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Survivor Story: Joann Boylan
(By: Joann Boylan of Des Moines, Iowa)
In June of 2013 I went in for a mammogram. I hadn’t been very diligent about getting them done annually and my family physician started insisting that I have one done. I was 57 years old. After my mammogram, I just finished dressing and the nurse came in. She said that the doctor didn’t like what she saw and wanted me to come back to do a biopsy on my right breast. I went back in and had the biopsy. A couple of days later I got a call at work from the pathologist. He said that the biopsy came back positive for cancer. I was so scared. I never imagined this would happen to me. I am from a large family and no one in my family had ever been diagnosed with breast cancer.
I told my husband and that same night, my family physician called me at home and went over my options. The only option I had was a mastectomy on my right side. I asked him about the option of a lumpectomy, but he said the cancer was too far spread and that a lumpectomy wasn’t an option. We told our kids (daughter 19 and son 17) that night. They were both scared, but tried to hide their fear. In the days following, my son was away from home a lot and we could see that he didn’t want to face me having cancer. We sat him down and had a long talk about how this was something we needed to face as a family and none of us could run from it. We were all a team after that!
I met with a surgeon to discuss my surgery. That same week I met with a plastic surgeon to discuss the process of my breast reconstruction. These two surgeons where going to work as a team. My surgeon would do the mastectomy and when he was finished, my plastic surgeon would put in an expander to help with my breast reconstruction.
My mastectomy was on August 5th. After the surgery, the surgeon told my family that everything went well and that they didn’t think the cancer had spread to anywhere else. They didn’t see any cancer in the lymph nodes. He said they were going to send the lymph nodes off for testing, just to make sure the cancer hadn’t spread. We were overjoyed! Now all I had to do is recover from my surgery and start my reconstruction. But, the test came back and they did find some cancer in the lymph nodes. This was very scary to hear. I was so scared and didn’t know what to expect. The surgeon set an appointment for me to meet with an Oncologist to go over my chemo plan.
After meeting my Oncologist, I met with a Care Coordinator name Jen. She set up an appointment for my family and I to meet with her to go over all of the chemo drugs I was going to be given and all of the possible side effects. Along with the list of side effects, she gave us a list of things we could do or take that would help. She was wonderful! We became very close to Jen during my journey. She was my “go to” girl for my daily questions and fears. She made a very scary situation more tolerable. She was my angel!
My son was about to start his senior year of high school and I made up my mind that I was going to do everything I could not to have him remember this year as “the year mom was sick”. I would try to do everything in my power to make sure he enjoyed his senior year!
Before I started my chemo, I had to have a port put in so they could use it to administer the chemo. Jen told me that I would most likely lose all of my hair and suggested that I meet with a wonderful hair care professional who would help me order a wig. During this time I was also going to the plastic surgeon’s office every couple of weeks to have fluid injected into my expander to help expand my breast and get it ready for the implant.
I started my first round of chemo treatments on September 18th. I had to go in to the John Stoddard Cancer Center for treatment every 2 weeks for a total of 4 sessions (each session was 3 hours). These sessions were pretty tough. Before each session I would have my blood drawn and tested, see the Oncologist and if my blood tests came back ok, I was sent upstairs for my chemo session. During these sessions I was given Adriamycin and Cytoxan.
For my first chemo session, I used a room with a bed and had my husband and kids with me. I didn’t know what to expect. I was so glad to have them with me. The nursing staff was great! They explained everything to me as they went through administering each drug. The first thing they gave me each time was Benadryl to help with the side effects. That made me really sleepy. One of my sisters came with me to my second chemo treatment. I decided to sit in a chair in the main room for this and all of my future sessions. My little brother came with me to my 3rd session. After this chemo session, I had an appointment with the hair care professional to order my wig. During my visit with him, he suggested that I cut my hair really short so that when it started to fall out, it wouldn’t be as noticeable to me and I wouldn’t feel as sad. I got my hair cut really short. When I looked in the mirror, I was shocked. I wanted to cry. I looked over at my little brother and he smiled, gave me thumbs up and said “you look great”! Wow, how I needed that! When I got home, my husband and kids said I looked great too. My husband even shaved his head so I wasn’t the only one in the house without hair. That was so sweet! Another sister went with me to my fourth session. This one seemed the hardest. I think my body was starting to feel the effects of all of the drugs. I was really starting to feel sick. Eventually my hair all fell out and I lost about 25 pounds. I didn’t have much of an appetite anymore. Everyone kept telling me that I “looked great”. I knew I didn’t, but it was still nice to hear.
On November 13th I started my second round of chemo. With this round I had to go in every Wednesday for 12 weeks (each session was about 1 ½ hours). For these sessions, they gave me Patexal and Herceptin. My daughter came with me for the first one. After that, I decided that I was able to go on my own. I didn’t need any one with me. I was falling asleep though the first half hour anyway and I felt guilty that I couldn’t stay awake to visit with them. During these sessions I did word puzzles and listened to “rock n roll” on my IPod. This helped the time go faster and kept my mind off what was actually going on.
On November 18th, I put on my wig and started back to work as an Accounting Manager. Everyone was so sweet and glad to see me. Every Wednesday I took off work to continue my chemo sessions. That round ended on January 29, 2014.
I started my third round of chemo on February 19th. With this round I was getting a large dose of Herceptin. I was supposed to continue this round until November, but my heart started to show signs of damage. The muscle wasn’t as strong as it should be. The Oncologist and I decided to discontinue this treatment. He sent me to a Cardiologist that put me on some medication that I will need to continue for the rest of my life. In July I had my port taken out and my permanent implant put in. I continue to see my Oncologist and get my blood tested every 3 months. It will soon change to every 6 months. He said I will have to continue to see him for a total of 5 years. The total time that I received chemo was 6 months (17 sessions).
I feel good. My hair finally grew back. I thank the Lord every day for helping me through this frightening experience. I pray every day that my cancer doesn’t return. I am so thankful for my loving family, friends, doctors, nurses and all the cancer support staff that gave me love and encouragement through all of this!