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Relationship Advice: Surviving Breast Cancer

Written by Rita Kennen

October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month.  Have you thought about how you'd get through it? 

If you had breast cancer, could your partner provide the love and support you need? Read how one couple faced the challenge of this life threatening illness.

Going Back in Time
When Sandy, once a registered nurse, found out she had breast cancer, she struggled with how to tell family and friends. "Larry's mother had died at 47 and I was 47. We had seven children and our youngest was 6. You go between communicating every fear and thought to letting your mind run away with private thoughts and fears."

Breast cancer is the most common cancer among women and is also the second leading cause of cancer deaths in women today.   
The most telling symptom is a painless lump.
Surgery is the customary treatment.
The National Breast Cancer Site offers resources including early detection awareness, celebrity survival stories and more.

For six months, Sandy didn't even tell her own mother. "I knew that she would want to be here with me and help, but she had been a total basket case when her sister had been diagnosed." Accepting her mother's limitations, Sandy went on. "My mother was never a nurturing mother and I knew that I needed support and probably did not want to be disappointed again by her."

Of Larry and Sandy's seven children, Jerrett, 13, and Sean, 10, probably felt the most frightened. A friend's father had recently died from another type of cancer. Tracy who was the oldest at 23, felt hopeless. No longer living at home, she needed most to be at her mother's side. Jennifer, 19, got angry and told her mother she wouldn't need a hair dryer once all her hair fell out from chemotherapy. Meghan, 6, was not told at the time.

Larry and Sandy knew their kids needed help to accept the unknown. They paid immediate attention to the kids' questions and worked at sensing when each child needed to be comforted.

"We used a demonstration doll called Brandi to educate all the kids about breast cancer, mammography and reconstruction," said Larry. "That helped a lot, since they could understand what was going on and not have the facts left to their imaginations."

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Looking for Treatment Options
Larry looked at treatment options, reading widely on breast cancer. "We read, got available books and magazine pieces. Mostly, we met with physicians to learn about treatment options," he explained. Sandy's 25 years experience as a registered nurse was an asset.

The Surgery
Sandy grew more frightened as the day of her surgery approached, "The fear of death was not the biggest, the fear of experiencing an agonizing death that I witnessed so many times as a nurse was terrifying. I kept seeing myself as terminally ill."

Knowing that it's more difficult to detect recurrence in a radiated breast after lumpectomy, Sandy elected to have a mastectomy followed by eight to nine hours of breast reconstruction surgery. A friend's experience helped her. "My good friend had a mastectomy two years prior and when I saw her scars I decided that I would have reconstruction if I was ever diagnosed," Sandy explained.

Her decision was also motivated by other considerations: "I knew that if I kept my breast intact with a lumpectomy that every time I looked at my breast I would be reminded of my diagnosis."

Larry didn't think about the scars. The possibility of losing Sandy was his strongest fear. "Looking different is really nothing," said Larry. "The potential loss of life was the hard thing to deal with."

Sandy said, "Before I went to surgery, I wrote goodbye letters and a list of operations of the business. I gave my good friend everything in a big envelope with a note on it:

"Hope you don't have to use this."

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Chemotherapy and Hormone Replacement Therapy
Five weeks after her recovery from surgery, Sandy started chemotherapy, facing the fear that her cancer might have spread. Reluctant to share these feelings with Larry, she confided, "I think you develop that sixth sense as to when you need to talk about issues and what does and does not need to be discussed, as you both know your fears."

Chemotherapy can induce early menopause.
Menopause may bring hot flashes, vaginal dryness and lack of sexual desire.
Hormone replacement therapy often relieves symptoms of menopause.

"The thing that made me angriest was that my future and dreams were taken from me. After the six months of chemo were over, I only made plans in three month segments, doctors visit to doctor visit," she said.

Life During Chemo
Chemotherapy threw Sandy into early menopause. She suffered hot flashes, sleeplessness, vaginal dryness and lack of sexual desire. She had trouble responding to foreplay during lovemaking and doubted that she was desirable. "Sex got bad for a while," confirmed Larry.

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Sandy and Larry considered hormone replacement therapy (HRT), a promising, but possibly dangerous solution to their sexual problem. Estrogen, the active ingredient of HRT, is believed to cause the growth of new cancer cells. (The verdict is still out on the safety of HRT following breast cancer surgery.)

Nine months after chemotherapy, Sandy and Larry decided to ignore the traditional treatment recommendations and begin HRT.

"I fought with my oncologist for estrogen replacement therapy. I told him that I was not willing to deal with a cancer diagnosis and lose my sex life, too. I told him that when I stop thinking of sex, I knew I was in trouble."

Sandy and Larry's sexual problems ended once she started on hormone replacement therapy. In retrospect, she said, "It was absolutely the best decision I ever made and has made all the difference in my quality of life."

The Story Doesn't End Here
The Eilers' story ends not with Sandy's successful recovery, but with the ongoing hope and insight the couple offers others in similar circumstances. Larry's book, When The Woman You Love Has Breast Cancer, is a small part of their contribution to breast cancer awareness.

Reach out. Enlist help.
Stick together. Actively support each other.
Read up. Learn about the disease.

Many doctors refer newly diagnosed patients to Sandy. "I do what I call a show and tell," she said. "I take off my blouse and bra and let them see my reconstruction. I also insist that they touch my reconstructed breast. The look of relief that comes over them is wonderful, as they all say that they could live with that."

Watch this video on the 4 levels of healing.

Larry said, "I've learned that most men don't know how to cope with an issue that they can't kick, hit or yell at." He said he believes that women appreciate a man who's willing to discuss issues with them. He offered men this advice:

  • Go to every appointment with your wife or partner. Compare and discuss what you both heard. In stressful situations, four ears are better than two.
  • Get a second or even a third opinion.
  • Get on the Internet. It offers immediate access to information.
  • Maintain mental control of the situation by doing whatever you need to do. If you pray, then pray. If you need a support group, find one.
  • The medical community will provide information. The rest is up to you.

    Sandy adds that although she would never choose to have breast cancer, it has enriched her life.

    "The activists that I have met, known and worked with are remarkable women. I feel I am the woman I am today because of breast cancer and how I have handled the disease.

    "Maybe it is just what happens when you come into your own in your late 40s and 50s. I faced this demon straight on and had no intention of not giving it a good battle. Larry and I are extremely close. I think as a couple we're better all the way around."

  • Editor's note: This story is based on interviews with breast cancer survivor Sandy Eiler and her husband, Larry, author of When the Woman You Love has Breast Cancer. Principals of their own public relations firm, Larry and Sandy live in Ann Arbor, Mich. Both are active in the breast cancer awareness movement.

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