After being diagnosed in January with triple-negative breast cancer, Barbara Lotharp of Middletown was able to beat the disease with chemotherapy and radiation. But the experience left her lost — what is life after cancer supposed to look like?
“My son posted a picture of me on Facebook ringing the bell” — signaling that she had completed her cancer treatment, Lotharp said. “But what do I do now?”
She found some of the answers Oct. 17 at Christiana Care Health System’s Every Woman Matters: A Breast Health and Wellness Conference. Sponsored by the Helen F. Graham Cancer Center & Research Institute and community partners, the second annual event focused on the needs of breast cancer survivors, and also provided information on health and wellness topics for all women. More than 100 attendees learned about topics that included vitamins, genetic testing and the emotional complexities of navigating life after cancer at the free, day-long forum that featured 21 exhibitors and a dozen speakers.
Survivorship nurse navigator Darcy Burbage spoke about just what Lotharp had been hoping to learn.
“Cancer changes you,” said Burbage, RN, MSN, AOCN, CBCN. That change includes cognitive alterations of the brain, fears of recurrence, body-image issues, changes in relationships and survivor’s guilt. “It’s normal to have these concerns and fears, but it’s when you get stuck that we want to help you become unstuck. You have to figure out how we can help you get back on track.”
Community Health Outreach Manager Nora Katurakes, RN, MSN, OCN, who organized the conference, said the day was designed to offer something for everyone.
“We want them to know what resources we have for breast cancer survivors and others,” said Katurakes. “They should know what’s going to happen if they go to imaging, or if they have to make a decision regarding breast reconstruction.”
Speaking on nutrition, registered dietitian Mary Williams, RD, dispelled myths surrounding the benefits of vitamins and supplements, citing a frequent lack of science-based evidence and cautioning that most are not regulated.
“Deficiencies in vitamins are very rare in Americans today,” Williams said, with the exception of Vitamin D, since people don’t spend as much time outdoors. She encouraged the audience to incorporate food sources of antioxidants in their diets. “Look for color,” she said, referring to the many colorful fruits and berries that are high in these healthy nutrients.
Katurakes said she listened to the feedback from last year’s attendees and this year added a presentation by plastic surgeon Dr. Erik Hoy.
Elena Blanco Allende of Newark said that if she had known five years ago what she learned at this year’s conference, she would have managed her breast cancer treatment differently. Allende, who uses a prosthesis, picked up Hoy’s card to learn more about reconstruction options using her own body tissue.
“There are so many resources to take advantage of,” Allende said of the support network offered by Christiana Care. She also takes art classes at the Cancer Center. “That was part of my healing,” she said.
Catherine Schmidt from the Cancer Support Community, Delaware, instructed attendees in chair yoga. Georgia Jones, a volunteer teaching art at the Cancer Center, assisted Schmitt with the yoga demonstration.
Stephanie Toland-Mayo, first vice president of the Wilmington alumnae chapter of Delta Sigma Theta, is the daughter of a breast cancer survivor. Breast cancer awareness fits into the sorority’s national platform of service, she said, and the group is an event sponsor and also hosted a booth at the conference. The sorority doesn’t have a local partner for the cause, she said. “So we thought it would be a good opportunity to bring awareness to this issue by partnering with Christiana Care.”
Sorority sister Monica Moore, a Christiana Care maternity nurse who teaches biomedical science at Delcastle Technical High School, lost her children’s godmother to breast cancer 15 years ago. Marion Jones had been a Christiana Care nurse for 30 years, she said, and loved working in maternity, bringing new lives into the world even as she learned her own cancer was out of remission.
“As a registered nurse and instructor, it’s important to me to bring awareness to students and loved ones. That starts at home,” Moore said. “If ‘each one can reach one,’ we can definitely make an impact on this disease.”
Radiologist Sara Gavenonis, M.D., offered a tutorial in breast imaging, noting that beginning next year under new legislation, Delaware residents who undergo mammograms will receive letters categorizing their breast density.
The Breast Center was open for low-cost mammogram appointments for event attendees. Eight women took advantage and were screened. Among them was Joyce Pearson, who had scheduled a mammogram elsewhere but canceled the appointment to “make a day of it” after receiving the postcard announcing the event in the mail. In six years, the Newark woman will be retiring from her teaching job in Philadelphia and is starting to make the transition to Christiana Care providers.
“I wanted to find out more about wellness and nutrition,” Pearson said. “I’m getting older and need to start paying more attention to these things.”
Genetic counselor Katie Orio Zarnowski, MGC, CGC, underscored the importance of identifying whether you’re at high risk for breast cancer. At Christiana Care’s’ high-risk breast screening program, patients can coordinate all of their testing in one day with one person, she said.
“Genomics is the future,” Zarnowski said.
Estelle Monahan of Newark, a nurse manager at the Perry Point VA Medical Center, comes from just such a high-risk family history and started her mammograms early. She was diagnosed with an aggressive form of breast cancer 13 years ago, after she turned 40.
As a health professional, she was drawn to the conference for the education it offers. On a personal level, she wanted to provide support to others. A woman sitting next to her is currently undergoing treatment, she said. The woman turned to her and said, “I don’t know if I’m a survivor or not.”
“I told her, ‘Oh, you’re a survivor from the moment you’re diagnosed,’” Monahan said. “I was glad to be able to educate her about that and offer support.”
Event sponsors included: Christiana Care’s Women’s Health and the Breast Center; the sororities Alpha Kappa Alpha, Sigma Gamma Rho, Delta Sigma Theta and Zeta Phi Beta; Susan G. Komen for the Cure, Philadelphia; Avon Foundation for Women; American Cancer Society, Sisters on a Mission, Delaware Breast Cancer Coalition and Cancer Support Community of Delaware.