Lori RountreeThriving After a Breast Cancer Diagnosis

My Diagnosis:
"Shocked doesn't even begin to describe it."

It started out like every other annual mammogram, but this time I got a call telling me that the radiologist saw an "area of concern." I went back to Riverside's Diagnostic Center for some additional mammography pictures which still showed what appeared to be calcifications. The second mammogram was followed by an ultrasound scan and, then, a stereotactic biopsy, a procedure where the biopsy needle is guided by ultrasound or X-rays.

I was nervous about the biopsy and, up to this point, hadn't told my family about the results of my mammogram or ultrasound because I didn't want to worry them needlessly. I really thought that everything would be okay. Based on how the calcifications appeared, the physician felt that the odds of it being benign were good.

A week later I received a call from the Diagnostic Center asking that I make an appointment to discuss the results of my biopsy. They also felt that it would be a good idea for me to bring a family member with me. I arrived at my appointment with my husband Jeff and we were expecting good news. We were wrong.

According to the lab report the tissue sample tested positive for a malignancy. The physician was a little surprised, I think. I was shocked. Actually, "shocked" doesn't even begin to describe it. There was absolutely no history of breast cancer in my family and I never had any symptoms. So getting breast cancer came out of nowhere.

Yvonne PikeDuring this appointment I was introduced to Yvonne Pike, one of the Patient Navigators at Riverside, who lived up to her title in every sense of the word. She explained, in detail, the lab report. She also had reference material to help understand what my road ahead would be like. She was so helpful in providing both Jeff and me with a level of support and comfort. What really made a difference was that she was so sensitive to my fears and was committed to being there when I needed her, for as long as I needed her. She helped get my appointments scheduled, answered many questions and helped guide me through the whole experience. She was even with me up until the point when I was rolled into the operating room. I can't say enough about the kindness and support that she has given me.

My Treatment Experience at Riverside:
"Before long, you realize that you're really not alone."

After talking with my Medical Oncologist, Dr. John Mattern, the same physician who was also my husband's specialist in his successful fight against cancer, I was referred to Dr. Michael Peyser, a Riverside Oncology Surgeon. He was extremely thorough about discussing my breast cancer and possible treatment. His knowledge about breast cancer coupled with genuine sincerity and professionalism, reassured me that I was in good hands. Because my breast cancer was found at an early stage, I had some options and after discussing them with Dr. Peyser and my family and looking at the situation from my own perspective, I decided to have a partial mastectomy and sentinel lymph node removal rather than a more invasive mastectomy.

It is a very personal decision and definitely not an easy one to make. I think anyone who finds herself in the same position should look at all the factors involved before making a choice because either way, it's a life-changing event. My surgery was an outpatient procedure and everything went well. Dr. Peyser recommended a six-week wait in order to heal some before starting radiation therapy.

Radiation was next and I met Dr. Veronica Eisen, a Radiation Oncologist at Riverside who coordinated my treatment. Despite the immediate friendliness and warmth of Dr. Eisen and her staff, I felt very isolated when I began the first of 33 treatments. I can vividly recall how I felt when I first walked into the large room where the radiation treatments would take place. I really had no idea what to expect. Would it be loud? Would I feel anything? Would it hurt?

Before the radiation begins all of the staff leaves the room to avoid radiation exposure. I vividly remember lying on the treatment table alone in with this high tech cancer fighting equipment circling around me, clicking and humming. I had to remain very still to make sure the radiation was precisely directed to the area that had been so carefully measured and marked. I could feel a tear running down my cheek while I asked myself if it was really me going through this. It seemed like a dream and although I could see a light and hear sounds, I never felt a thing.

