“Breast Cancer is not a Death Sentence”- a survivor who won the battle twice, Sandee Thompson, A story by Mission20

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Mission20 - A Youth Organization energetically serving their duty towards humanity, took the initiatives to spread awareness about Breast Cancer this October. Khalid Khoso and Sameera Tanveer from Mission20 interviewed     Sandee Thompson, an instructor from College of the North Atlantic - Qatar, a 2 time cancer survivor. Let's read her journey in her words.

How did you first find out about your Breast Cancer?

I have been going for regular mammogram since the age of 44 and at the age of 48 one of my x-rays came back and indicated there was small spec. They called me back for second mammogram which showed that there was indeed something there. Then I was called back for a biopsy. That was the first time. Four years later, I had a recurrence in the exact same spot. They found it with my regular, annual mammogram.

In the course of those four years, how many times did you go for a mammogram?

I have gone every year since 2006. For breast cancer survivors, they usually do couple of extra tests and they get the results back very quickly to make sure there is no recurrence. If I had waited until I was 50 for my first mammogram, I would have been in a big trouble.

 You went for your first mammogram at the age of 44; didn’t it occur to you before that?

It did actually.  When I was 40, I told my GP that I wanted to have a check up. She asked why? I said “well, because I am 40” and she responded with “You are healthy, you’re strong, you haven’t felt anything, have you?” I said “no” and she replied “ Then you don’t have to do it . We don’t do it typically until a woman is 50 or has a family history”.

At the age of 44, I went for my annual test and she asked me if I had had a mammogram yet. I said “No, because you told me not to. Why are you asking me this now? Did you feel something that I haven’t felt?” and she said no and she looked kind of sad. I again asked her why she was asking me this and asked if she had had some patients in my age range diagnosed with breast cancer. And she replied “yes”. She had had 7 patients diagnosed that year, 4 because of a mammogram. So, I said “Give me this request and I will go and have it done”. I had the mammogram and everything was fine. Here in Qatar, I believe you can have a breast ultrasound done after the age of 40 but they don’t start doing mammograms until the age of 45.

Can you brief us on the treatment phase?

The first time, the cancer was under 1 centimeter. So, they did a lumpectomy, which means they remove the cancer and take a margin of skin around it to ensure they have gotten it all. My cancer was 1 centimeter, so typically they would remove 2 centimeters around the cancer but I insisted they take twice that amount because I didn’t want to ever be diagnosed with breast cancer again. I also had 16 rounds of radiation to that breast area. In Canada, we do what’s called “The Canadian Protocol”. This is half the length of time other countries do it. It does not take as many days but the radiation therapy is more intense. So, instead of 32 days of one minute each, it was 16 days of about 7 minutes.

Then I went on a medication called Tamoxifen which is an anti-estrogen medication. It is the only meditation women who are pre-menopausal can take. Unfortunately, that medication caused a blood clot so I had to go off of it immediately. So, then I was flying free, no medication for quite some time. Then they tried to introduce another medication but it made me very arthritic and turned me into an emotional basket case.I felt like I was 90 but I was only 48 so my surgeon and I decided that I would take my chances.

Unfortunately, 4 years later, I was re-diagnosed. Last year, in 2014, I had a recurrence in the same area and I had bilateral mastectomy. This means they removed both breasts and they removed all of the tissue. If you have had radiation in one breast, it is the only option left to you. They were going to remove one but I insisted on two because I didn’t want breast cancer coming back a third time. If they remove all of the tissue, you have a much better chance of it not reoccurring. And because it was under 1centimeter, and stage 1, I didn’t need to do chemotherapy. In some cases, chemo can make you much sicker than not. The stage of breast cancer is based on its size, the location, whether it has moved in to the lymph nodes etc. I was also put on Femara, which is an anti-estrogen medication. It helps neutralize the estrogen in my body. 

Where did all of your treatment take place?

The first time, 5 years ago, all of my treatment was done in Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada. The second time, treatment was all done in Hamad Hospital, Qatar.

I thought if I had to go through chemotherapy in Canada, I wouldn’t be able to work, since my job is in Qatar, and I didn’t want to sit around in between sessions. I worked all through my first treatment and had the actual lumpectomy during my one week of summer vacation. I taught all through radiation.

So, I came back and when I got the results of biopsy, I had to try to find a doctor/surgeon because my surgeon in Canada said “Sandee you have until Monday to tell me what you are doing” and this was Thursday. Friday everything is closed here, Saturday the hospital is closed and in Canada everything is closed on Sundays! This was the most stressful part of the entire diagnosis. On Sunday, I can book an appointment here but everything is still closed in Canada. So, by Sunday night I was in bit of a panic. Actually, I was in a lot of panic, let’s be honest. I called a friend who had had a bilateral mastectomy last year in Qatar. She had an appointment that evening and invited me to come with her. So, I did. That would never happen in Canada- jumping in on somebody’s appointment- but anyhow, I did, I met the doctor and he was brilliant. My friend was in a difficult situation and he was very gentle, very kind, very loving but at the same time very direct and blunt. He clearly told her “This what we are going to do”, and walked her through for half an hour of his time. Just amazing! Then he turned to me and asked how he could help me. I explained I had a reoccurrence and had to make a decision quickly. He wanted to see my results. I hauled them out of my purse and handed them to him and the rest is history really. I was immediately put under his care and was booked for an appointment three days later.

