Personal Strides: Battling Breast Cancer

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As one of the women who participated last year in the American Cancer Society’s Making Strides Against Breast Cancer, Anna DuCharme never would have thought she’d be walking in it this year with a such a different view – as a breast cancer fighter.

That memory is now a bittersweet one. Anna is a fun, active, young mother of four and has long been involved in the community and has been a participant in many events supporting breast cancer awareness. It wasn’t until recently that those events would hold such a different meaning for her. This past summer, Anna was given words that no woman wants to hear: "You have breast cancer." Anna had taken the whole summer off to spend time with her kids, but everyone was excited and gearing up for the two week vacation they had planned. It was the night before they would be leaving. Anna was getting ready for bed and had an itch on the side of her breast and noticed a very odd lump.  

I like to think that women have a strong intuition. And, at that moment, for some reason, she said, she knew it was cancer. Anna knew. She said it was a lump that was not smooth, but jagged. Unfortunately, those are the ones that typically don't turn out well. That Thursday night was, to say the least, a sleepless one. At 8:30 Friday morning, Anna was on the phone with the doctor's office hoping to get an appointment that day. “By the grace of God,” Anna says, she was slotted in that morning. The first plan of action was to have a mammogram. But, they said that if it detected something questionable, she would have to get an ultrasound. She already knew getting the ultrasound was inevitable. We all know that radiology technicians can’t talk about what they see on the screen whether it be good or bad. But when Anna was getting the ultrasound, she said she could tell by the tech’s face that it didn’t look good – which proved more of her intuition.

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Despite that intuition, she held on to the possibility that maybe – just maybe – it wasn’t cancer. But then, the doctor came in, took her hand, and said, "It's 90 percent cancer." The next step was to make sure that the cancer hadn't metastasized to her lymph nodes. That meant there would be more testing, but Anna says that after those words are spoken to you, you don’t hear anything else the doctor, or anyone else, says after that. She left the doctor's office that Friday and knew things were different. She also knew going home that evening meant telling her four children that their mother has breast cancer, but she wanted to be honest with them. So, she sat down with them and explained the situation and everything they knew so far. "Life becomes so clear once you are faced with your own mortality. You really don't let the small things upset you,” she reflects. “You cherish every moment with friends and family." Anna knew there was a long road ahead. She and her partner, Tim, sought out a breast cancer specialist at the top of the field – Indianapolis-based doctor, Robert Goulet. Needless to say, the first trip to see him was nerve wracking. Anna had an exhaustive series of tests done before they met. As they tentatively walked into Dr. Goulet’s conference room, they saw all of her X-rays already lit up on the light boxes.

“Well this sucks, doesn't it?" While those plainspoken words from the doctor brought a bit of relief, the last week of uncertainty had been agonizing.

On June 24th, Anna was diagnosed with HER2-positive breast cancer – one of the most aggressive forms of the disease. This particular type of breast cancer tends to grow faster and is more likely to spread than others. Fortunately, since Anna had caught it quickly enough, they found that the cancer had not spread to her lymph nodes – a development that can drastically decrease survival. So, while she will certainly have a hell of a year fighting for her life, Dr. Goulet says she has a 90 percent likelihood of beating the disease. Anna only had cancer in one breast, but with the counsel of her doctors, she opted to have a double mastectomy to diminish the possibility of future recurrence.

Since the sugery, she’s had several months of treatment, including chemotherapy once a week. She is set to have her last treatment on November 8th. It will be a day to celebrate. When the chemo is complete, she will be on a targeted therapy drug called Herceptin for another year. Up until about 13 years ago, women diagnosed with HER2-positive did not fare well. However, in 1998, the FDA approved Herceptin. The drug specifically targets cancer cells that over express the HER2 gene and decreases their ability to grow uncontrollably. Anna has never once asked, "Why me?" She has remained positive and held close with her faith knowing that she is on this journey for a reason. She tells me that God is putting people in her life right at the moment she needs them. She says that this challenge has changed everyone close to her in positive ways. Anna attributes a lot of her positive attitude to her children, Tim, friends and family. She has an amazing support system that provides inspiration to keep fighting and remain positive.

While Anna’s story is filled with hope and survival, we all know there are many women with stories far grimmer. Anna had no history of breast cancer in her family and recognizes that early detection was crucial for her – knowing her body, doing breast self-exams monthly, and listening to her intuition when something felt wrong. Anna also believes that even if there is no family history, mammograms should be given earlier than the recommended age of 40. She will continue to be an advocate for breast cancer awareness. This year, Team Anna, at Making Strides Against Breast Cancer, has raised over $5000 for the cause. The money will go toward finding a cure for this disease that affects our mothers, daughters, girlfriends, grandmothers and wives.

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It was truly a pleasure to sit down with Anna and hear her story of hope during this month of awareness. October will come and go, but these stories will not.  

"Hope is faith holding it's hand in the dark." — George Iles

 

Portrait by Tony Frantz

Team Anna pic courtesy of Anna Ducharme