After a few treatments, though, I got into the rhythm of the whole thing. And before long, I started bonding with the staff. We learned about each other's jobs, families, friends, interests and feelings. I also spent some time talking to other patients who had radiation treatments around the same time as mine every day. We seemed to connect so easily and before long I no longer had a sense of isolation. It's still amazing to me just how many people had or have breast cancer. It is so much more prevalent than I ever imagined. Dr. Eisen would meet with me weekly in order to monitor how my body was reacting to the treatments. I always looked forward to her cheerful attitude and her comforting demeanor.

The Things That Got Me Through:
"There's no better option than life."

About halfway through the radiation sessions, I realized that I didn't know what being tired really meant until then. I work inside and outside the home, raise children, manage a family and take care of three dogs, but nothing prepared me for this. After a while my whole body felt so heavy that all I wanted to do was sit still.

We live on the water in Poquoson and I enjoy spending a lot of time outside in the yard. During the months following my surgery and radiation, however, working in the yard was only something I could look forward to because actually doing it was out of the question. As I mentioned, it was a whole different kind of tired.

Fortunately I am blessed with a wonderful, helpful family and a very understanding employer. My company altered my hours and moved me to an office closer to home and my doctors' offices. Work has always been important to me and continued to be a good form of therapy. I was exhausted a lot of the time, but it helped me to focus on things other than cancer.

Throughout my treatments, my daughter, Katelyn, my stepchildren, Cam and Morgan, my husband Jeff and my parents Lorrimer and Diana were all sensitive to the changes in my energy and appetite and did as much as possible to help me out. Jeff was especially empathetic because he had gone through cancer treatment himself. He attended as many of my radiation sessions as possible.

It has been a year since my last radiation treatment. I am presently taking Tamoxifen medication which I'll continue daily for five years. It has its own set of side effects: insomnia, tiredness, nausea, weight gain and a chance of blood clots. But again, you do what you have to do.

It helps to be a strong-willed person and I know now, more than ever, that I am. You can learn a lot about yourself while dealing with life's challenges and overcoming obstacles. It is important to stay focused and always keep in mind the reasons why it matters that you're here. The treatment became something I had to do in order to get my life back. I never lost sight of the fact that there was no better option than life.

Some of the Things I Learned About Breast Cancer:
"At some point you simply have to deal with the challenges."

Having breast cancer doesn't make you an expert on the subject. But it does give you a different level of understanding. After my own experience, I can't stress enough the importance of early detection. If I had gone another year without a mammogram, my options could well have been very different.

If you find yourself in a similar situation whether it is cancer or another illness, do as much as you can to gain knowledge and accurate information so you can make the kind of informed decisions that are right for you. Life can be stressful enough without the added pressure of cancer, but at some point you simply have to deal with the challenges. You've got to hold your head up and look forward.

What's amazing to me now as I look back, is how much there is to be gained from the experience. My daughter, Katelyn, has had an interest in healthcare for some time now. She's in college and is moving ahead on the road towards being a nurse anesthetist and over the past year she's been volunteering at Riverside Regional Medical Center in the Emergency Department. The fact that I had breast cancer didn't generate her initial interest in the field of medicine and healing but I know it helped confirm the difference that one person can make in the lives of others.

What I Want to Share With You:
"Focus on life, not on a diagnosis."

Along with Katelyn, I am also a volunteer at Riverside. I find that giving my time to others in need or less fortunate is a two-way street. I have the opportunity to help others and in turn, those in need enable me to remain grounded.

I think what I want to share the most is the effect that being a cancer survivor can have on your lifestyle. Before cancer, I had a tendency to dwell too much on things that really didn't matter in the full scope of life. Now, I make every attempt to deal with life's challenges, even the major ones, as just "bumps in the road," one day at a time.

When I first found out that I had breast cancer I began reading inspirational writers who helped me focus on my life instead of on my diagnosis. Maya Angelou is one of my favorites and she had a "thought" that really hit home. I've carried that quote with me ever since. She said, "I've learned that you shouldn't go through life with a catcher's mitt on both hands, you need to be able to throw something back". What I know now, is that cancer is what I threw back.