Living well with serious illness: Cathy’s breast cancer story

Cathy, 62, has always loved jogging and doing step aerobics, but her true passion is tending to the flowers in her garden.

“I just love being outside and getting my hands in the dirt,” says Cathy, born and raised in Dayton, Ohio.

Cathy will be the first to tell you that gardening takes both patience and the willingness to start anew when a flower doesn’t grow like she’d hoped. “It’s okay when something doesn’t go your way out there. It’s all about adapting and moving forward,” says Cathy.

Cathy has had to apply those same principles to her own life as well. A diagnosis of stage IV breast cancer in 2012—the second time she had been diagnosed with this illness—halted her active and productive life. She faced an uphill climb of difficult chemotherapy regiments and an uncertain future.

After dealing with painful symptoms from the chemotherapy and the stress of managing the ups and downs of her battle for over four years, she asked for better care from her medical professionals. She was referred to palliative care who now work every day to get her back to her active life.

This is Cathy’s story.

What is palliative care?

Cathy’s first bout with breast cancer at age 50 was challenging. She underwent several surgeries over a period of two years which included radiation, a double mastectomy, and a removal of ovaries. Her chemotherapy was successful and she beat her cancer, but it returned seven years later.

“I was careful and I took care of myself after that first diagnosis, so it was a shock when it came back. I had thought I was done with cancer,” says Cathy.

The chemotherapy that worked the first time was no longer effective so many different regiments were tried. While doctors eventually found a treatment option that worked well to reduce her cancer levels, the harsh side effects from the chemo caused several issues including joint pain and Hand and Foot Syndrome which caused her hands and feet to bleed. The constant appointments, cancer scans, and medication changes had brought Cathy to a breaking point.

“It just seemed like everything was going wrong. I was a mess. I couldn’t sleep and I was in a bad place emotionally and physically,” says Cathy.

Recognizing these issues, Cathy’s oncologist felt that she could benefit from more support as she continued to receive treatment. She recommended that she see the palliative care team.

Palliative care (pronounced pal-lee-uh-tiv) is specialized medical care for people with serious illness. This type of care is focused on providing relief from the symptoms and stress of a serious illness. The goal is to improve quality of life for both the patient and the family.

Listen: Life After Diagnosis 

Cathy met with the palliative care team which includes a specially-trained team of doctors, nurses and other specialists. Among the specialists was Mark Curtis, an advanced practice registered nurse who has spent a great deal of his career helping patients like Cathy live with better quality of life while facing serious illnesses

“In short, palliative care is about relieving suffering,” says Mark. “Suffering can be emotional, physical, or spiritual. When I first met Cathy, it was clear that she was dealing with all three.”

Palliative care specialists take the time to get to know patients and their family members so they can adequately treat all of the things that are affecting their lives.

“What I did with Cathy is what I frequently do at the initial meeting with most of my patients.  I’ll introduce myself, explain who I am and what we do, and I’ll ask the patient to tell me his or her story,” explains Mark. “The interesting thing is that when people are asked that question, they don’t usually talk about the illness either. They talk about themselves.”

Mark and his team recognized early on that they had a long way to go to get Cathy back to her old self.

“Cathy is a very independent, vibrant, and enthusiastic person who is a joy to be around. That’s how I see her today, but when we first met, she was a different person,” says Mark.

“I was willing to do anything to start feeling better. Luckily for me, the team offered me so many different ways to improve my quality of life,” says Cathy.

Managing the painful symptoms

After initial meetings to assess Cathy’s fears and frustrations, it was evident that the side effects from chemotherapy were keeping her from doing the things she enjoyed like exercising and gardening. Pain can also cause sleeping issues and can affect a person’s emotional well-being.

“I felt like I wasn’t a part of society anymore. I didn’t want to get out of bed or spend time with my husband or friends,” says Cathy.

The palliative care team immediately went to work on managing her physical symptoms. For palliative care specialists, this often means finding the right balance between medications and other treatments. Changing medications to reduce Cathy’s side effects, and in some cases eliminating some pain medications altogether, helped clear the way for more physical activity. All the while, Cathy and Mark continued to talk.

“Like everything in palliative care, it’s an ongoing conversation about what’s working and what isn’t. We don’t accept that there isn’t more that can be done to relieve suffering. There is always more we can do, and in Cathy’s case there certainly were steps forward,” says Mark.

Because one of Cathy’s symptoms was joint pain, for example, the team encouraged her to take small steps to a more active lifestyle. She started going to yoga classes and did small exercises at home like stretching in the morning.

“When the pain started to lessen, I started to finally feel like myself again,” says Cathy.

Tackling the Stress

Mark believes it is important to tackle issues patients may have had before their illnesses first. He says getting to the root of the things that troubled them beforehand allows him to help the them move forward.

Hear from another one of Mark’s patients

With the pain under control, Cathy could put her focus on dealing with the emotional barriers that stood in her way. Through long conversations with the palliative care team, Cathy started to chip away at what was causing her stress.

“One of the things that came out of our conversations was that Cathy always felt the most stressed in the mornings. She would wake up and think of everything she would face that day, and it would keep her from getting up and out of bed,” says Mark.

Although she was on anti-depressant medication, Mark also worked with Cathy to find natural ways to fight her anxiety. As one example, Mark recommended journaling as an outlet to work through her stress.

“Medication simply isn’t enough. You need to be able to take control of things yourself and become an active player in your own life,” says Mark.

Cathy was also encouraged to set small goals to get up and out of the house as she continued to fight through the symptoms of chemotherapy. As the anxiety decreased, Mark was able to greatly scale back her medication.

The results showed.

“I remember waking up one day and the fear was gone. I could physically feel that it was gone. I have a plan in place now and a reason to keep going. Palliative care got me there,” says Cathy.

Cathy Today

After many attempts at treatments, her oncologist found a chemotherapy that worked well for Cathy and her cancer is currently in remission. With her symptoms and anxiety under control, she is getting back to her old self.

“What I learned this time around is that I don’t have control over the future, but I do have control over how I feel. Palliative care helped me find my perspective and enjoy the small things,” says Cathy.

Cathy continues to see palliative care as her oncologist monitors her cancer. For now, you can find her in her garden, getting her hands dirty and taking it one flower at a time.

At any point in your journey, resources about palliative care are available at www.getpalliativecare.org.  To find out if palliative care is right for you or a loved one, take this quick quiz. To locate palliative care in your area, head to the Palliative Care Provider Directory.

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