October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month, bringing attention to the 207,090 women and 1,970 men in the U.S. who are expected to be diagnosed with breast cancer this year, according to the National Cancer Institute.
Whether it’s athletes and coaches of the NFL donning pink, hair salons offering pink extensions, or local fire departments wearing pink T-shirts, pink represents the survivors of breast cancer, the need for prevention and getting checked.
Joanne Nieto starts chemotherapy and radiation Thursday. She still plans to finish a 15K nine days later.
In mid-September, Nieto, who is a personal trainer, cardiac tech and a phlebotomist, was getting dressed to go exercise when she noticed a lump on her breast bone.
A cardiologist she works with told her to get a mammogram right away.
The cyst turned out to be harmless, but a tumor next to it was not. After a biopsy – during which she became the first patient at the Centegra Gavers Breast Center – she was diagnosed with stage 1 breast cancer. She was diagnosed on a Monday and had a lumpectomy that Thursday.
Nieto, of Belvidere, said there was no history of cancer in her family. She said she was very conscious of exercising and eating well.
“Everybody kind of looks at me as being the one you look up to,” she said, which is why the diagnosis was especially shocking.
As she prepares for three months of chemotherapy and two months of radiation, Nieto said she’s seen more doctors in the past month than she’s seen her whole life.
“That’s my winter, so spring is going to look good,” she said. “You do what you have to do to try and make sure it doesn’t come back. This all happened so fast.”
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Dr. Tanya Powell, primary breast cancer physician specialist at Advocate Good Shepherd Hospital, started radiation experiments while she was in grade school as part of a science project.
Her mom was a physician with access to an X-ray machine, so Powell monitored radiated food.
“I had no idea that I would be doing this years later,” she said, reflecting on what likely was the start of the path that led her to a career as a radiation oncologist.
About one-third of the patients she sees have breast cancer, but Powell has been personally affected by the disease as well. Even before she was in medical school, she would take her best friend’s mother to chemotherapy treatments.
She also provided hospice care for a woman with breast cancer.
“Even if you aren’t able to cure all patients, providing service with regard to helping decrease pain ... has a lot of value,” Powell said. “The treatment of cancer has so many different levels, and I think the better understanding you have of those levels makes you a better physician and maybe even a better person.”
When possible, Powell uses newer methods of treatment for breast cancer, such as brachytherapy, where patients can receive a shorter, more intense course of treatment delivered to the tumor bed.
“That is a good option for patients who don’t want to go for a long period of treatment or sometimes for older patients who have difficulty with transportation,” she said.
Mammograms are recommended starting at age 40, but women should be seen by a primary care physician to make an assessment if they should go sooner, she said.
“In general, over the course of the last 30 to 40 years, patients have been being diagnosed earlier because of the development and improvement in mammography,” Powell said. “The vast majority are diagnosed off of routine yearly mammograms, and that’s a huge benefit if they’re diagnosed early.”
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If she doesn’t pick up, Meagan Sunde’s callers hear a cheery voice mail greeting.
“Hi, this is Meagan. I’m feeling good and looking forward to talking to you.”
When she was diagnosed with stage 3 breast cancer, Sunde had a neighbor at her house with a bouquet of flowers that night, she said.
“As a survivor, you can’t get through what you go through without love and support of your friends, family, neighbors, co-workers,” the Huntley woman said. “So many people called to check in on me.”
A mother of two and married for 20 years, Sunde said she made sure to keep positive and hopeful when telling her kids.
“My tone was definitely ‘We’re going to beat this, guys,’ ” she said. “We’re going to fight it; we’re going to do everything we can through prayer, our faith, our friends. I never wanted to get to the sad, dark hole.”
After all, she had beaten cancer once before.
At 18 years old, Sunde was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma.
It was her second time with it all – the chemo, the radiation – yet she remains incredibly positive. She has been in remission since April and goes in every three months to meet with an oncologist.
“I don’t know what tomorrow is going to bring, but I’m hopeful,” she said.