BODIES: It’s Never You Until It’s You

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Hannah interviewed and photographed her beautiful mother Petra who survived breast cancer and agreed to share her story with Kandaka. Hopefully, this can be of help to women who fight or help others fight illness. 

How did you find out about your breast cancer?

In 2007, my gynecologist offered me to undertake an annual ultrasound to check for breast and uterine cancer, unfortunately on my own expenses. I did it for two years, but in 2009 I was too lazy and I probably also thought there was no point since nothing had been found in the previous years. After skipping 2009 I went back one year later, when he found “something” in my right breast.

What were your initial thoughts and how long did it take you to realize what was happening to your body? 

I first of all thought this must be a bad joke, maybe I was asleep and would wake up any moment. Why me? No one in my family had ever suffered from cancer. I was wondering if I was going to die now and if so, how and when. What would happen to my husband and my daughter? Before that day I had not given cancer much thought, because I didn’t think it related to me; it’s never you, it’s always other people. After the doctor’s appointment I went straight to a book shop and bought a book about breast cancer and started reading right in a corner of that shop.

What were the first steps taken by your doctors? 

Already on the next day, I went to the hospital for a second check up. I was so nervous and the doctor treating me was little sensitive and understanding. He was super unfriendly, asking me why I had only come now and not had an appointment ages ago. He said it might be too late for me now and that it was my own fault! He scared me so much that I left the hospital in tears. This was especially unfair because my doctor had told me that I could not have felt the tumor myself even if I had checked my breast regularly.

What was your treatment comprised of and how long did it take? 

It seemed like everything had to be done very quickly, so I started treatment two days afterwards in Nuremberg’s Nordklinikum. Firstly, I needed to enter the “core biopsy”, where they took a probe of my body tissue in order to be able to see the tumor through ultrasound. They also checked if the tumor had already radiated and affected my bone marrow or my head. If it had, it would have been nearly impossible for me to heal. It took (the longest) two hours (of my life) until the doctor came to tell me that I had been lucky because there was nothing to be found, which increased my healing chance for 200%. The next days were followed by a “tumor conference”, where the decision of how to treat me was taken. I wanted to get “the guy” out as quickly as possible so that he could not hurt my body any longer, so I decided to have an operation followed by Chemo therapy once a week. During that time, my friends were giving me the wildest suggestions, telling me to use Reiki and herbs.”Do you really want to poison your body?” was one of the mildest, well-intentioned advice I received. Still, I had decided to do everything the doctors were telling me. My hair started falling out after the second Chemo.

What were the biggest changes in your every day life while receiving treatment?

Being at home. I wasn’t used to so much quite and it taught me patience, discipline and how to listen to my body and treat it well. People who were not that close to me came and offered their help. My mind and soul were constantly moving between hope – fear – courage – strength – hopelessness – anger.

You were relatively lucky, you only had to remove a small part of your breast and your scars healed well. Still, can you tell us how you dealt with your body and your new appearance? Did your confidence suffer from your hair loss?

I was not afraid to lose my hair, because I’d had conversations with many women who had gone through it before me. I knew it was a sign that cells were dying in my body, hopefully mainly tumor cells. It was a compromise I was willing to take. My mother bought me a wig that I wore from time to time, but it was a hot summer and I was sweating in it so more often I would wear scarves around my head. I was much more bothered by the fact that the cortisone made me look like an inflated balloon. My feet and hands felt numb and my bones were constantly hurting.

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How did the treatment influence your mind?

I learned what it means to fear for your life. Fear of my own death and of wasting away. I suffered from extreme mood swings that I would now call manic depressive. The most important thing for me was to feel alive, so I would laugh with people even immediately after my operation. Then, fear and hopelessness would suddenly overcome me.

Where did you take your motivation from? Were there days when you wanted to give up?

From the day I was diagnosed, I received a lot of love and reassurance from the people around me. I was very open about my illness, which made some people feel uncomfortable but that was nothing I could be considerate about. The strongest support came from my family who put up with all my lamenting and mood swings. It was not easy for them that everyone was concerned with me and never took time to ask how they were feeling about the situation. I wanted to live, for myself as well as for my family. However, there were a number of friends and family members who did not want to deal with me and my illness, but that never made me feel like giving up, not for one second!

The treatment worked for you. It is said that after five years without any metastasis, you are healed. How did it feel to reach this five year mark? 

It will have been eight years this month (March 2018) but because I still take medication every day, I am always reminded of my illness. Initially, the five year mark was very important to me, sort of like “I will have won then!” Now I think about it differently; I tell myself that every day I live after my diagnose is a win, because I am alive. After having witnessed many women relapse after this mark, I don’t really believe in it anymore.

Today, your hair has grown back and your scars are barely visible. Still, what are some of the changes that still affect your life?

There are things that are not necessarily visible on first sight. For example, taking all the cortisone and anti-hormone tablets made me gain a lot of weight that I haven’t lost yet and that I don’t feel comfortable with. Also, my menstruation stopped and I immediately entered the menopause (however now that I am 49 it doesn’t really bother me anymore).

Unfortunately, the tablets that are still necessary now cause strong side effects like strong mood swings, hurting bones and nerves as well as numb feet. They are supposed to disappear after 10 years, when I finally stop taking the pills.

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How can relatives of cancer patients help? What helped you and what did you miss?

The first thing to understand is that you should be forgiving. A cancer patient might be unfair and mean because she is feeling helpless and that live is treating her unfairly. She doesn’t know how to deal with her anger about her illness and her fear of death. While my family would tell me when I was over the top, they would always believe in and motivate me. I was very lucky to be financially stable, well looked after and part of an understanding company that allowed me to take as much time off as I needed. It would have been nice to have an onco-psychologist to help me clear the rubbish inside me.

What do you want to tell women who are fighting cancer right now?

To never give up. If you are able to, to be open about your illness – except if you don’t deal well with certain questions that people might hit you with. Don’t spend time with people who are not good for you. Treat yourself every day. Look after your diet and exercise, it also helps you deal with depression. I used to drink green tea every day (leave the bag in for 10 minutes) and read Dr. Richard Béliveau’s “Anti-Cancer-Book”. Finally, remember that cancer is not your fault and you don’t have to hide for it and  give your body all the rest and time it needs (whilst drawing, reading,… ).

What do you want to tell women that have not (yet) had cancer?

I urge all of you to get yourself checked regularly as well as to check your breast yourself (many women find the knot before their doctor does). You can find the right way to do it on the internet and it might save your life, at least it will save you a lot of time. A checkup takes 10 minutes, a therapy longer than a year!

Furthermore, stay away from all alternative treatments! Cancer is not like a simple cold and so far nothing can replace conventional medicine. I have witnessed too many women suffer and die unnecessarily.

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Is there anything positive you could take away from having cancer? 

I realized that it isn’t always natural to be healthy and live the day just as it comes. I also learned to appreciate my life and my loved ones and how much strength and discipline I can mobilize to fight for them, allthewhile keeping my (rather strange) humour. Most importantly, I now know that I am dear to many people who are dear to me and that I want to accompany them for much longer.

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Interview and pictures by Hannah Wolny

Translation by Amuna Wagner 

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