By Jennifer Hargis
Special to The Globe
JOPLIN, Mo. —
Author Lillie Shockney once said, “Fear of the unknown is the worst fear of all.”
Women recently diagnosed with breast cancer understand this sentiment all too well. Through my position as the breast patient navigator at Freeman Women’s Center, I witness this fear. For many of these women, the road ahead seems long, veiled by the unknown and shrouded with doubt. But sometimes answers to even the simplest questions can provide moments of comfort.
How do I tell my family and friends?
Often, the first hurdle after learning of a cancer diagnosis is actually saying the words “I have cancer.” Acknowledging the disease to someone else makes it very real. While this may be a difficult initial step, it can also be cathartic to talk about such a diagnosis. The next step is for a woman to educate those in her life about her disease. As humans, we automatically take ourselves to the worst outcome when we hear the word “cancer.” It helps to educate family and friends about the extent of the disease to dispel their anxieties and fears. The more they understand about a woman’s cancer, the more supportive those individuals can be.
How do I choose a doctor?
Finding a doctor a woman is comfortable with is an important element of the cancer journey. A good doctor listens to patients, treating them with respect. A good doctor explains things clearly and encourages questions. A physician should take the time to explain all avenues of treatment and make sure a woman understands what the future holds. If a woman does not feel she has all the information she needs, she should be honest with her physician about that. I tell patients, “Don’t stop asking questions until you have the answers you need.”
What will happen to my body during treatment?
The No. 1 side effect of chemotherapy is fatigue. Like cancer, chemotherapy is taxing on the body, stealing much of its reserved energy. The potential for other side effects exists, too, including nausea, vomiting, hair loss, dry skin, brittle nails, digestive tract issues and numbness in fingers and toes. Sometimes these side effects are noticed gradually, after multiple chemotherapy cycles. Sometimes they never occur. Each woman’s genetics are different, so each woman reacts differently to the drug.
For some women, a lumpectomy or mastectomy is needed to continue the fight against cancer. Despite reconstructive surgery and prosthetic options, such a dramatic change in body image can be difficult to adjust to. Women should not feel ashamed if they need to speak to a therapist to help cope.
What resources are there to help?
A wealth of information exists to help guide a woman through her cancer journey — so much, in fact, that it can be overwhelming. Websites, books, pamphlets and breast cancer organizations are all great resources. The Internet is likely the most popular tool used for cancer research, but it is critical to visit reputable websites such as National Cancer Institute, National Comprehensive Cancer Network or American Cancer Society. Local breast cancer organizations such as Breast Cancer Foundation of the Ozarks and Hope 4 YOU Foundation also serve as wonderful resources for women.
Freeman Health System has done its part to educate and support breast cancer patients by creating a new position called the breast patient navigator. The primary function of this role is to provide patients with whatever support, information and resources they need. With the help of the breast patient navigator, a woman can get as much help as she needs on her cancer journey — whether it’s the phone number to a Freeman oncologist or someone to hold her hand during chemotherapy. The goal is to minimize the breast cancer patient’s concerns and anxieties, so she is able to focus on what’s most important: caring for herself.
Jennifer Hargis is the breast patient navigator at Wes & Jan Houser Women’s Pavilion inside Freeman Women’s Center.