Breast cancer survivor Elena Blanco Allende attends Christiana Care Health System’s Every Woman Matters: A Breast Health and Wellness Conference each year to help other women as they journey along the “long, hard road” of breast cancer.
“I know how much it means to have the opportunity to talk with someone when you are going through it,” said Allende, of Newark.
Now in its fourth year, this free annual event features a resource fair with community partners, free health screenings and expert speakers. More than 130 people attended the Oct. 1 conference, which emphasized an array of health and wellness topics including living with breast cancer, genetics and maintaining strong bones.
Breast health can be affected by overall health, said speaker Colleen Doyle, MS, RD, managing director of nutrition and physical activity for the American Cancer Society.
“Preliminary research indicates that losing weight can help reduce your cancer risk,” Doyle said. Other manageable risk factors include physical activity, alcohol use and diet. “I’m making a passionate plea for you to spread the word in the community,” she told the audience. “If there’s a magic bullet for health, it’s activity.”
A special focus of the conference was metastatic breast cancer, in which the cancer spreads to other organs, lymph nodes or bones. While metastatic breast cancer cannot yet be cured, it can be slowed, said Ramya Varadarajan, M.D., an oncologist at the Helen F. Graham Cancer Center & Research Institute. Her advice: Listen to your body.
“Be an active partner with your doctor,” Dr. Varadarajan said. “Stay in touch about changes you may experience or pain you may feel. It’s always better to speak up. We need to know what you are feeling to best care for you.”
Michelle Bailiff, LCSW, OSW-C, of the Graham Cancer Center, offered similar guidance on a panel about living with metastatic breast cancer. “Every story is different. If you take anything away from here today, it’s to really know our own particular situation intimately well.”
Women with metastatic cancer often have a desire to feel whole, and they feel a loss of control over their lives, she said. “It’s about making peace with this being a part of your life. Learning to exist, to thrive and then being OK with uncertainty — that’s one of the most difficult things.”
Much of the anxiety surrounding cancer involves being pushed out of your comfort zone, Bailiff said, but “there are things you can do to take back empowerment.”
Sister Julian Wilson, MSFL, ACC, a chaplain at Christiana Care, advised women to identify what quality of life means for them and to construct a support team of people who can provide a sense of completeness. “It may include a yoga instructor, or a massage therapist,” she said. “Do what you need to do to feel complete. You are a valuable, precious person.”
A survivorship panel, led by Darcy Burbage, RN, MSN, AOCN, CBCN, nurse navigator with the Graham Cancer Center, highlighted the importance of the role of nurse navigator in helping the newly diagnosed. Tabe Mase, NP, director of Employee Health at Christiana Care, spoke about returning to work after diagnosis and treatment and the importance of working with your human resources department or employee health team.
Tanya Robinson and Melanie Garrison of Sigma Gamma Rho Sorority Inc., said their group has supported the conference since its inception four years ago, when it was called Sisters Helping Sisters.
“We want to bring awareness to the community,” Garrison said.
The sororities provided free blood pressure screenings to more than a dozen attendees. Christiana Care nuclear medicine tech Stacy Adams provided free osteoporosis screenings to 26 women.
Simply You Boutique, with locations at the Graham Cancer Center and on Concord Pike in Wilmington, was on hand to talk about personal fittings for women who have undergone a mastectomy.
“Every woman goes into it differently,” said owner Cassie Giannoni. “We can help women feel comfortable in their body after a breast cancer procedure.”
Community Health Outreach Manager Nora Katurakes, RN, MSN, OCN, who organized the conference, said the day was designed with key take-away messages about how women can achieve optimal health through education about important screenings and inspiration for women with breast cancer.
“Cancer is life-changing,” said Katurakes. “At the Graham Cancer Center and with our dedicated community partners, we have what women need to get back on track and stay on track.”