With as much progress that has been made in the detection, diagnosis and treatment of breast cancer, there is less information about the strategies that women use to cope with the disease. In these three interviews, you’ll see that breast cancer wasn’t the only thing Michelle and Roxanne discovered. They’ve looked past reliving their suffering to share their incredible acceptance of their diagnoses, their emotional needs, the management of the physical effects, and some life-changing truths. We thank them for sharing their very personal experiences to help others on a similar journey.
AN UNFORGETTABLE BIRTHDAY
When Michelle Naquin Meche lost her husband suddenly and at an early age in 2001, the devastation became her gauge of bad news from then on. So in 2014, a month before her 50th birthday, when the New Iberia resident was diagnosed with early stage Her2-positive breast cancer, her attitude was, “I survived losing the love of my life, I can get through this.” It was also reassuring when she learned her cancer was a more treatable kind.
What was your life like before your diagnosis? At the time, I worked in New Orleans for the company that managed and staffed events at the Superdome, including the Saints games. I was working a lot – sometimes up to 65 hours per week. On weekends I’d usually drive home to New Iberia. I love to travel; and my husband and I traveled a good bit until he passed away. A couple of years later, I found this group of women online, mostly my age, who were fans of a musician who was famous in the 80s. I became friends with ladies from all over the country and we traveled, going to his concerts and seeing the sights. It was a way for me to travel alone, but not be alone. Needless to say, I didn’t get to do much of that kind of traveling while I was working at the Superdome.
What helped you through your treatment process? I didn’t make the time to deal with the cancer. I got support from the women in my human resources department, and my cousin, who is a breast cancer survivor, invited me to stay with her.
What sort of tips did you get that helped you? Use the moisturizer they give you during the radiation treatments and follow the directions of the radiologist. I had 33 radiation treatments and it reached a point where around 3 p.m. I could have laid my head on my desk and gone to sleep. Rest when you can, and drink lots of fluids. Remember that you are the best person to know what’s going on in your body.
Did you face any obstacles during your treatment? About six months after the radiation treatments, I started losing weight, not sleeping well, and my hands were shaking so badly that I couldn’t write. The doctor discovered a nodule on my thyroid.
How did you stay positive? There were times when I was angry that I had to go through it alone – even though I wasn’t alone. When I went home there wasn’t that person there to say, ‘Don’t worry baby, it’s gonna be ok.’ I can’t live in fear of something happening; I’m gonna live a good life and when I go, I go. I’m kind and generous to others, but I’m kind and generous to myself, also.
Was there anything that allowed you to take a break from cancer? I became friends with musicians out of Nashville who often played on the Mississippi Gulf Coast, and I traveled around Louisiana and Mississippi following them. That was an escape for me.
Has this ordeal led you to develop a healthier lifestyle over the years? I take vitamins C,D3, elderberry with zinc, turmeric and curcumin. I try to eat healthier by cutting down on carbs. I’ve been through enough, so I don’t deprive myself of a burger or a bowl of ice cream now and then. However, I’ll be turning 57 in November and it’s making me think that I need to adopt a healthier lifestyle. To this day, I still get cramping under my left arm, where the radiated tissue meets the healthy tissue. My doctor says more exercise would help.
A LIFESAVER OF A TEXT
Last December Roxanne Barker of Lafayette began receiving reminder texts from her insurance carrier that it was time for her annual mammogram. She kept deleting them because she was busy with Christmas shopping, work and her kids’ school activities, all demanding her time. Finally, when an insurance representative called her last January, she relented and made an appointment. Good thing she did; in February the 51-year-old was diagnosed with Stage 1 Her2-negative cancer.
What was your life like before diagnosis? I’m a trained social worker and an agent for the Louisiana Department of Health, working with disease clusters. I’m a mother of three – the youngest was 10 at the time. Their activities have me as a band mom and a 4-H mom. I rode my bike a mile every day in the neighborhood. I’ve also done yoga twice a week for 10 years.
What was your biggest parenting challenge during your treatment? I was tired, of course; the radiation would zap me. And the kids didn’t understand why I was so exhausted. I wasn’t able to be the mom they were used to.
What was your biggest motivator outside of your family? It was something unexpected. At the Miles Perret Cancer Center, I was surprised to see a lot of women older than me with cancer. They looked like everyday moms, talking about traveling, kids, what they baked....and it showed me if they were still here that I could live a long life.
Have you developed healthier habits since your diagnosis? I still ride my bike and practice yoga, but at home now. Yoga brings me to a place of strengthening, where I can deal with things. If I can sit and meditate and center my thinking, I can deal with what’s going to come up the road. I’ve always been on a diabetic diet. I don’t drink as much milk, or eat gluten or soy. And I take a multivitamin, extra calcium and D3.
What tips do you have to pass on to women going through this? Skin takes a beating during radiation. So the morning of a treatment, I’d prepare my breast and armpit area with my diabetic body lotion, and it helped. When my skin started peeling – even my armpit – I put Neosporin. I bought a bandeau bra, which was more comfortable. And, most importantly, I wish someone would have told me to lean on someone.
How did you stay positive during treatments? I didn’t have a choice but to be there for my family. I was looking in the faces of my children. I had to fight and dig.
How did you feel the day you received your last treatment? Oh I cried and cried, but they were happy tears. It felt like I was saying to myself, ‘I told you I could do this.’
How has breast cancer changed you? It has shown me that I DO need someone else; I do need to rely on my faith. Nothing bothers me anymore; everything is light now. And I’m not ashamed of anything. There was a time I would not have spoken about my breast cancer experience, but now it’s not private. I want to tell you about it. I want people to know what this journey has done for me. God didn’t put me here to just get over this disease. Now I have to help someone else.