There are many ways to go about recognizing Breast Cancer Awareness Month each October. Some dress in pink, donate to breast cancer-fighting organizations, or do their first breast self-exam. Others may share important statistics, like the fact* that one in eight women will be diagnosed with breast cancer in her lifetime, or that it’s the most commonly diagnosed cancer in women and also the second leading cause of death among them.
For the Medical Solutions family — like so many others — the fight against breast cancer is personal, so we’d like to recognize Breast Cancer Awareness Month by sharing the story of our very own Amber Barna, BSN, RN, Clinical Director of Nursing at Medical Solutions, and brave breast cancer survivor.
Amber leads an amazing in-house clinical and quality team that acts as a constant resource for our Travelers. She also brings tons of sunshine and fun into our daily lives, and for that we love her tremendously.
Amber was kind enough to share her story — one nurse’s brave fight against breast cancer — in the Q&A below. Thanks so much, Amber, for sharing your story! You are an inspiration to us all.
When and how were you diagnosed with breast cancer?
In September 2009, after my doctor found a lump when I went in for a regular annual exam, I was sent in for an ultrasound. When the radiologist came walking into the room, I knew it probably wasn’t good. He told me that the lump was suspicious for cancer, but advised me to have a mammogram done. With that, I was set up for a mammogram and that radiologist noted a biopsy would be a possible next step. From there, I met with a general surgeon and had a surgical biopsy on a Friday then got a call that Monday that is was Ductal Invasive Carcinoma Breast Cancer. I was lucky because this is a common type of breast cancer.
I was a stage 2 they thought initially, but then there was micro-metastasis in my lymph node which pushed me to be an early stage 3. I had triple positive breast cancer, so I had to do 16 rounds of chemo to cover the breast cancer and metastasis to my lymph node. I also had to complete a year of an IV medication called Herceptin which combatted an aggressive trait of my breast cancer. Lastly, I am on 10 years of Tamoxifen which is an oral medication to better help me with reduction of reoccurrence.
Can you take us through your fight against breast cancer? How long was the process, what were some highs and lows, when did you know you were in remission and how did that feel?
For me, the biggest low was the day I was diagnosed, that night, and into the next day. I had no idea truly of what I was dealing with and the unknown was killing me. Once I found out the specifics after meeting with several doctors, that is where my fight or flight kicked in and I decided it was game on from there.
I had a bilateral mastectomy with lymph node dissection, port-a-cath placement and tissue expenders placed. This was pretty rough because I was sick for a few days after the anesthesia and not able to go home right away. Having two little boys at home, this was the most difficult piece. Also, once I went home, I couldn’t hold my boys and I had drains which the baby would try to pull at, so that was rough.
About a month after surgery, I started my chemotherapy. With chemotherapy came hot flashes. I was only 30 years old, so this was pretty rough as I have never been so hot in my life. I went through 16 rounds of chemo. The first 4 rounds were every other week, then 12 weekly treatments. I started the Herceptin during the last 12 treatments, so once I was done with chemotherapy I had about 10 more months of the Herceptin to complete via my port-a-cath. During some of the chemotherapy treatments, I would have to take shots in my abdomen to help stimulate blood cell production that was falling due to the chemotherapy. My husband learned how to administer this for me because even though I was a nurse and can help others, I could not get myself to actually give the injections.
During the chemo, I would go to my plastic surgeon who would inflate the tissue expanders every couple of weeks to stretch the skin and ready my chest area for the breast implants. I learned very early on not to eat prior to chemo, and after chemo to only eat somewhere that I wouldn’t mind if it made me sick and repulsed me after. This way I didn’t ruin any of my favorite dining spots.
Once I finished chemotherapy and my blood counts were normalized, I then had surgery to remove the tissue expanders and replace them with breast implants. The good part was it was an outpatient surgery, but this again meant I couldn’t hold my boys, so that was the hardest part of this. A couple more outpatient surgeries followed to put the final touches on the newly constructed breasts. In the upcoming year or so after this, I had a total hysterectomy which was not too bad at all and I only missed a couple days of work so that was good. After some time, I ended up having an implant rupture, so I had to have surgery again to remove the old implants and place new ones. That was pretty rough, but at least I got to go home the same day. During this entire time, I felt pretty good. I would get nausea/vomiting from the chemotherapy and surgeries, but I missed very minimal work time and the days of chemo I had a ton of energy because they would give me steroids before the chemo to decrease the reaction to the chemo.
I am in remission now, and I just recently at five years out got moved to only annual oncologist follow-up appointments. I was told at that appointment that my risk of reoccurrence was the same as the general population — which is awesome! I am “normal” again. I continue taking my Tamoxifen orally daily and have a little under five years left of this medication, but it isn’t too bad.
What gave you the strength to fight this disease?
Truly, my family, my kids, my friends and my work family. I had to fight because I couldn’t let them down. I was not going to let them down by letting this disease beat me. It wasn’t an option. I had a 4-year-old and 9-month-old when diagnosed and my brother had recently passed away, so I couldn’t leave my family or cause them more pain.
Do you believe that the process of being diagnosed and fighting breast cancer was any different for you as a nurse — with your clinical knowledge — than it might have been for a non-clinical person? If so, how?
Yes, I feel like I was more aware of what was going on and what I needed to watch for. At times, I think it almost made it worse because I knew too much of what to expect. They say ignorance can be bliss, and I truly believe that in this case. I also was not the best patient as I overdid it a lot. I much rather prefer being on the side of providing the care and helping others rather than needing help. That is just how I am wired, but I am truly so thankful for the amazing doctors and nurses who saved my life.
What did you learn about life from this experience?
Life is short. Don’t take it for granted. Just be happy.
As a nurse and as a survivor, what advice do you have for someone recently diagnosed and/or fighting breast cancer?
Attitude is everything! Stay positive and there is always a positive to EVERY situation. There are others who are stage 4 and who would love to have the opportunity to be going through treatment for cancer, so count your blessings and appreciate the opportunity to fight. Also, ask questions — lots of questions!
*Source: National Breast Cancer Foundation