Health & Wellness
Local Breast Cancer Survivors Share Their Story and Advice

Local Breast Cancer Survivors Share Their Story and Advice

Local survivors celebrate Breast Cancer Awareness Month

Any breast cancer survivor will tell you that navigating the journey from diagnosis to recovery is never easy. For these four women, the journey has led them in different and unexpected directions. Today they are using their experiences to help others.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

cindy-simmonsCindy Simmons

Host of STAR 94 Mornings

What was going through your mind when you made the announcement over the radio that you had breast cancer?

I think when we made the announcement it had only been 24 hours since I found out, so I didn’t really have a lot of time to process it. It just came out the next day. As hard as it was, I knew if just one woman heard my story and then did her monthly self-breast exam or made a mammogram appointment; it would be totally worth being that exposed. 

What was the first thing you did after you got your diagnosis? What advice would you offer others receiving a similar diagnosis?

I was done with the show and the doctor called. I was in the studio with one of my best friends and mid-day personality Heather Branch. She said, “Answer the phone, I am right here.” The first thing I did was cry in her arms. My advice would be to cry and let it out. Give yourself that time to grieve and be scared.

Where did you find the most support?

The most support was from relying on my strong faith, my mom, Jane, my boyfriend at the time (and my now husband), Eric, my little one, Lily Jane, my close circle of friends and even our morning show listeners.

Your mom is a four-time cancer survivor – what type of advice did she offer you? 

My mom is an amazing and strong woman. She understood everything I was going through. She told me to listen to my body. To live my life the way I wanted to and do whatever I needed to do in order to get through my journey. She is my hero!

In April you announced you were pregnant with your second child. How soon after you beat cancer did you find out you were pregnant? 
My last treatment was June 2011, I got married that December 2011 and then in early Spring 2012, we got the happy news. I just remember thinking, “This is the light at the end of the tunnel. This is the light! What a huge blessing!”

What music helped pick you up during the tough times?

All music really, because music is such an important part of my life and getting to listen to STAR 94 music helped keep my spirits up. The worship music at my church and then, of course, an ‘80s CD always did the trick too.

Who are the people in your life who help you be your best self?

Professionally, our STAR 94 Morning Show listeners. Getting the emails of encouragement from people. It is so uplifting. Personally, my wonderful husband, Eric, and my daughter Lily. Also, my parents and my friends who all love me despite my faults, and showed me their hearts and authentic selves during this journey.

How has the whole experience affected your outlook on your life?

It has really reminded me to only focus on what is important in life and not get so caught up in things or people who are energy or time zappers. Also, to focus on surrounding myself with positive people, things and situations. 

 

 

angie-pattersonAngie Patterson


Director of Georgia Center for Oncology Research and Education

How did your diagnosis of breast cancer in 2001 launch your transition into a new career? 

At the time of my diagnosis, I was a director at BellSouth Corporation and had worked there over 17 years. When I returned to work after my surgery, I became involved in a newly formed Breast Cancer Awareness Board at BellSouth. I began volunteering for the American Cancer Society in the Reach to Recovery program and with Northside Hospital’s Network of Hope. More than anything, I wanted to help other women through their breast cancer journey. 

The company wanted to do more to help BellSouth employees or their family members when they were diagnosed with cancer, so we developed a program called “Life Counts.” It was this grassroots program that opened the door to my new career. We had a chance to meet the president of the Georgia Cancer Coalition and my colleague and I shared the program with him. He convinced me to leave BellSouth and to bring my passion for helping others to the small non-profit, Georgia Cancer Coalition, in 2005. Quite honestly, if I had not been diagnosed with cancer, I would have never made this career change.

Last month I was very privileged to join the Georgia Center for Oncology Research and Education (Georgia CORE) where I continue to work on statewide programs focused on cancer survivorship and cancer patient navigation. I am so blessed that for the past seven years, I have a job that allows me to improve the quality of care for people who are diagnosed with cancer.

What was the first thing you did after finding out your diagnosis? What advice would you give others? 

Still stunned and terrified by my diagnosis, I immediately went online to find out any information that I could.  As a single mom, I was determined to beat this disease but 11 years ago, it was so hard to find good, reliable information. My doctor suggested that I reach out to Susan Casella at Northside Hospital, who runs the breast health program. Susan provided a wealth of information and was a calming force for me. That is why I have volunteered with the Network of Hope for the past 10 years. My advice is to gather reliable information and become a partner with your health care team. You are a critical member of this team and you have a key role in making decisions that are right for you.

