The Tribune Democrat, Johnstown, PA

October 1, 2012

Coping with cancer is an up-and-down journey, but it is navigable

Randy Griffith

JOHNSTOWN — As a nurse with a family history of breast cancer, Dorothy Chanda understood that regular mammograms would give her a better chance against the disease.

Her knowledge didn’t make it any easier when she received the diagnosis in March 2003.

“You go through denial, but you try to be upbeat,” Chanda said. “You want to live. You pray that you have more time in the world.”

Early detection is helping more breast cancer patients become cancer-free like Chanda, while improved chemotherapy and newer options are helping others survive longer, with better quality of life.

But a breast cancer diagnosis is still traumatic.

“These ladies lives are changed forever,” Johnstown breast surgeon Dr. Patti Ann Stefanick said.

The first thing a new patient must understand, Stefanick said, is that a breast cancer diagnosis is rarely the end of the story.

“My goal is to try to help them see past that day – past the surgery and treatments,” Stefanick said at her 939 Menoher Blvd. office. “They are going to have a life and it’s going to be a good one.”

Each patient responds differently to the situation, experts say.

Dr. Diane Craig, breast surgeon at Joyce Murtha Breast Care Center in Windber, said response to the diagnosis compares to other life-changing events like the death of a close family member, relocation to a new city or career change.

“The way people handle stress is all individualized,” Craig said. “Some get depressed. Others take the attitude: I am going to fight; they are finding the honor in it.”

Health care professionals, family and friends should respect each individual’s reaction, Craig said.

“You have to respond to their wishes as far as how they want to handle it,” she said. “Some come in and don’t want family members to know. We tell them it’s important to settle things. We feel it’s important for them to also get their (family’s) support.”

The ability to lean on family and friends can make facing the treatment process less formidable, Stefanick said.

“When patients already have a support system, my job is easier because I tap into that support system,” she said. “When they don’t have a support system – no close family or a caring partner or close friends – it can be devastating for those ladies.”

That is where support groups can help, clinical psychologist Theresa Kovacs said. Before joining the Conemaugh Physicians Group in Johnstown, Kovacs had a private practice near Wilkes-Barre, where she launched a Susan G. Komen for the Cure project with the Dunmore YMCA to provide education, treatment, support and resources for women recently diagnosed with breast cancer.

“Working with that support group, I felt these were the most courageous women I’ve ever known,” Kovacs said. “They were tremendous support for each other. It helps women understand: You are not alone.”

Besides caring shoulders to lean on, a breast cancer support group can provide education and empowerment, Kovacs added.

“Women should get support and help learning to navigate the health care system,” she said. “You need to be an advocate for yourself.”

Support groups are available through Memorial Medical Center in Johnstown, Indiana Regional Medical Center and the Joyce Murtha Center in Windber.

“I’d like to think it can be helpful to anybody,” Windber group facilitator Bernice Adams said. “I’d recommend to anyone to at least come in and try it.”

Support groups offer friendship and confidentiality, Adams said.

“They can just come and be themselves,” she said. “It is a very welcoming group. If someone is not there, they want to know what’s going on. They see themselves as being very integral.”

Group members share information about treatments, letting new members know what to expect and how to prepare for radiation or chemotherapy.

“It gives them an opportunity to be educated,” Adams said. “That’s the beauty of the group.”

Sometimes a support group can help in areas where family and friends are not able to connect, Susan Majoris, women’s health nurse navigator, said from Indiana Regional Medical Center.

“It is a roller coaster of emotions,” Majoris said, explaining how positive reports are often followed by discouraging news and that all patients find they have good days and bad days in treatment.

“It is hard to cope, and sometimes family doesn’t understand,” she said.

Health care professionals throughout the continuum of cancer treatment are trained to watch for signs that a patient needs additional help.

“We have people who put up flags,” Majoris said. “The surgeon or the medical oncologist will notice. I will get a phone call: ‘She needs to be in a support group.’ ”

Indiana has groups at the main hospital and at Blairsville and Seward clinics. In addition to the traditional breast cancer group, the Indiana hospital hosts a Stitch in Time needlework group.

“It is for women who feel they don’t want to be in a support group,” Majoris said. “They can talk about anything they want. A lot of times, they talk about their treatments.”

Kovacs said she has seen women transformed by their response to breast cancer.

“They have become courageous and have changed their attitudes,” Kovacs said. “The diagnosis does not have to be the end point for anybody. It is not.”

Stefanick believes that Chanda’s successful battle with breast cancer prepared her to help others face the disease. As a nurse in the outpatient surgery department at Memorial Medical Center Lee Campus, Chanda often works with patients coming in for breast cancer procedures.

“She finds the ability to go up to them and say: ‘Look at me. I am a survivor,’ ” Stefanick said.

“I tell her, ‘If you hadn’t been diagnosed nine years ago, you would have had this role. I think it may be a gift. It brought out this talent. I wonder if somehow that was not in the cards.”

Chanda said she hopes she can make new cancer patients feel better about the future.

“I share my story with them,” Chanda said.  “They can see that you survived your surgery. You have a good outcome.”

Although Chanda, like Stefanick, believes her cancer treatments may have been meant to prepare her to help new patients, she admits:

“I’d rather be healthy.”

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