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The realities of cancer: Real patients share their stories

This article is a part of BG BrandLab’s Breast Cancer Special Report, assessing the progress we’ve made in the battle against breast cancer and the barriers that we still need to overcome.

Dana Freeman

Dana Freeman was lucky. She had the “good” cancer—the type people tend to survive. But “good” and “cancer” should never be in the same sentence, she wrote in an article on Medium. Sure, on the breast cancer spectrum, Stage 1, tubular cancer is “good” because it is treatable and slow growing. But what is good about a disease that can kill? What is good about a disease that disrupts your life and wreaks havoc on your body?

For Dana, making decisions about her own cancer treatment was trying, because she couldn’t help but think about her mother’s battle with breast cancer. In the end, cancer had won. Doctors told Dana she could go with a lumpectomy and radiation, but considering her history, she opted for a double mastectomy.

Managing her appointments and wondering if her care providers were talking to one another made Dana feel like a general contractor. She tried to process all that she was hearing and make the best decisions possible. But she regrets some of her choices.

On paper, doing breast reconstruction at the same time as the mastectomy, rather than coming back for a second surgery, sounded great. But it was incredibly painful. One doctor likened direct-to-implant surgery to going from not pregnant to six months pregnant overnight.

The teardrop-shaped, “gummy bear” implants her doctor recommended sounded good on paper, too. She said they would be comfortable and look natural, but Dana says they were anything but.

Two months into recovery, Dana rolled onto the heating pad she was using to ease her back pain while she slept. It burned a hole the size of a quarter in her newly reconstructed breast. It didn’t hurt, but it was ugly. Dealing with radical changes to your appearance can do a number on your self-esteem. As if feeling “pretty” isn’t hard enough as it is.

Eighteen months later, Dana traveled from her home in Vermont to Brigham and Women’s Hospital for fat grafting, the final stage of her breast reconstruction. The doctor there was shocked she had teardrop-shaped implants. She advised they change to silicon. Dana is glad she did. She feels good about her body now. “My husband says I am beautiful,” she says. And she has been cancer-free for five years.

There is no “good” cancer, but Dana chose to find a silver lining. Early detection saved her life, and she shares her story to help others. She is the embodiment of living each day to the fullest. She takes time for herself, something she never did in the past—her two children always came first. She also married her passion for the band U2 with travel. “I go to the ends of the earth to see them. The old me would have never done that.”

Dana Freeman enjoying kayaking

The gestures you don’t forget

Terrie Stultz of Lynn, Mass. lost her mom to breast cancer, so of course she worried sometimes. But she wasn’t particularly nervous when she went for a biopsy in 2003. That made the news hit harder.

Terrie Stultz

Terrie had breast cancer, just like her mom. After getting two opinions, she chose Massachusetts General Hospital for her care. For treatment, they started with a lumpectomy. When her margins still weren’t clear, they did another. Then, a full mastectomy. At the time, she opted for no breast reconstruction. That is the path her mother had taken. Three years later, someone from her insurance company called and said she qualified for reconstruction surgery, which got her thinking. She is glad she went through with the procedure.

A few years after she beat breast cancer, Terrie was diagnosed with uterine cancer. That was tough. But they caught it, and beat it, and she feels blessed. She has been cancer-free for the last 11 years. She doesn’t carry the gene mutations associated with breast cancer, and she is thankful for that. Of course, her daughters, age 48 and 49, get regular screenings.

Terrie is a survivor, although she thinks that word is more fitting for women who have to go through chemo and radiation again and again. Sometimes, people ask Terrie to speak with people they know who have been diagnosed, or they ask advice on how to support a loved one. Terrie is always honored to help. 

 “I know a young woman, she is a single mom and an awesome lady. She has gone through eight chemo treatments, and in October, she is having both breasts removed. But she never misses a day of work, except for the chemo itself. After she lost her hair, she was comfortable just wearing a pink baseball hat to work,” says Terrie. “She once said to me, ‘I never knew I was this strong.’ It really is amazing how strong you can be.”

Terrie will never forget the outpouring of support she received from friends and family. “People came out of the woodwork, writing notes, dropping off baked goods. My best friend even cleaned my house one day while I relaxed on the deck. You don’t forget gestures like that.” 

She reminds patients in the Boston area that they are lucky to live here. “People come from all over the world for our medical facilities because they want the best. I tell them they deserve the best, too.”

 “A potato and egg” moment

Cheryl McCloud wasn’t surprised when she received her breast cancer diagnosis, not because it ran in her family (it didn’t), but because she had watched so many people battle the disease. “Okay, I guess it is my turn now,” she thought.

Cheryl McCloud

She sought two opinions and chose Dana-Farber for her cancer care, in part because they have a lot of experience with her particular type of cancer: triple negative. Her first question for her doctor was whether or not she would die. When she told her “No,” she put on her game face and asked what happens next.

For Cheryl, “next” was the full gamut of treatment. When the tumor wasn’t responding to bi-weekly chemo, doctors took a more aggressive approach: chemo every week. Cheryl knew what to expect. She had seen loved ones go through it. Blackened hands, nails, and feet. Hair loss. Fatigue. But she didn’t indulge in self-pity. She described her cancer diagnosis as “a potato and egg moment.” The same boiling water that softens potatoes hardens eggs, she explained. So, life is about what you are made of, not about circumstances.

Cheryl is made of tough stuff, although she is quick to brush praise aside. Everyone in life faces challenges. This is hers. “My dad had a saying, ‘I complain I don’t have any shoes until I meet a man with no feet.’”  

In July 2018, she became a cancer patient. Today, after chemo, radiation, and a lumpectomy, she is a survivor. In a few weeks, she will have her first check-up to see if she is cancer-free. That is a lot to think about. “Every so often when someone dies after a long battle with breast cancer, I stop and say, ‘Oh my god, that could be me.’ But then I get myself back on track,” she says.

She is not a “Kumbaya” type person, but she does glean strength from local support groups, such as Boston Public Health Commission’s Pink and Black group. She also deals by staying busy, throwing herself into work and cancer advocacy. In fact, for Cheryl, those two are one in the same.

Just a few months before her diagnosis, she started her dream job – community engagement manager at All of Us Research Program, which aims to gather data from one million or more people in the U.S. to accelerate research, and help make precision medicine a reality.

She is also the VP of communications and business development for Coils to Locs, a medical wig resource for women of color looking for ethnically-inspired wigs to preserve their natural appearance. Her cousin started the business with her sister, after her own frustrating experience looking for wigs after chemo. Cheryl shared they will soon be launching the wig line at Mass. General and Beth Israel. 

So, Cheryl’s “potato and egg moment” didn’t break her, it fueled her.

We salute her, Terrie, Dana, and all of the breast cancer survivors and thrivers who inspire us and those around them every day.

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