Where did you find the most support during your treatment?
My family is where I found my greatest support. My sister Brenda is my best friend and she drove me to all of my chemo treatments, sat with me and made me laugh. My parents who took care of me and my son when I was too sick and my precious son Billy is my strength. He gave me encouragement, love and laughter, and he was my reason for beating this disease.

What does the word “survivor” mean to you?

In the world of cancer, you become a survivor on the day of your diagnosis until the end of your life. It is not just about getting rid of cancer; it is about healing your whole self. Even though we may be cancer-free, there are always the worries: Will it come back? What are the effects of cancer?  
We must be educated to know what these are. I want all survivors to be empowered and educated and to be their own advocate.

Who are the people in your life (both professional and personal) who help you be your best self?  

My family has always helped me be my best self. Also my husband Bruce. My breast cancer survivor sisters are also so important. We laugh and cry together and we are honest with each other. Professionally, Susan Casella and the Network of Hope helped me realize the importance of volunteering and how important it is to be able to talk with someone who has also heard those horrible words, “I’m sorry, you have cancer.” The past president of the Georgia Cancer Coalition convinced me to take a leap of faith and change my career. My new boss helps me be my best self. She listens to my ideas and brainstorms with me to come up with big picture ideas that help others diagnosed with cancer.  

What was the best piece of advice offered to you while you were going through treatment? 
After I had lost my hair, I could not sleep one night without obsessing about when it would grow back. Trying to fall back to sleep, I picked up my grandmother’s Bible to read it. She had lost her battle with cancer many years before. I found a yellowed article that had been printed in the AJC in the 1980s titled “The Station” by Robert J. Hastings. Slowly I got the message: We spend too much time thinking about arriving at the “station” and not enjoying the ride. My grandmother was telling me to quit worrying, pay attention along my cancer journey and do something with it.

 

 

kimberly-hutchersonDr. Kimberly C. Hutcherson


Director of Breast Imaging and Intervention at Gwinnett Breast Center - Lawrenceville 
at Gwinnett Medical Center.



What do you feel is the greatest misconception about breast cancer? 

I have two misconceptions. First, most women with breast cancer have a family history of the disease. This is not true. The vast majority of breast cancer is sporadic. Only 10 percent of women who get breast cancer have a family history. Second, mammograms do more harm than good. This is a common misconception, especially when it comes to the amount of radiation a patient is exposed to. A mammogram is an X-ray, so there is radiation but there are guidelines set to limit the radiation exposure. The current guidelines have not been associated with any known harm. Many women find mammograms uncomfortable, but they are still the best screening test we have. I tell my patients the amount of radiation you get is similar to the amount of radiation exposure you would get from flying from New York to California, or just walking around for three months.   

When were you first diagnosed? What advice would you give to others 
receiving a similar diagnosis?

I remember the day clearly; it was Feb. 23, 2007. Although my previous mammogram was seven months prior, I decided to have a mammogram that Friday after persistent sharp pain. The ultrasound showed an irregular mass, so I asked my colleague to biopsy me. The next morning I was going to get the results and as I drove home, I prayed that perhaps I didn’t know what the mammogram and breast ultrasound showed. Maybe this time I was wrong. I was so goal oriented and focused on my career, but just like that, I have been cast out of that life. At the age of 40, I had become a cancer patient. After I heard the diagnosis, I didn’t really cry then. I felt uneasy. That Sunday, it hit me and I allowed myself to feel all the emotions. With nothing else to plan, I thought I should get back to work and put all of this behind me until the date of surgery. But I do this for a living, so I had to face this cancer straight on.  I could not ignore it, but I knew I could help others, even though I was doing the same.

My advice is to take the process one step at a time. The moment you hear the word “cancer” is when the fight begins. Every day that follows, you are a survivor. You can be upset. It is devastating to hear those words, but then pull it together and establish a plan of action. Know all your options for treatment so you make an educated decision. You are not alone and you will be surprised at the people who will walk this journey with you before it’s over.

What was the best piece of advice offered to you while you were 
going through treatment? 

Two weeks after I began chemotherapy, I went back to work. Initially I would stay for a couple of hours, but one of my colleagues suggested I try to stay longer each week to build my stamina. I think he unknowingly gave me the best advice. I think by having an outlet and place to go and contribute each day, it gave me mental strength. I had something to look forward to even when times got harder. 
Who are your heroes in real life? 

Dennis Slamon MD, PhD, for the development of the breast cancer drug Herceptin which revolutionized breast cancer treatment and accelerated research into therapies customized for each individual patient. I personally benefited from his research and development.

When and where are you the happiest?

