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HealthFirst

After a cancer diagnosis, life is  never the same

How treatment, support from others facing similar circumstances  and a love of life helped two women through the trial of their lives

  • Kathleen Russell and Vinoy Laughner of Greenfield sing "Where Have All the Flowers Gone" together in the mission house of the Greenfield church. The two sing together on the first Saturday of the month, during the church's Community Coffee House.

    Kathleen Russell and Vinoy Laughner of Greenfield sing "Where Have All the Flowers Gone" together in the mission house of the Greenfield church. The two sing together on the first Saturday of the month, during the church's Community Coffee House.

  • Kathleen Russell and Vinoy Laughner of Greenfield sing "Where Have All the Flowers Gone" together in the mission house of the Greenfield church. The two sing together on the first Saturday of the month, during the church's Community Coffee House.

    Kathleen Russell and Vinoy Laughner of Greenfield sing "Where Have All the Flowers Gone" together in the mission house of the Greenfield church. The two sing together on the first Saturday of the month, during the church's Community Coffee House.

  • Kathleen Russell and Vinoy Laughner of Greenfield sing "Where Have All the Flowers Gone" together in the mission house of the Greenfield church. The two sing together on the first Saturday of the month, during the church's Community Coffee House.

    Kathleen Russell and Vinoy Laughner of Greenfield sing "Where Have All the Flowers Gone" together in the mission house of the Greenfield church. The two sing together on the first Saturday of the month, during the church's Community Coffee House.

  • Kathleen Russell and Vinoy Laughner of Greenfield sing "Where Have All the Flowers Gone" together in the mission house of the Greenfield church. The two sing together on the first Saturday of the month, during the church's Community Coffee House.

    Kathleen Russell and Vinoy Laughner of Greenfield sing "Where Have All the Flowers Gone" together in the mission house of the Greenfield church. The two sing together on the first Saturday of the month, during the church's Community Coffee House.

  • Kathleen Russell and Vinoy Laughner of Greenfield sing "Where Have All the Flowers Gone" together in the mission house of the Greenfield church. The two sing together on the first Saturday of the month, during the church's Community Coffee House.
  • Kathleen Russell and Vinoy Laughner of Greenfield sing "Where Have All the Flowers Gone" together in the mission house of the Greenfield church. The two sing together on the first Saturday of the month, during the church's Community Coffee House.
  • Kathleen Russell and Vinoy Laughner of Greenfield sing "Where Have All the Flowers Gone" together in the mission house of the Greenfield church. The two sing together on the first Saturday of the month, during the church's Community Coffee House.
  • Kathleen Russell and Vinoy Laughner of Greenfield sing "Where Have All the Flowers Gone" together in the mission house of the Greenfield church. The two sing together on the first Saturday of the month, during the church's Community Coffee House.

Kathleen Russell bustles about in the Greenfield Congregational Covenant Church Ministry Center on Slip Road, sorting clothing for a sale the church is organizing to fund the building of a new church. She goes quickly from one end of the room to another, gathering hangers and clothing and moving at a speed someone much younger might envy. No one would ever know that she’s ever been in anything but the best of health.

When Russell, 71, of Greenfield was 65 years old, she was still going strong. Healthy, active, still working her dream job as a residential counselor at Crotched Mountain Rehabilitation Center, working with children and young adults with physical and mental handicaps. She saw herself as healthy, strong and productive. That’s when the “C” bomb dropped.

At 65, Russell was diagnosed with advanced stage breast cancer. Chemotherapy, mastectomy, breast reconstruction, radiation. For a year, she couldn’t work. The person she thought she was, was replaced by someone who was ill, and had no job other than to get well. Instead of giving into despair, Russell picked herself up, and made sure to give everything she had to getting well.

“I was sure to maintain relationships with my family and friends,” said Russell. “Isolating is the worst thing you can do. It’s not healthy for anyone in any circumstances. Stay in the world, and in touch.”

When Russell received her diagnosis, her longtime best friend was sitting in the chair beside her, and immediately promised to be with her every step of the way. And she was, Russell said with a smile. Once, Russell told this friend she was feeling well enough to take herself to one of her chemo treatments. Her friend simply replied that Kathleen could go alone if she wanted, but every time she checked her rear view mirror, she might find a familiar car following behind her.

That was the experience the whole way through, said Russell. Not only did her friends and family close ranks around her, but what has become her church family immediately reached out and essentially adopted her, she said. And they prayed for her.

Russell had always considered herself a Christian, she noted, but her faith has become much stronger since going through her battle with cancer and being on the receiving end of a lot of focused faith and prayer. When she went into a five-hour surgery to remove the diseased breast tissue and reconstruct the area, a prayer chain went out around the country, and people in churches all over America were praying for her, she said.

