May 122011
 

Some breast cancer survivors say they’re glad they got (and beat) breast cancer. Here are a few secret benefits of breast cancer from survivors, oncologists, and radiologists…

“Because of my mother’s struggle with breast cancer when I was 16, I always felt like I had two B-sized time bombs sitting on my chest, just waiting to explode,” says 36-year old Leslie Haywood, of Charleston, SC. “Two years ago, they finally did – and I was relieved. My doctor said, ‘It’s cancer’ and I almost immediately knew I wanted a bilateral mastectomy – and be done with the stress and worry of those pesky mammary glands forever!”

If you’ve been diagnosed with breast cancer – know someone who has – you may find Help Me Live, Revised: 20 Things People with Cancer Want You to Know helpful. It’s the number one bestselling book about breast cancer on Amazon right now.

And, here’s an article I wrote for a health magazine a couple years ago…

Breast Cancer Survivors Share Benefits of the Big C

For some women, a breast cancer diagnosis and treatment means freedom to move forward.

“The treatment itself brings a sense of relief to breast cancer patients,” says Dr. William Dunn, MD, a radiation oncologist at the West Michigan Cancer Center. “Knowing that the radiation is working every day to kill those cancer cells lifts a burden. Getting treatment reassures patients, relieves fear and guilt, and increases hope.”

There’s no denying the ugly, miserable, nasty face of breast cancer – but some side effects of traditional and complementary breast cancer treatments actually make women healthier and stronger!

Fewer heart attacks, stronger bones

Women with breast cancer are less likely to develop coronary disease for two reasons, according to Dr Elizabeth Lamont, MD, Assistant Physician at Massachusetts General Hospital Cancer Center and Assistant Professor of Medicine and Health Care Policy at Harvard Medical School. First, the high estrogen levels that contribute to breast cancer actually protect against heart disease.

Second, Dr Lamont’s research shows that tamoxifen – a common treatment for cancer – stimulates the estrogen receptors that improve cardiovascular health. Dr Lamont’s research also shows that elderly women with breast cancer are less likely to suffer from osteoporosis and hip fractures because tamoxifen stimulates estrogen in the bones.

Better health care services for breast cancer survivors

“After 20 years, I still go to my oncologist every six to nine months for tumor markers, lipid profiles, and flu shots,” says 60 year old Gitta Wombwell – mother of Leslie with the “time bomb” breasts. “My doctor watches closely to ensure I stay healthy.” She was diagnosed at age 39, had a radical mastectomy and aggressive chemotherapy, and has enjoyed NED (“no evidence of disease”) ever since.

Gitta’s “secret benefit of breast cancer” jives with recent research: breast cancer survivors have increased access to preventative services such as flu vaccinations, cervical and colon screening, and lipid testing, according to a study from the Breast Oncology Center at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston, MA. Since these women are already involved in the medical system, doctors have more opportunities to diagnose and treat other possible diseases – which can mean longer, healthier lives.

Remission from acne and arthritis

“For me, a positive side effect of chemo – besides eradicating my tumor – was the perfect skin I had after the treatments,” says 42 year old Allison Stanley, from Charlotte, NC. “The chemo poisons kill everything inside your body, including the toxins that cause a bad complexion. My skin, during and after chemo, was flawless. So, even though I had no hair and couldn’t feel my hands right after chemo, my skin was better than ever!”

Allison’s oncologist explained to her that bodily toxins are destroyed by the chemo. Some chemo drugs rejuvenate skin cells, making them pure and free from flaws, acne and other problems. This hasn’t been medically substantiated, and doctors agree that different women experience different effects of chemotherapy.

“Some of my chemotherapy patients not only have clearer skin, but also better control of their arthritis,” adds Dr Dunn. “Many skin and joint diseases, such as psoriasis and rheumatoid arthritis, are caused by the immune system attacking the body’s own tissues. Chemotherapy interrupts this process by slowing the immune system, which decreases symptoms of those diseases. When chemo ends, those symptoms may reappear.”

Increased well-being and more energy

Acupuncture is a complementary treatment for breast cancer that relieves the nausea, hot flashes, night sweats, and excessive sweating that chemotherapy brings – and offers additional health benefits.

“After acupuncture, I just feel better…at the top of my game,” says 51 year old Susan Azar of Northville, MI. She was diagnosed with breast cancer at age 43, had a lumpectomy to remove the tumor, and uses chemo to prevent a recurrence. For her, acupuncture relieves the side effects of ongoing drug therapy. “I was surprised by the increase in my energy levels. I’ve continued the acupuncture treatments at my own cost because of the benefits.”

Research from Dr Eleanor Walker, MD, radiation oncologist at Henry Ford Hospital in Detroit, Michigan, shows that acupuncture offers equivalent results as traditional drug therapy, without the nasty side effects. “In our study, acupuncture improved energy, and increased clarity of thought and overall quality of life,” says Dr. Walker. “Some patients even had an improvement in their sex drive.” A better sex life is a benefit of being a breast cancer survivor?

