Breast cancer survivors share their stories, unseen struggles

Standing at the edge of the Santa Monica pier, about to jump, Patty Floyd was ready to end her life after hearing that she had stage three breast cancer. It was July 23, 1999. Monday, July 30, 2007 – Standing at the edge of the Santa Monica pier, about to jump, Patty Floyd was ready to end her life after hearing that she had stage three breast cancer. It was July 23, 1999.

A man fishing on the pier told her, “You don’t want to do that.”

Eight years later, Floyd has lived through eight reoccurrences of cancer as well as post-treatment symptoms such as neuropathy, memory loss and joint pain, but has never once thought of suicide since.

Instead, she uses her experiences to educate people about breast cancer survivorship and educate breast cancer patients about the process.

Her experience, along with those of eight other breast cancer survivors, was featured in a one-hour-long documentary film that was screened Saturday at the James Bridges Theater in UCLA’s Melnitz Hall.

The film was produced by Saskia Subramanian, an assistant research sociologist at the UCLA Center for Culture and Health, and funded by the Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation to educate people about posttreatment symptoms.

“Our hopes for the film are to educate the public and to celebrate the courage of the women in this film in the face of such disabling circumstances,” Subramanian said.

The women featured in the film were selected because their stories were representative of the breast cancer survivors in her study, which revealed that the survivors experienced an average of 14 discrete post-treatment symptoms, she said.

All nine women in the film are free of cancer, but as a result of their exposure to chemotherapy and radiation treatment, they have developed other health conditions ranging from arthritic pain to chronic fatigue to memory loss.

In the past, these symptoms had been considered by doctors to be psychosomatic, related to mental rather than physical causes, but only recently have they been recognized as not just psychological.

A common symptom is the chemo-brain, which results in acute memory loss, where the survivor has a gap in memory.

Some women in the study have said that they won’t be able to think of words they use frequently like “towel” or they would be on a freeway they’ve been driving down for years and suddenly not know where they are.

“One survivor said she had papered her house with post-it notes reminding her where things were, what time her appointments were, when her friends’ birthdays were,” Subramanian said.

Patsy Harris, a 59-year-old survivor who is legally disabled, experienced excruciating back pain and acquired neuropathy, a disease that causes nerve damage.

Though she tried to talk to her doctors about it, they did not take it seriously and passed it off as a result of depression.

“They had the attitude that they saved my life, so I should get back out there and live.” Harris said. “They ignored (the symptoms), and they ignored me.”

Harris was also thrown into early menopause as a result of the chemotherapy, resulting in nonstop perspiration, insomnia and mood swings.

“My doctors didn’t make the connection between these symptoms and the chemo, which makes me angry,” she said. “They told me it was all in my head.”

Many people expect breast cancer survivors to return to a completely normal life after treatment, but that is not the case, Subramanian said.

“Our society often hears about those who survive cancer and return to prosperous lives, like Lance Armstrong, but some experience such debilitating symptoms after treatment that a normal life isn’t possible,” she said.

The interest in breast cancer has increased in recent years as breast cancer rates have risen. Of 9.8 million cancer survivors, 22 percent are from breast cancer, according to the film.

“This is so important because everyone knows someone who has gone through the process of breast cancer,” Subramanian said. “Our aunts, mothers, sisters are being diagnosed at alarming rates and our society needs to know about the disease.”

Despite all the challenges, breast cancer survivors like the ones in the study are fighting to give the disease a voice and to share their experiences with others.

Laura Armstrong, a florist who was diagnosed in 2000 with breast cancer, said she participated in the documentary to make other breast cancer patients aware of what the process is like even after treatment, and to bring comfort.

“I wanted to bring good light to the (disease) and be encouraging for others,” Armstrong said, who is unrelated to Lance.

Others, like Floyd and Harris, said they took part in the study because they believed their voices combined could draw attention to their cause.

“I want life to be better for others,” Harris said. “If there are others beside me who are going through the same physical symptoms, the medical community has an obligation to help us.”

The stories of these women have been a source of education as well as inspiration, Subramanian said.

“These women are so amazing because they are really disabled and struggling, but they tug along. It’s humbling,” she said.

Eight years later, the woman who was ready to end her life is now holding tightly to her life in order to share her story and educate others.

“My life is not in vain if I get the word out,” Floyd said. “People told me to go home and get ready to die, but I’m going to keep on fighting until I can’t fight anymore.”
* Sue Wang, Science & Health Editor (Contact)
* Published: Monday, July 30, 2007
The Daily Bruin © 2007 ASUCLA Student Media

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