In the waiting room of Charlton Memorial Hospital’s Southcoast Center for Cancer Care in Massachusetts, Juanita Thompson sang softly to a tune that she alone could hear from her iPod. Thompson, a breast cancer survivor, had a mastectomy about a year ago and several rounds of chemotherapy. Despite losing her hair and a breast, the spiritual woman has found a renewed sense of joy.
In the waiting room of Charlton Memorial Hospital’s Southcoast Center for Cancer Care, Juanita Thompson sang softly to a tune that she alone could hear from her iPod.
Thompson, a breast cancer survivor, had a mastectomy about a year ago and several rounds of chemotherapy. Despite losing her hair and a breast, the spiritual woman has found a renewed sense of joy.
“I’ve come out of this with a brand new mind, body and spirit,” Thompson said. “It’s really not a death sentence. It’s made me think about life and make every minute of it count.”
Thompson, like most who suffer from breast cancer, has gone on to live a long and healthy life — a far cry from what women endured not so many years ago when little was known about breast cancer.
Today, there are some 50 forms of chemotherapy, hormonal agents and targeted therapies that work together to kill breast cancer cells, not to mention surgical options, radiation therapy and clinical trials, according to materials from Saint Anne’s Hospital’s Regional Cancer Care center.
Susan O’Brien, an oncology nurse practitioner at Saint Anne’s Hospital, said breast cancer has become more chronic than fatal.
“Once a woman is diagnosed, it’s a journey that she undertakes,” O’Brien said. “It’s so wonderful that these women with breast cancer are living so long.”
O’Brien said breast cancer survival rates have been incredibly improved even since she started at Saint Anne’s Hospital 25 years ago. Because of advances made in drugs and in education, more women are diagnosed with curable Stage I and II cancers, rather than at more advanced stages.
The five-year survival rates for Stage I and II breast cancer now ranges from 74 to 88 percent, according to the American Cancer Society. The survival rates for stage III and IV breast cancer are as high as 67 percent.
Until the 1960s — and later, in some cases — survival rates were very low, and the disease often resulted in death. People thought breast cancer was embarrassing, and it was a hushed topic that often resulted in a late, if any, diagnosis.
Dr. William Stewart Halsted is credited with being one of the fathers of modern American surgery at Johns Hopkins University Hospital in the late 1800s. He developed the radical mastectomy, which consisted of removing the entire breast, the underlying chest wall muscles and all lymph nodes in the armpit, according to the National Surgical Adjuvant Breast and Bowel Project.
The deforming operation resulted in a concave appearance, O’Brien explained. Women who underwent the procedure often sought to wear a heavy prosthetic breast afterward.
This procedure was the standard breast cancer surgery for decades, until brothers Drs. Bernard and Edwin Fisher challenged the radical mastectomy in the 1960s.
Today, doctors know that mastectomy has the same end result as lumpectomy plus radiation for most women. Those undergoing mastectomy do not lose as much tissue as in decades past.
Until 25 years ago, women also underwent 14 cycles of chemotherapy lasting for 14 months, as opposed to today’s roughly four months of chemotherapy.
“I never thought I would die,” said Margaret McCaffrey, who had breast cancer in 1995. Now retired, she is a greeter at the Hudner Oncology Center at Saint Anne’s Hospital.
Because most women live with breast cancer, there is a whole new population of women in follow-up care for years after their surgery or treatments. For them, living with breast cancer is the new normal.
For Thompson, follow-up care has included doctor’s visits every three months and monthly blood work.
Breast cancer can also result in complications. Thompson experienced lymphedema in her arm, a swelling of the tissue, due to the surgery.
O’Brien said there are many “immediate and long-term effects.”
Besides lymphedema, patients can suffer from cognitive difficulties, low energy and depression. They may also suffer effects to the heart and lungs, or go into early menopause, which can lead to osteoporosis.
Follow-up care generally consists of following any side effects, and includes hormone therapy for some. Support groups, yoga, meditation and spiritual retreats are also part of what is offered at local hospitals.
Thompson attends a monthly support group where she is free to talk about her experience with breast cancer and other topics.
“I love it,” Thompson said. “Talking about it helps other women through it. We lift each other up.”
Thompson plans to have reconstructive surgery in the near future, and is also planning on getting gastric bypass surgery to lose weight. Now 51, she has begun computer programming classes at Bristol Community College, something the mother of five has wanted to do for decades.
“I want to live,” Thompson said. “I want to enjoy the rest of my life. I feel wonderful.”
Email Deborah Allard at email@example.com.