I am the happiest when I am spending time with my two nieces (Alexis and Lauren) and my nephew (Drew). They are intelligent, inquisitive and hilarious.

Who are the people in your life (both professional and personal) who help you be your best self?

Professionally, my colleagues, technologists and sonographers help me be my best self. I work with a fantastic group of women technologists and sonographers. They were with me at the breast center during treatment and gave me positive encouragement daily.

Personally, my family helps me to be my best self by expecting nothing but the best. They have always encouraged me to pursue my dreams and have sometimes sacrificed to allow me to accomplish them. My current athletic trainer pushes me to extreme physical bounds, which gives me a sense of my best physical self to come.

As a breast radiologist, if you could give women one piece of advice regarding breast cancer awareness, what would it be?
Be proactive about your health. The most effective way to detect breast cancer is by mammography. Begin annual mammography screening at age 40 and every year after unless otherwise clinically indicated. A clinical breast exam and a breast self-exam can complement mammography screening.  Keep your scheduled appointments with your physicians. Perform monthly breast self-exam and report any changes to your physician.

 

nancy-waldeckChef Nancy Waldeck


Healthy chef and author 
of Taste and Savor

Why did you choose to change your career path from corporate training to cooking? 

When I was standing in front of yet another pharmaceutical group teaching them how to record a call on a doctor. It occurred to me that I loved teaching, but I was tired of the subject. I remembered how much I loved cooking and thought, “I know I can teach, I love cooking, why can’t I teach people how to cook?”

I spent four years in an apprenticeship program that I designed myself. I worked for anyone who came into town with a book tour, any chef that needed help, and attended classes at the CIA in France and here in town as often as I could. I chopped piles of onions, washed mountains of dishes and schlepped bags of groceries as often as someone would let me. After four years, someone finally paid me to chop and schlep. I worked for two more years before I started teaching in 2006, and I haven’t looked back.

You lead cooking classes at Piedmont Hospital in Atlanta. How did this opportunity first present itself? 

One of the first doctors I saw when I was diagnosed with breast cancer, when told what I did for a living, said, “You have to go talk to Carolyn Helmer, the Cancer Wellness Program Manager.” I went to talk to Carolyn, and I have been teaching there since 2008. I taught all the way through chemotherapy, surgery, reconstruction and radiation. It’s my favorite place to teach, because I am not only a chef, I am a member of the community. I also have the opportunity to work closely with oncology dietians, and that allows me to learn about the latest information about health and wellness. I consider myself a bridge from the medical community to the layperson. I take well researched advice and translate that advice into action that people can take at home.

Where were you when you first found out you had breast cancer and what was the first thing you did?

I was at home on July 8, 2006. I was shocked. I had no breast cancer in my family, and had found my breast cancer by discoloration of my skin. The doctor I had seen was also astonished. I went for a second opinion and that is where I met Dr. Allen, the doctor that sent me on over to Cancer Wellness at Piedmont Hospital.

What was the best piece of advice offered to you while you were going through treatment?

It was from a fellow survivor who told me I was going to be alright. Today, I pass that same information on to others. I can tell them because I have been through it.

How is your daily life different today than before you were diagnosed?

Like night and day. When I used to hear people say that cancer was a blessing, I thought they were crazy. Now I know what they mean. Cancer, (or any serious illness or life threatening event), allows you to change your perspective. I know from the bottom of my heart that every day is a gift.

Who are the people in your life (both professional and personal) who help you be your best self?

My husband is my best collaborator. He is an engineer and views the world very differently than I do. This makes him a great person to vet my ideas and presentations. My sister is my cooking buddy. She lives on the other side of the world, yet we are always connected by our passion for food and wine. Mary Moore, the owner of The Cooks Warehouse, has always believed in me and her business sense and creativity is always an inspiration. Mark Bittman, the food columnist from the The New York Times has a super perspective on cooking and eating and I love getting ideas from his writing and recipes. In addition, I have a wonderful Sous Chef Lea Bowen that always has my back and a fabulous support system from friends, family and the wonderful Cancer Wellness community. 
I am one lucky girl! 

What are some of the most vital cooking lessons you teach women who are overcoming cancer?
“Eating the Elephant,” i.e. one bite at a time. I don’t believe in diets, I believe in eating better. If you eat a little better each day, the end result is that you feel better every day. One of the things that often happens when you are diagnosed with a serious illness is that you feel out of control. One way to regain control is to watch what you eat. Eating fresh veggies five to nine times a day, limiting lean meat intake and enjoying sweet treats every once in a while enables eaters to thrive and enjoy life.