Coleen Bollinger started getting mammograms when she was 30. So, when she went in for her routine exam at 47, she expected another clean test. It’d been just a year since her last exam, she had 16 cancer-free screenings under her belt and while she had a family history of breast cancer, it seemed too far away to be a real contributing factor. But when she got a call at work, the disease was suddenly much closer.
“So, I got the call from my doctor and I was at work and my husband was out of town and he said, ‘I hate to do this over the phone but I want you to know right away,’ and it’s like the whole world went gray,” she said. “Once he said cancer, I heard nothing else, that was it. I went outside to have a cigarette and I was just stunned. I never expected, he never expected, it was out of the blue.”
According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), 242,476 new cases of female breast cancer were reported in 2015 — the most recent year data is available; 2,954 of those cases were reported in Oregon. More than 40,000 women nationwide, died of the disease.
October serves as breast cancer awareness month, bringing attention to the disease that needs no introduction; it’s the highest funded cancer in regards to research, earning $519.9 million for its budget in 2016, according to the National Cancer Institute. It’s widely sponsored and has spurned organizations and non-profits like the Susan G. Komen Foundation and has turned retailer aisles pink with colored products meant to raise awareness and funds.
To mark the month, The Sentinel offered the opportunity for breast cancer survivors, current patients and those who have been affected by the disease to tell their stories. And because those stories are personal and fiercely intimate, they’ll be told those who have lived them, in their words, with very little interruption — because they are their stories. Last week, The Sentinel published Susan Jeppesen’s story that chronicled her current battle with the disease. This week, it offers Coleen’s story from the perspective of a decade’s-long survivor.
“We had history of breast cancer in our family but it was far away like my grandmother’s two sisters and then my mother’s sister had breast cancer but that’s the closest. I was getting mammograms though and mine was slow growing but once it showed up it was, it’d only been a year since the last mammogram. It was in April of 1996 and what happened is, I have fibro-cystic disease which just means I have a lot of cysts in my breasts and so do my sisters so I relied on the mammograms.”
[According to the Susan G. Komen Foundation, women with a first-degree relative (a mother, sister or daughter) who has been diagnosed with breast cancer has a risk of being diagnosed with the disease at twice the rate as someone with no family history. The younger the relative was when she was diagnosed also increases the risk. For example, if a woman’s mother was in her 40s, rather than her 60s when diagnosed, her daughter is at a higher risk for the disease. The National Library of Medicine and National Institutes of Health note that self-detection through self-examination remains key for detection of breast cancer.]
“First of all, it was kind of weird. I got the mammogram and then the letter just said it required further evaluation so then they did an ultrasound and it came up with the same thing. I did another mammogram and a needle-located biopsy. What they do is a mammogram and while that is happening they insert a needle and the end of it is right at the area they want to look at and then they run you in and do a biopsy with the needle still in place. That biopsy came back with suspicious lump so then we did a lumpectomy. All this time my doctor is telling me, ‘I don’t expect anything but we’ll do it anyway.’ When they did the lumpectomy, they found that there was cancer and when they did the lab work, the tumor was inside the fibroid which was kind of weird.
“It was really hard to share it with my family because how do you begin that conversation? ‘Oh by the way, or I just want you to know.’ The first thing was calling my husband who was in D.C., he’d just left the day before but he got on a plane right away and flew back. It happened that my younger sister was visiting me from Utah so when the doc called me I went home and my sister was there and I had to share it with her and she was stunned, didn’t know how to react it was very difficult how do you even word that? It’s just cancer, the big C.
[There are numerous organizations that offer family support for patients of breast cancer in-cluding the breast cancer helpline (1-877-465-6636). A study released by Susan G. Komen showed that women who had a social support system had a better survival rate than those who did not have a support system]
I had this really great surgeon who had treated his mother and sister-in-law for breast cancer and he was very young. He went through the steps with me and said, ‘If this was my mother, here’s what I would recommend,’ so we went ahead and did a lumpectomy and lymphectomy and that’s totally different than what it is now. Back then they marked off a 3” by 3” area and took everything. The recovery from the lymphectomy was worse than the lump or the mastec-tomy. When they did the lump, the lymph nodes were clear which is really good news but the margins were dirty so they could keep doing lumpectomies over and over or we could just go for the mastectomy. I did no radiation because when they did the mastectomy they found no more cancer and then the chemo, because of my age and because of the diagnosis, I went to an oral chemo and I took that for three years and my diagnosis was estrogen receptive and it threw me into instant menopause so that was no fun.
[According to the National Cancer Institute, women who go through menopause after the age of 55 have a higher risk of breast cancer. However, that is separate from the side effect of certain breast cancer treatments that may force a woman into menopause due to the nature of the hormones related to their diagnosis.]
I had reconstruction about a year after a mastectomy so I went through the whole thing with the tissue expander and seeing the doctor every two weeks and the medication, the oral chemo was just horrible. Hot flashes, irritable. All the things that go with menopause but more so. At the time, they wanted you on the medication for five years and after three years I talked to my doctor and said this is unbearable, this is no life. He said they showed good results for year 1-3 and years 4-5 it hadn’t proved to make any difference even though they recommended five.
Before the reconstruction was complete, I dealt with all of the things of having breast forms and things at work were pretty unstable because you’ve missed two months are you healthy now? Maybe we should move you into a more stressful job? And all of these things were not my choices, this was management trying to make these decisions. I had the surgery, the loss of my breasts and then dealing with these issues at work.
[One in eight women will be diagnosed with breast cancer in the U.S. Low-income women and women of color are at an increased risk of job-loss due to the diagnoses than high-income Caucasian women according to the U.S. National Library of Medicine National Institutes of Health that also reports up to 80 percent of cancer survivors return to work anywhere from three to 18 months after their diagnosis and employer accommodations are the strongest predictors of work continuation. These accommodations include paid time off, sick leave and flexible work hours.]
“I was married in 1984 and so this all happened in 1996 and my husband was at my side every step of the way, every single second. There’s a lot of ugly things about cancer I mean, drains and all kinds of not pleasant aspects of it and my husband never wavered, he emptied drains, washed my hair. I never felt any need for any other kind of support group.
When I was diagnosed, I had my gynecologist, my surgeon, the plastic surgeon and the oncologist and none of them talked to each other so it was a circus.
Now, they have patient managers who step in and coordinate all this stuff with the doctors so my advice would be, take someone with you to every appointment once you’re diagnosed because you’re so stunned by the diagnosis that you don’t take it all in.
“The one thing I would say is, I feel very lucky. I have survived. Even more so than in 1996, breast cancer is not a death sentence because there’s lots of treatments.
“It’s come a long way. If you’re diagnosed don’t panic.”
Editor’s note: This interview was edited for length and clarity. If you or someone you know would like to share your breast cancer story with The Sentinel, please email [email protected]