Niles woman participated in Relay as a cancer survivor
WARREN — Connie Brandt said her first thought when diagnosed with breast cancer was that she had no time for such distractions. She had a son to get through high school.
Then she realized she could die.
“My second thought was, ‘I need some air,'” the Niles woman said. “I felt like I got hit by a bus.”
She was diagnosed with high-grade ductal carcinoma after her annual mammogram in December 2016.
“It ruined Christmas,” the mother of three said. “You know how you go out for those after-Christmas sales, like on wrapping paper and things? I was like, ‘Do I buy these? What if I’m not here next year?’
“You think you’re going to die. You don’t realize — that fear — what it does to your head.”
What saved her life was preventive care. Brandt believed in regular mammograms and cancer screenings. Her cancer was caught so early that it was eradicated when general surgeon Dr. Patrick Patchen removed half of her right breast and scraped the bone, she said.
“She had the earliest stage,” radiation oncologist Dr. Roger Tokars said. “These are people that are highly curable. We just take the lesion and remove it.”
Self-examination is important, but once a person can feel the tumor, the disease is more advanced, Tokars said. By that time, it could have been growing for eight or nine years.
“I know cancer is a very scary experience,” he said. “But in the early stages, I wish patients wouldn’t be so afraid because the treatments we have can cure it.”
Treatments depend on the stage in which cancer is caught.
Radiation therapy is used when the cancer hasn’t had time to spread. Radiation zeroes in on only the cancer site and destroys cancer cells.
Chemotherapy goes after cells that escaped from the target site.
“Generally, patients with more advanced cancer need chemotherapy,” Tokars said. “With early detection, they usually don’t.”
If surgery is needed to remove a tumor or for a mastectomy, doctors use minimally invasive techniques whenever possible, including robotic surgery for greater precision, less scarring and faster recovery. Sometimes, just the lump itself can be removed. Mastectomies are for more advanced cases, Tokars said.
Follow-up care includes regular medical checkups.
Kathryn Martin, the breast health nurse navigator at Trumbull Regional, said, “The earlier we find it, the better we can treat it.”
The “Big Four” of cancers are lung, prostate, colon and breast cancer. “Those are the ones we want to catch at an early stage,” Tokars said. Also, May is Skin Cancer Awareness Month.
Keeping a regular schedule of mammograms, colonoscopies and other screenings for cancers of the skin, lungs and other parts are vital to survival, Martin said. People without insurance can call her at 330-841-1962 to see about qualifying for screenings, or call the Cuyahoga County Community Breast and Cervical Cancer Project, which includes Trumbull County, at 800-443-2168. Mammograms can be conducted locally, she said.
“The newest thing is genetic testing,” Luana Andamasaris, a radiation oncology nurse, said. “You can determine who has the highest risk and get there early.”
Nurse navigators guide patients through the maze.
“Basically, a navigator is your personal nurse,” Martin said. Navigators make sure questions are answered, and cut through the red tape for treatment.
Prepping for the American Cancer Society Relay For Life last weekend in Warren, Brandt said she had been a proponent for preventive care before her own diagnosis. She said she urges anyone who will listen to maintain a schedule of regular cancer screenings. She showed no symptoms nor felt anything amiss before her diagnosis.
She acted as the primary caretaker for her father, who passed away from cancer in 1994. She said her father didn’t go in for any screenings. By the time he was diagnosed, his body was so full of cancer that doctors were unable to tell where it started.
She’s now caretaker for her mother, who is legally blind. She also volunteers at her parish, St. Stephen in Niles, where she teaches classes and is a member of the Catholic Women’s Club. Her son’s in high school, and both daughters are in graduate school, and one is a dietitic intern at Trumbull Regional.
“Because of early prevention, I can sit here today,” she said. “It was the yearly preventive treatment that caught it.”
Staying upbeat despite the fear also is important, health professionals said. Brandt agrees.
“If you do not believe in God before you have cancer, you will after,” she said.
Her faith already was intact before her diagnosis, she said. She leaned heavily on it afterward. She thought about a saying she say on a plaque: “Let your faith be stronger than your fear.”
“I truly believe that I felt God carry me,” she said.
Andamasaris said the attitude carried over to other patients and health care staff.
“While in treatment, she was a positive influence,” Andamasaris said. “She picked up everyone else.”
Brandt said it works the other way as well — when medical professionals take time to know patients, believing is easier. “We were a team. I was a person. I was not a case number,” she said.
Tokars said that cancer will give a person a new perspective on life. “Now you can take on the world. If you can get through this, you can take on the world,” he said.
Brandt said, “For as bad as it was, it was a very positive experience. Now I can help others get through it.
“You never know how strong you are until it’s the only choice you have.”