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Navigating the breast cancer journey

Judy Fitzsimmons participated in the Race for the Cure for 12 consecutive years when she lived in Palm Beach County, Florida, and for 12 years she watched with awe as the group of courageous survivors in pink marched together onto the stage for their awards.

The ceremony, she remembers, prompted a “tearful standing ovation” from the spectators.

She never anticipated that one day the applause would be for her.

“Who would?” she says.

Three years ago, Fitzsimmons, who now lives in Ashland, was diagnosed with Stage 2 cancer in her left breast. She endured chemotherapy, underwent a mastectomy and opted for reconstructive surgery.

Friends and family kept her sense of humor intact, and Pat, her husband of nearly 30 years, showered her with unconditional love.

She says she was able to make the year-long trek “one step at a time and one day at a time.”

Carolyn Jost reached a monumental milestone Aug. 22 — it marked the end of a journey that began five years to the date with a diagnosis of breast cancer.

Because the cancer was caught early, Jost says she was never afraid for her life.

“It was a bit of a journey,” she says of going through surgery, chemotherapy and radiation.

“But my outlook was always quite positive. I was never angry, or asked ‘why me?’ Breast cancer is an equal opportunity disease.”

According to statistics from the American Cancer Society, about 1 in 8 women in the United States will develop invasive breast cancer. The chance that a woman will die is about 1 in 37.

The good news is that fewer women are dying from the disease. The decline is believed to be the result of early detection through screening, increased awareness and better treatments.

Each woman’s journey is unique, and one that Fitzsimmons and Jost say they could not have made alone.

More and more women are charting their course with the assistance of an oncology nurse navigator or breast health coordinator.

Kate Newgard, oncology nurse navigator at Providence Medical Center’s Leila J. Eisenstein Breast Center in Medford, calls it giving patients “a concise pathway through the storm of emotions” that often comes with a cancer diagnosis.

It’s about helping patients manage their case “in a practical way when they are not feeling particularly practical.”

Because of the angst associated with the word “cancer,” a navigator will give patients “concrete words with which to have a personal conversation with family and friends about the diagnosis,” says Newgard.

The idea is to communicate to loved ones that when caught early, “breast cancer is very treatable, fairly predictable and more often than not has a positive outcome,” she says.

Breast Friends, a Tigard-based nonprofit, has developed a number of resources and programs to assist patients and offer friends and family specific ways to support and understand what their loved one is experiencing. Tip sheets for spouses, caregivers, teens and young children are available, as is one-on-one telephone counseling for patients.

Allison Hancock, a cancer survivor and volunteer coordinator at Breast Friends, says it’s important that a woman share her story, get her questions answered and make sure she has all “the right information.”

“Some go through (the cancer) alone, they are very private,” she says. “But they should be upfront with family, friends and employers. And they should ask questions, questions, questions” when communicating with their medical team.

She also tells women “it’s OK” to allow others to help with meals, child care or housekeeping.

“If friends want to help, don’t rob them of the gift they want to give.”

Fitzsimmons says family, friends and co-workers — some who had been through a similar experience — embraced her. And the same group “sustained” her husband, who was by her side at every appointment, chemo session and “at the wig bank to help me choose my new hair.”

“He stayed home with me every evening when my immune system was too low to go out … which was new for us, as we had been known as the ‘event people.’ ”

Jost appreciates the efforts of her medical team in Sacramento, California, where she began treatment, and grateful for the support of family and friends that continued after her move to Ashland.

Her son Andy, then 21, shaved his head bald in support of his mother losing her hair.

“(Breast cancer) can be a scary proposition,” she says, “and you feel alone, even if you are not alone.”

Jost stresses the importance of “hooking up” with a support group whose members have similar fears and are experiencing similar physical issues.

While many women find solace in support groups such as Reach to Recovery, she experienced “healing encounters with horses” at Riding Beyond — an Ashland-based program for breast cancer survivors and their caregivers.

Trish Boersma, founder and director of Riding Beyond, developed the program to help women heal after treatment. Many, she says, suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder from the lingering physical, emotional and spiritual side effects.

Jost says it was important for her “to do whatever it took to nurture” her body and spirit. She wanted to thrive beyond the cancer.

The “energetic connection” between her and the horse helped revitalize her physical and emotional well-being. Riding the horse stimulated nerves and muscles and strengthened and improved her balance.

In addition to bonding with the horse, she bonded with other women, too. She now volunteers with the program.

Fitzsimmons chose a different route.

With the approval of her oncologist, she enlisted a “collaborative team” who administered acupuncture treatments and massage therapy, gave advice on nutrition, and helped her focus on mental and spiritual heath through ancient healing arts.

Fitzsimmons says she prefers natural treatments for most situations, but her diagnosis forced her to first seek traditional medical attention. She says the collaborative healing modes allowed her body to go through the process.

Acupuncture and massage are antidotes to the fever, nausea, fatigue and general pain often associated with chemotherapy and radiation treatments.

Acupuncture is effective in treating general neuropathy — nerve damage that may have been caused by tumors or certain cancer therapy drugs, says Teresa Bresnan, a licensed acupuncturist and director of the Acupuncture and Natural Health Center in Medford.

Post-treatment, acupuncture can help a patient regain her health “by bringing her body back into balance and harmony,” says Bresnan.

Massage can help alleviate neuropathy in toes and fingers as well soothe bone pain and assist with sleep deprivation, says Gail Bailey, an oncology massage therapist at Providence Cancer Care Center and  executive director of the Oncology Massage Alliance.

Massage is also beneficial in addressing the emotional turmoil.

“When a patient is told she has cancer, all kinds of emotions come up,” says Bailey. “The human touch aspect soothes the soul. And prior to a chemo session or radiation treatment it can help reduce anxiety and stress that only cause further damage to the body.”

Reiki, yoga, meditation, tai chi, deep breathing exercises or guided imagery are also used to combat side effects, such as nausea, fatigue and pain, and alleviate stress. Yoga can help build core muscle strength.

“Your body is going to be attacked,” says Bailey. “It’s important to be able to fight back.”

Newgard conducts wellness classes for Providence oncology patients and leads a walking group. Cardiovascular exercise such as walking and swimming and paying attention to nutrition “will aid the recovery process and diminish the chance of reoccurrence,” she says.

Fitzsimmons, a three-year survivor, and Jost, a five-year, are grateful to be in a position to encourage others on the journey.

“That in itself is a gift,” says Fitzsimmons.

Carolyn Jost, left, Trish Broersma and Rosa Lee Maple, share a moment with Mystic Moon at Riding Beyond in Ashland. [Mail Tribune / Jamie Lusch]
Judy and Pat Fitzsimmons of Ashland.