Better self-care for survivors of the big C

Breast cancer survivors often experience a stronger connection to their bodies as a result of both the cancer and the treatment, which is another secret benefit of the big C. “I learned more about my sexuality, breasts, skin, wrinkles, endurance, breathing, hair – and lack of hair!” says 33 year old Stefanie LaRue, patient advocate and spokesperson for the Breast Preservation Foundation. She had a skin-sparing mastectomy, which removed the tumor, left her skin intact, and allowed a breast reconstruction that restored her shape. “Now, I respect my body – it’s done a good job in helping heal itself. We have a much better relationship than before.”

Many survivors of breast cancer take better care of themselves by eating healthier, stressing less, and tuning in to their bodies – which protects them from other diseases. Take physical fitness, for instance. “Exercise reduces the risk of recurrence of some breast cancers,” says Dr Julie Silver, MD, Assistant Professor of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation at Harvard Medical School. “Exercising to recover from breast cancer treatment improves overall health, and reduces the risk of dying from the most common diseases that affect women: heart disease, stroke, and cancer.”

And some women – like Leslie – enjoy their “rebuilt” bodies:

“I chose natural breast reconstruction to put back what the cancer took away,” says Leslie. “It’s a wonderful procedure that takes the tummy pooch that being a mother of two brings and puts it up top where it can do some good!  Imagine that…no more worrying about cancer, two perky new boobs, and a bonus tummy tuck! How in the world could I complain about that?”

Other Benefits of Breast Cancer

“Not having to shave, not having to deal with my period, and eating whatever I wanted while going through chemo were definite benefits,” says 31 year old Wendy Keating, of Seattle, Washington. “I also learned a great deal about my body – and am more in touch with it now than I’ve ever been.”

“In one way, the chemo was the worse thing I ever experienced,” says 60 year old Gitta Wombwell of Charleston, South Carolina. “In other ways, it’s something I don’t regret. I lost all my hair, but it grew back thicker and fuller, which was great. I had always had fine hair.”

“One of my overweight patients returned to work 25 pounds lighter due to the side effects of chemo,” says Gloria Nelson, a senior oncology social worker at the Montefiore-Einstein Cancer Center at Montefiore Medical Center in New York City. “Her coworkers didn’t know why she was gone, and were curious about how she lost all that weight. She looked great! ‘You wouldn’t want to do it my way,’ my patient told her colleagues. ‘I was on the ‘cancer diet.’”

“Patients tend to lose weight during surgery and chemotherapy, and general health improves,” says Dr John Di Saia, MD. “With decreasing weight, people who had problems with high blood pressure and diabetes find themselves needing medication less frequently.”

If you know a woman with breast cancer check out the Kimmie Cares dolls in Parents With Cancer. They’re a great way to tell kids, “mom has breast cancer.”

What do you think of these benefits of breast cancer for survivors?

  6 Responses to “Breast Cancer Survivors Share Secret Benefits of the Big C”

  1. Dear Reed,

    Thanks for your thoughts on preventing cancer. I didn’t realize how the symptoms of cancer can go undetected, which is scary because the disease can progress so fast.

    It’s also important to know your family’s history of cancer, so you can do your best to prevent and even treat it. And, stay focused on the positive parts of your life. Maybe you don’t have to be grateful for getting cancer, but if you focus on the “secret benefits of cancer”, maybe it’ll help you cope with chemotherapy and beating cancer.

    Blessings,
    Laurie

  2. Cancer prevention begins with good information, and early awareness. Many of us are unaware of actual cancer symptoms, like myself until loosing two close family members. Many times symptoms appear as common everyday small nuisance, and do not draw concern simply thinking they will go away with time, local treatment, lotions, etc. In fact it’s amazing how we, as humans will put the minor things off, until a later point in time. Prevention, education, is the best method to defeat cancer, before it becomes a serious problem.

  3. Sally,

    Thanks for sharing your mom’s experience with surviving breast cancer and how it benefited her life. If you have to deal with breast cancer, freedom is a great “perk” to help you cope! I’m glad your mom has found the upside of breast cancer.

    Blessings,
    Laurie

  4. Mom is a breast cancer survivor, and she says the disease changed her life. She doesn’t care about getting people’s approval now, or pleasing others, or trying to bend over backwards to make everybody happy.

    For her the benefit of breast cancer is freedom to live her life the way she wants.

    Thank you for writing this article.

  5. Thanks for your comment, Joan. One of my friends survived breast cancer, and I think she’d agree with you.

    I have ulcerative colitis, which isn’t life-threatening. Whether or not there are benefits to having that disease depends on how you look at it and what you consider a “benefit.”

    So, yes, I guess it is about making lemonade!

  6. I think these are all examples of how to make lemonade out of lemons. There are really no benefits to having a life threatening disease – except perhaps the life lessons of learning to make every day count, not wasting time, etc. One can lose weight and get better hair in other ways.

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