Donna

Donna
Age at interview
65

Donna (65 years old) is a single mother of 3 adult children. She lives alone in an urban setting in a prairie province and works full-time in administration at a community health clinic. She also works for herself as an event planner and aroma therapist.

Donna was diagnosed in 2012 when she was 64. She is single and has 3 adult children. Her breast cancer was a surprise following a regular mammography that she had attended when she had encouraged her sister to accompany her. Although it was very small at first detection, it had grown larger rather quickly during a brief holiday she did not want to miss. She is now back working full-time following about a year of an overwhelming series of treatments, including a lumpectomy, chemotherapy, and radiotherapy. She is now receiving hormone therapy. Donna has used several forms of alternative and complementary therapies, including those from First Nations traditions, which she feels have been very helpful. Her children had encouraged her to seek medical intervention early on in her journey with breast cancer. She has an excellent relationship with her family physician and received her best information from a nurse practitioner who is a friend. She was rather appalled at the lack of information from the outset and the lack of an overall care plan – she recommends that patients get a ‘roadmap’ from healthcare providers from the beginning. Donna is a cheerful, hard-working woman who promotes (and uses) an excellent sense of humour to help cope day to day. She has found that her illness has helped her to face life’s challenges more bravely.

Time since diagnosis
0 -1 year
Phase of treatment
Remission

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Yes since then, and so I really sort of appreciated the time she spent with me. One of the other things I found was, I had told the doctors that I was doing some of these other therapies and they were very adamant that if I was going to do anything like that I needed to check with the department first. And so anything that I was doing, I would phone and say I want to do the vitamin C intravenous and it was "No you can’t do that blah, blah, blah for this reason, that reason and the other reason." And then I would say well there was something else I was taking, I was taking dulse and seaweed, "No you can’t take that." And so it didn’t matter what I consulted with them about they just said no.

Interviewer: Nurses and doctors?

Nurses and doctors. So I found they weren’t open to complementary therapy at all. I know there’s alternative and complementary and so I wanted to combine them as a complementary therapy and they were not open to it at all, even though all of the literature said and all of the statements said that they were open to complementary therapies, I found it wasn’t the case. And unfortunately, I stopped going to my naturopath during the chemotherapy because I trusted that they knew what they were talking about. I found out later that it would have been very helpful for me to continue with the naturopath that it would have supported the journey a lot, made it a lot easier.

The radiation oncologist and the medical oncologist, but it seemed that every time I phoned about something they would say "Oh no that’s not this, it’s got to be something else." So I was experiencing a lot of pain in my collarbone here, and phoned about it and was told that radiation doesn’t cause bone pain, I must have arthritis. And when I met with the osteopath last week, they explained it, no it doesn’t cause bone pain but it causes inflammation in the fascia, which pulls on the bones, which hurts. So I don’t know why I didn’t get that information from the oncology department it would have been helpful. Part of it was feeling that when I would call with something it just felt very dismissive.

 

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So when I met with the medical oncologist he outlined the treatment plan for me, talked to me about a chemotherapy plan and how long it would take and I told him I would think about it and then left it at that. I’m quite into natural medicine and alternative therapies and I wanted to do some investigation that way. I actually started to see a naturopath and started to do vitamin C intravenous and started to take some supplements and with a number of alternative caregivers. My children were quite upset with that and wanted me to do the medical treatment and so we, had a lot of discussions about that, a lot of hard discussions and then I agreed. I said “Okay we would do it.” I thought I didn’t want to leave any stone unturned. I was doing a number of natural treatments and thought it would complement the medical treatment.

 

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I was surprised at how much laughter there can be during this journey. I’ve sort of learned to belly laugh, again like some things are just so ridiculous that you have to laugh and it’s what helps you get through it.

Interviewer: What makes you laugh?

Well just the absurdity of you’re sitting here and all of a sudden your thumbnail goes. I just lost it, just before you came in. It was like "Oh I hope this doesn’t really hurt because I’ll be focused on that." So, we were having quite a laugh about that in the hall while you were setting up. I was in the store one day, I was in the drugstore with my daughter and because I didn’t have any feeling in my fingers I drop things, right. So I got my wallet out and it fell to the floor and I bent over to pick it up and my wig flipped off. And I stood up and just the look on the person’s face that was standing behind me. They were just in shock, it was so those kind of things are very, very funny.

Interviewer: Well it’s wonderful that you can laugh.

Well what are you going to do, right? So it’s just realizing that it’s the reality. It’s the very real situations that you get in and you can cry and feel sorry for yourself if you want and if you do that good for you. You deserve to be able to do that but you know what? You can also laugh about it afterwards because some of it is just absurd. 

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I was in the store one day, I was in the drugstore with my daughter and because I didn’t have any feeling in my fingers I drop things, right. So I got my wallet out and it fell to the floor and I bent over to pick it up and my wig flipped off. And I stood up and just the look on the person’s face that was standing behind me. They were just in shock it was so those kind of things are very, very funny.

Interviewer: Well it’s wonderful that you can laugh.

Well what are you going to do, right? So it’s just realizing that it’s the reality. It’s the very real situations that you get in and you can cry and feel sorry for yourself if you want and if you do that good for you. You deserve to be able to do that but you know what? You can also laugh about it afterwards because some of it is just absurd.