Would you like to tell us the name of the doctor?

Doctor Saleh Gehani. He is brilliant! I absolutely love the man. He is awesome. There are other doctors who are equally fabulous but he was perfect for me because he is so calm. As soon as I got home, I called my doctor and said “I am staying in doha. I am getting it done here and I am confident”. Dr. Gehani has dealt with me like that throughout the whole thing. He is used to dealing with expats. When he speaks to me, he understands. I mean, I have joked through the whole thing and he just goes along with it. He is very calm and very talented. He is the head of the department of general surgery and he also has clinics for breast cancer.

 

Throughout your treatment, did you get any kind of help from any organizations in Qatar or Canada?

Wow, that’s a good question. There is a breast clinic at Hamad hospital with Cathy McKirdie and she has been a gift to my life. She had me popping in to the clinic regularly. After the bilateral mastectomy, I had a very bad Seroma and then a bad infection that lasted a number of months. She had me pop over daily for awhile make sure I wasok. I did this for two weeks. Literally, I popped in every morning before I went to work. It was phenomenal!

Doctor Mahasen over at Qatar Cancer Society, she just retired actually, was also a gift. She had been coming to College of North Atlantic – Qatar for our breast cancer campaigns so I met her through a couple of years ago when I was volunteering. As soon I was diagnosed, I was at her door. She gave me a hug and said do whatever you want to do. Whenever I go to Al Amal, I pop in and say hi. She was wonderful.

Then there is the Hayatt Cancer Support Group. Amani Halawa runs that cancer support group. We contacted each other through email. She was very supportive as well. In fact, she is now a member of the breast cancer dragon boat group I have started, the Doha Wireless Warriors.

There is not lot of support in Qatar for breast cancer but the CNA-Q teachers were phenomenal and my Dean, Jason Rolls was amazing. They did everything they could that was possible and Rachel, our department Chair, was also phenomenal. I was working on a curriculum program at the time so Jason gave me options of where I could work from based on how I was feeling. It was very accommodating. I took one month off and was supported throughout the entire event. My best friend here, Hilary Livingston, stayed with me at the hospital the first few nights and the teachers fed me for a month. One of the teachers, Jennifer Feenstra, did up a list of days and then people signed up to make and deliver meals to me; there were even some people I didn’t know. They came and gave me company in the hospital. They brought me food and would come and sit with me. It was a real community effort to get me through it. I am very grateful.

Young adults can’t have an ultrasound and they can’t have a mammogram, so, how can they avoid cancer? What are the things we could do in daily life to avoid cancer?

First of all, you need to know if anyone has had breast cancer in your family. For example one of my friends had breast cancer at the age of 37 and she has two daughters. So, when the daughters turn 20, they have to go and have a check; they have to have an ultrasound because they need a benchmark. It doesn’t necessarily need to be the mother; it can be an aunt or a grandmother too. The most important thing is to stay healthy and do a breast self examination every single month. We often don’t know our bodies. We are shy, or embarrassed, and many are not willing to talk about breast cancer. But we need to be checking ourselves out and there is set ways of examining your breast in the shower to make sure you know what your body is like at different stages in your menstrual cycle because breasts are different throughout the month and what’s normal for one person might not be normal for somebody else. So it’s getting to know what your body feels like. When women go for their annual pap test, they should also get their breasts examined. In Canada, its part of the exam. The biggest thing is when people don’t examine themselves and then, out of the blue, they feel something that hurts or there is a discharge or some part of their breast becomes misshapen. That is often an indication that cancer has reared its ugly head. In my case, I believe my mammogram saved my life. I didn’t have any symptoms either time I was diagnosed with breast cancer.

What is the last message that you would like to give to all the breast cancer survivors or the ones who are still coping with it?

My advice is to get or stay active. Breast cancer is not a death sentence, even for the people who are in stage 3 or 4. I have friends who have been diagnosed at various stages of breast cancer and they are still alive today. In another case, a friend was diagnosed with stage 4 breast cancer – it had metastasized to her lungs - and she lived for 5 years by eating well, going for treatment and staying as strong as she possibly could. She worked and she was active and she lived her life to the best of her ability. You know, after we are diagnosed with something that is life threatening, the changes can be quite dramatic. It’s scary but if you don’t talk about it, then you only have your own fear and your own fear is a big dragon out there that can consume you. But if you talk about it, it’s not as scary. There are groups that are starting to open up. People are talking about it more but I think the most important thing is to talk about it and get information. You need to not be afraid to tell people that you are a breast cancer survivor because it’s not a shameful thing. You haven’t done anything wrong. Whatever happened move on, live your life and live your life as loudly and as joyfully as possible. So the only way to do that is to live it joyfully.

“October ends but breast cancer awareness should not.”

 

References:

Hamad Medical Corporation

Hayatt Cancer Support Group

Qatar Cancer Society

Doha Wireless Warriors

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