Friday, October 5, 2012

York Woman Shares Story of Survival

By Pat Sommers
Staff Columnist

A single telephone call prompted Jean Smith to begin shaping a “new normal” in her life.
 “My doctor called me and said I probably had breast cancer,” Smith said of that phone call twenty years ago. 
The York area woman had just undergone a routine mammogram.
The film image produced by the mammogram immediately raised concerns with the physician who reacted quickly. A biopsy was ordered and was subsequently performed by a surgeon.
“Three or four days later I had the bad news,” Smith recalled. The diagnosis of breast cancer was confirmed. She was just forty-five.
A wife, mother of two and a registered nurse, Smith was promptly scheduled for a mastectomy and for reconstructive surgery. Six months of chemotherapy followed.
In observance of October as National Breast Cancer Awareness Month, Jean Smith agreed to share her experience with breast cancer and its treatment and to emphasize to other women the importance of self-examination and scheduling regular mammograms.
“It saved my life,” she said of the screening procedure which aids in early detection of breast cancer. Early detection can be a critical factor in successful treatment.
“If I hadn’t had a mammogram,” Smith said, “I might have gone three or four years until I felt something in my breast.”
Breast cancer is the most frequently diagnosed cancer in women, according to the Maine Cancer Foundation. It ranks second among cancer deaths in women, falling right behind lung cancer in current statistics.
As a nurse, Smith said she knew of breast cancer patients who had undergone treatment and “were fine.” But thoughts of the side effects she knew sometimes accompany chemotherapy were unsettling.
“I was horrified at the idea of being sick all the time,” she admitted. But the nausea she anticipated was limited, and Smith was able to continue working at her part-time job at York Hospital. “I worked the whole time,” she said.
The diagnosis was difficult for her entire family, she said, noting daughter Courtney was only sixteen at the time, and her older daughter, Jennifer, was a college freshmen about to take end-of-semester exams. “I got the diagnosis during finals week,” Smith recalled, “and I didn’t want to put that pressure on her. I called one of her friends to find out when her toughest exams were and then I waited until they were over to tell her.”
Smith’s husband of forty-two years accompanied her to appointments for doctor visits and treatments in Portland where cancer care facilities were based at that time.
 “It was rough for them to see me go through it,” she said, “but our faith made it easier. We managed it as a family.”
Those insights are a part of what she shares as co-facilitator of the York Hospital Breast Cancer Survivors Group. The group, with just under 100 members, meets monthly for sessions she said are both fun and valuable, particularly for newly diagnosed women coping with the enormity of the illness and the demands of its treatment.
“You find a new normal in your life,” Smith advises these women. “You change your priorities.”
Smith, who has been cancer-free for two decades, made such a change when at age fifty she returned to school, enrolling at the University of Southern Maine and becoming a nurse practitioner. She now works for a private family practice in Portsmouth, New Hampshire.
She also takes part in an annual Walk for Hope sponsored by the survivor group. The volunteer-run summer event benefits York Hospital, the Maine Breast Cancer Coalition and the Women’s Cancer Fund of the Maine Cancer Foundation, all of which provide services to the women of the Pine Tree State.
Medical experts in Maine anticipate that about 1,100 women will be diagnosed with breast cancer during the next year. A similar number of new cases is expected to be reported in New Hampshire. That is why hospitals and other health organizations in the region are offering a variety of events and services to help Seacoast women and others learn more about their personal wellness and manage it effectively.
“We are providing several opportunities for the community to become better educated about breast health,” said Nancy Notis, associate director of marketing and public affairs for Portsmouth Regional Hospital in New Hampshire.
As part of its observance of Breast Cancer Awareness Month, the hospital will offer a free lecture, “Taking the ‘Scary’ Out of Your Diagnosis,” on Saturday, and a “Teacher’s Event” mammogram party on October 17. The hospital launched the observance on Monday with a community lecture on breast reconstruction.
Families First Heath and Support Center, a community health center and family resource center serving the Seacoast region of New Hampshire and southern Maine, will offer a free breast and cervical cancer screening clinic this month, according to Margie Wachtel, communications director.
Families First, which also provides affordable primary health care for people of all ages, prenatal care, dental care and parenting and family programs, will offer screenings on October 24 for women age forty and over or who have not had a pap examination for at least three years, who have no health insurance or are covered by high-deductible policies, and who meet income guidelines, according to Wachtel.
All women should have a baseline mammogram by age forty, said Jane Cummings, a registered nurse with Families First. This initial screening provides experts with an image with which the results of subsequent mammograms can be compared to detect changes in breast tissue. After the baseline screening, women should schedule mammograms every year or two, depending on personal history and the advice of their healthcare providers, experts say.
Cummings, who is handling appointment requests for the October 24 event, said the fear that sometimes prompts a woman to delay having a mammogram is unfounded.
“Certainly some women have heard tales of the discomfort in having a mammogram,” she said. “Others are just afraid of learning the results.”
But healthcare providers are increasingly aware that “there is a lot of anxiety” associated with mammograms, and improvements have been made, she noted.
“It really has been improved, and it is more comfortable,” she said of newer breast screening equipment that may be bolstered with soft padding or warmed slightly where surfaces touch delicate skin.
“They certainly try to make it more comfortable,” she said of mammogram technicians, and results are available more promptly, often within twenty-four hours, which eliminates the days of worry many women experienced.
Follow-up treatment is included in Families First care, Cummings noted.
Appointments for the October 24 should be made with Jane Cummings at 603-422-8208, extension 222. Space is limited but should a need be indicated a waiting list will be assembled, Cummings said, and additional clinics will be scheduled.