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Five years of Letrozole, which is challenging. It’s giving me hot flashes and they say there’s joint and muscle pain as a possible side-effect but if I phone about it and say that I’m having joint and muscle pain, then they tell me I’ve probably got arthritis; possible osteoporosis and high cholesterol are all possible outcomes. I already have high cholesterol and I talked with my doctor before when they found this out and I had decided not to do medication to deal with it and that I would deal with it through diet and exercise and things like that.  So when the medical oncologist told me that high cholesterol was a possible problem and I said “I already had high cholesterol”, he said, “Well just take medication for it.” And I said, “Well I don’t want to take medication,” and he said, “Well you have to.” So it’s just, they’re so entrenched in the medical model that it becomes a challenge.

 

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I thought, oh! I hope I didn’t kind of rule my mom’s life this way too at the end of her life. It was a shift in roles. We did a lot of healing together though, it was because we spent so much time together, it became more than just visiting. You know it’s not like one of the kids would drop in and visit for a couple of hours they were there 24/7 and so, you sort of lose a lot of your barriers. You don’t feel like you have to engage in conversation, you could be quiet together, I could be sick and not worry about it.

Interviewer: So your role and the nature of the relationships really changed?

They did change. With a lot... With a number of my friends, I had a lot of support. I have an inner circle of women that we’ve been on a spiritual journey together for 15 years. They were just in and out of my life as if nothing had changed. I didn’t have to worry if they came in and I was asleep they would just come in and do what they had to do and leave. They’d drop food off or do my laundry or those kinds of things. It would have mortified me before to have people doing those sort of things for me. So there was a lot of deepening of relationships. I realized just how supportive my network is and I appreciated it. Part of it was having to learn to receive as well, so it was a challenge. I didn’t want to feel like I was obligated and then to realize it didn’t create obligation, it’s a two-way street. I mean, I’m used to being the one who gives emotional support and gives whatever a person needs, so realizing that somebody’s got to be willing to receive or else you can’t give. So it was just seeing the other side of that.

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It’s been good to come to work not just for the work, it’s a social support for me as well. It’s been very supportive here. Some of the people I work with are very dear to my heart so I think what happened for me is my heart cracked wide open with this. It was sort of an opportunity to either open up or to shut down. That’s one of the gifts I think of the breast cancer. I tend to have a stoic personality, I’ve been told. And there was just no room for that. There was no room for that at all. There was no room for stoism with this. At times it was helpful to be able to just sort of buck up and deal with what I was going through but there was lots of opportunity to be really open-hearted and to talk about what was going on, for me and to be emotional. And it also helped that other people had the same opportunity.

I’m always in charge, I’m always in control. If there’s a crisis I kind of deal with it. And I just see, I had to back off from all of that because I couldn’t deal with it and then and life goes on. So a number of things came up while I was sick and I just couldn’t deal with them somebody else had to do it. It was sort of like giving up the reins.

So there was a lot of deepening of relationships. I realized just how supportive my network is and I appreciated it. Part of it was having to learn to receive as well so it was a challenge. I didn’t want to feel I was obligated and then to realize it didn’t create obligation it was it’s a two-way street. You can’t, I’m used to being the one who gives emotional support and gives whatever a person needs, so realizing that somebody’s got to be willing to receive or else you can’t give. So it was just seeing the other side of that.

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By that time I had thought, I’m pulling in some of my alternative care, so for skin care I made all of my own blends. I made all my own moisturizers and I used essential oils and did healing work. I went to a number of providers and did healing work. I went to my naturopath and did vitamin C intravenous and I also did, I’ll probably get it wrong, I’ll just say ALAs (alpha linoleic acid) which helps with nerve damage and I’m trying to think if there was anything else. And mistletoe I did mistletoe. So I did all of those therapies along with the radiation. So I ended up with some burning on my skin but no blistering and I have inflammation in the fascia now, which I’m going to work with an osteopath to heal and so the radiation wasn’t as difficult as I thought it would be and I was pleased with that. And the radiation technologists were great so the staff was great.

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It has absolutely affected who I am. I realized that one of the things is that I was a vegetarian for 25 years. I eat organic food, I do the 100-mile diet, I meditate, I work with essential oils, and I thought I was really healthy. I thought I was really doing good and that I was doing all the things I needed (to do), maybe not all the things I needed but I thought I was doing better. I thought I was good and then I realized that it didn’t matter. And then part of it is, I thought, “Well, why would I think that I was the exception to the rule?” Why would I think that? I guess I thought it must have been something I did or something I didn’t do. That was the reason why I ended up with breast cancer. I thought, “Well what did I do wrong?” or “What did I miss?” or “Why did I think that somebody else has done something wrong and they would get breast cancer and I wouldn’t?” And so, it was realizing that there was nothing. I wasn’t any different than anybody else. My odds of getting breast cancer were no different than your odds or my sister’s odds or my neighbour’s odds. It’s something that happens to us. It’s a result of who knows what? Is it environmental? Is it dietary? We don’t know. We don’t know what it is but it’s just realizing that there’s nothing special about me.

Text transcripts

The first time I had surgery to remove the lump in my breast they also did a sentinel node removal. I am sure you are aware that you have to go to nuclear medicine and have a wire inserted and isotopes injected so that they can identify the sentinel node and remove it. My nodes came back clear; which was a relief. I had to have a second surgery however, to get clear margins. They had not taken enough tissue out the first time.