support group. Sullivan is also part of the group.

For more information about breast cancer or support groups, call the Paynesville Area Hospital, 320-243-3767.

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