Navigating Healthcare

By Diane L. Marolla, LICSW

Ann’s Personal Story About Her Journey With Having Breast Cancer

Every morning when I open my eyes after a restful sleep, I turn my bedside lamp on and look at four paintings above my head. A colleague and friend, Ann Walther, painted them. When she painted them for me, I was going through transitions in my life. I was over 50, had recently gotten divorced, and had quit my job in corporate America. Ann asked me what I wanted in my paintings. My answer to her was, paint what you want and to surprise me, but make sure they had the color purple in them. As a result, Ann made me paintings of purple flowers with inspirational quotes on them. The first says, “follow your heart,” the second says, “enjoy every moment,” the third says “smile, sparkle, shine,” and the fourth says “trust your journey.” The paintings help me start my day positive. Her paintings also help me on those days that I question decisions that I make, and they always remind me to stay the course, and to always “smile, sparkle, and shine” no matter what comes at me.

Ann’s talent for painting as well as other creative passions came out after she completed treatment for breast cancer. I was asked to write on this topic, so I reached out to Ann to see if she would share her story. I am honored that she said yes.

Ann grew up like many of us, in a middle class working family. She was born, raised and continues to live in a suburb of Chicago, Illinois. Ann is a nurse. When I was interviewing Ann for this article, I asked her when she decided to become a nurse and she told me she knew in her fourth grade biology class that she would be a nurse someday.

The year was 2014 and Ann was almost 47 years old. She was working as a nurse in an administrative role for a large health insurance company. She was in good health and a vegetarian. She was spending time with her friends, family, and her dogs. Ann started annual mammograms when she was 40 years old but in 2014 when she got her mammogram order she got distracted training for her first 5K run. Ann said she “did not feel a lump and she was feeling good” so she held off in getting it done. However, one day she was in the shower and fainted. Ann had never fainted before and saw her doctor two days later. She told him that she never went for her mammogram and asked him to write the order again. She scheduled her mammogram for a week later. In addition, she completed heart-related tests and she got the “all clear” to continue with her prep for the 5K run.

After her routine mammogram, she received a call to schedule a diagnostic mammogram and ultrasound. Ann was not concerned since she was often called back because of finding fibroadenomas. However, after her diagnostic mammogram and ultrasound was completed she was called into a room and she was told she had “two masses on the left side and one is highly suspicious for malignancy.” In that moment of time, Ann says “all of my knowledge was lost and my mind went blank.” When she left the room, she noticed her Dad was sitting in the waiting area. Despite her saying that she did not need him to come, he showed up anyway. Her first words to him was “they think I have breast cancer” and she started to cry as he hugged her.

Her next step was to have a biopsy where several tissue samples were taken and two days later it was confirmed that Ann had Invasive Ductal Carcinoma. As a nurse, Ann wanted to know everything that was going on with her, so she made sure she had access to all her medical records. “I am a big advocate of people having access and knowing their medical information and I am very glad to be within a hospital system that uses electronic records.”

After the biopsy, is when she was scheduled to meet her Oncologist at Edwards Hospital. An Oncologist is a doctor who treats cancer and provides medical care for a person diagnosed with cancer. Ann chose a lumpectomy versus a mastectomy because her treating Oncologist said the treatment outcomes were the same for her. A week after her surgery, Ann met with her Oncologist to review the surgical pathology report and discuss the next steps in her treatment. It was at that appointment that her breast cancer was staged at 2B Invasive Ductal Carcinoma and she was informed that cancer cells were found in the sentinel lymph node and vast numbers in the lymph tissue. She would need chemotherapy and she would lose her hair within a few weeks after her first treatment. Ann did donate her hair and shaved her head before this would happen. She wore hats and scarves until her hair grew back. Her first chemotherapy was in October 2014 and she had eight rounds of dose dense chemotherapy until January 2015. Her insurance covered all of her treatment. In addition, Ann worked with a Nurse Case Manager through her insurance company who advised and coached her during her treatment and she found this very beneficial.

After four months of chemotherapy, she then had thirty-three rounds of radiation. By the time her radiation treatments were completed, it was April 2015 and she was exhausted. She then started Tamoxifen, which is a hormone therapy drug used to reduce the risk of cancer coming back. She had been on the Tamoxifen single daily dose for two weeks and she became depressed with thoughts of suicide. Immediately she outreached a friend for support and notified her Oncologist who instructed her to stop the medication and make an appointment with him. She did some research and noted some women do better if they split the daily dose and her doctor agreed. Ann is doing well taking Tamoxifen twice per day and she will be on it for another two years.

Ann is grateful her cancer is gone and she is feeling well. She has five journals documenting her cancer experience and when she looks back, she can see how her life has changed since treatment. It was during recovery from her last chemotherapy that she had the thought to make candles. She never made a candle before but she followed through and later started making soap. Last year she was encouraged to paint and she paints flowers with inspirational sayings. Earlier this year she started Simply Ann’s Lavender and she sells her candles, soaps, and paintings. She says she is “following her heart” and her life is “peaceful.” Someday she hopes to be able to do more in holistic nursing and work with cancer patients. She has been inspired in her own journey and she would like to help others. Her advice is very much like mine “live in the life you have now.”