What to do after a cancer diagnosis

Cancer survivor, doctor share strategies on how to cope, educate yourself, help a loved one after diagnosis

When Victoria Rieger was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2008 after a routine mammogram, the odds were in her favor for a complete recovery. After a lumpectomy and seven weeks of daily radiation treatments, she was cancer-free and on the road to enjoying life again. Unfortunately, she would soon take a detour.

In 2009, she found a lump in the opposite breast during a monthly self-exam. Her doctors didn’t consider it a reoccurrence of her original breast cancer, but rather a completely separate incidence and this time, the prognosis wasn’t so good. Not only was the second cancer invasive, but the treatment for it was also much more invasive as well. She underwent a bi-lateral mastectomy, 6 months of chemotherapy and reconstructive surgery.

“The first time it was caught early,” said Rieger, who resides in Centerville. “I thought, ‘Let’s attack this thing and move on.’ The second time, it was invasive and really made me stop in my tracks. I thought I was beating this thing and now it was back! Thankfully, I had a wonderful team of physicians who were always up front and honest with me and I think that really helped with the anxiety.”

Thomas A. Heck, MD, co-medical director of Samaritan Breast Center and a surgeon at Gem City Surgical Breast Care Center, says that fear, shock, anxiety, depression and sometimes denial can all be present at some point in time after a patient is first told that she has breast cancer.

“It is important when I meet with the patient along with our breast coordinator, that we address these (emotions) right then and there,” said Dr. Heck. “Many times once they are brought up and discussed and the patient really understands more as far as what is going on, a lot of these emotions are put to rest. They feel much better once they learn more about their own disease process.”

Dr. Heck says that the majority of patients will have an option of a lumpectomy or mastectomy for treatment and that providing detailed information on both is an important part of his role as their doctor. “We talk about lumpectomy and removal of the whole breast, we talk about whether we need to sample the lymph nodes, we talk about the potential complications, we definitely talk about the cosmetic results and whether or not we would want to consider any immediate reconstruction. We go through this in great detail so that the lady is very well informed as to which surgical procedure makes sense for her because it really becomes a personal choice,” explained Dr. Heck.

For Rieger, reading and learning as much as she could about her disease process was incredibly empowering. She said that she also did a great deal of research on potential doctors, met with several and chose the ones with which she felt most comfortable.

“I felt like things were spiraling out of control,” said Rieger. “Educating myself as much as I could not only made me feel like I could make more informed decisions with regard to my care, but it also made me feel as though I was taking some control back.”

While Dr. Heck encourages patients to be informed about their disease, he cautions that not all websites are trustworthy. “We have reading materials for the patient and we do advise them on trusted websites if they want to go online. We don’t want them to Google breast cancer, so we tell them what sites are very informative and trustworthy.”

Another vital part of the breast cancer treatment process is ensuring that patients have a support system in place. “As far as taking care of themselves, support groups we feel are very, very important,” explained Dr. Heck. He says that a support group could be anything from family, friends, neighbors, priests, ministers, rabbis — it can be all these people — but that doctors also feel like they should be a part of that support team as well.

“What I have found after doing this for 30 years, is that when a person is diagnosed with breast cancer, they don’t want people to come up and tell them how sorry they are that they have breast cancer,” added Dr. Heck. “What is important is that the support people come up to them saying, ‘Yes, we know about what is going on with you, but we are here to help you. What can we do to help you’?”

Rieger credits the support of family, friends and faith for getting her through the rough spots. “My husband was my constant everything day in and day out and my sons and daughters-in-law were big supporters and helpers too,” said Rieger. “My sister spent her Spring Break from school with me the first week I was home from the hospital.”

She says that her co-workers become like extended family, constantly sending cards, encouraging emails, paying her regular visits and phone calls and even driving her to doctor appointments and chemotherapy treatments.

“I was the lucky one through all this to have such wonderful support, love and prayers from some pretty amazing people,” Rieger said.

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