Even now, five years cancer-free, that support is invaluable, she said. Russell still attends a weekly support group for survivors and cancer patients, and it’s immensely comforting to know that she was never alone in her fight, she said.

Joining the fight

Russell was never one to sit back and let things happen to her. From the start, she decided to be actively involved in her own fate. She was involved in the choosing of her medical team, and developed positive relationships with them all. She also made sure to consider herself a part of that team, and learned about her disease so she would understand her options and could ask the right questions of her doctors.

“I took it upon myself to be a member of that team,” she said. “We were all working together to save my life. And I took it upon myself to be a responsible member of that team.”

She also kept a firm eye on the prize: Getting well.

“Every cell in your body has to be on board to beat this disease. That’s how focused you have to be to get well. That’s how it has to be. No hesitation. No giving up. Especially, no giving up,” she said. “The whole time I maintained the intention of a successful recovery. I intended to live, I really did.”

A new lease on life

Russell had always loved to travel, and there was one place on her bucket list she’d always wanted to visit — China. But it was an expensive trip, something to be done “someday.” Cancer has a way of putting someday into perspective, she said, and once she was diagnosed she realized someday was now. She promised herself, if she kicked the cancer, she would take her trip. And when she reached her goal, she kept her promise. While she was there, she saw the Terracotta Army in the Shaanxi province, toured the Lee River, and met a variety of people, including two other breast cancer survivors. Sitting between them as the three survivors toured the Lee River, the other two began to talk about their own cancer experiences, and Russell realized then that she could stay silent, or speak up and tell them, she too, is a survivor.

“In the end, I said, ‘You know what, I’m a survivor, too,” she said. The experience made her realize that unlike while on chemo and when she lost her hair and her illness was obvious to the world, she didn’t have to tell anyone about her experience if she didn’t want to. But she felt her illness had left her with something to offer.

Now, she said, she feels strongly that her new mission in life is to help others, particularly those who are going through their own cancer battles. “A lot of things happen when you survive something life-threatening. For me, it was a deeper faith and new priorities. What’s important and what’s not. I’ve dedicated my life to supporting and encouraging those that are going through the cancer journey. That’s my new purpose.”

In addition, her deepened faith has also led her to become more involved in volunteering at her church. Now retired, she said she pours her workaholic tendencies into helping the church.

Phyllis Pittet

Phyllis Pittet of Peterborough had her first brush with cancer in February 2012. It was not to be her last.

First, Pittet was diagnosed with breast cancer when a lump in her breast turned out to be tumorous. However, it was a matter of a simple lumpectomy, and the issue was gone.

“I thought, ‘That was too good to be true,’” she said in a recent interview.

And in fact, it proved to be just that. After dealing with the lump, Pittet went in to have an aching in her spine checked out, and her doctors found more cancer. Not in her breast, but Stage IV Metastatic cancer in her lungs. And it was moving fast, having spread to include tumors in her lung, spine and adrenal gland. The diagnosis wasn’t good, said Pittet. Unlike her first cancer diagnosis, this one really had her thinking about her own mortality.

“Everything I read said that Stage IV metastatic cancer is incurable, inoperable. So that was really scary. It was like a bucket of ice water being thrown in your face. My mortality was just right there,” she said. “When you’re not sick, you think, ‘Yeah, I’ll die, but that’s down the road. That’s later,’ and you don’t think about it much in your day-to-day life. When you get a diagnosis, it’s right there, staring you in the face and you can’t deny it.”

Suddenly, there was a list of things Pittet had been putting off for later that were vitally important. Those art projects she’d been turning over in her mind. It was time to get them done. Things she hadn’t thought seriously about before, like a will and a living will, were suddenly priorities. Getting together with her daughter and her sister was more than just a pleasant pass time now. It was something she wanted to do as much as possible.

“I wanted to take care of everything so my daughter wouldn’t have to,” she said. “I thought this was it for me. I’d do go shopping and I’d see a down parka that I really liked, but then I would say, “I’m not going to be here next year, so why buy it? Why buy anything? I’m not going to be here.”

The support

There were two types of support Pittet said she relied upon throughout her illness — the support provided by her friends, family and co-workers, and the support she got from fellow cancer patients. “When I think about this miracle,” said Pittet, referring to her survival, “I think it’s because of all the support I got. Friends, family, presents, emails, phone calls — it all really worked together to help hold me up. I really feel that’s the reason I did so well. I don’t know for sure, but that’s what I believe.”

There was another form of support Pittet sought as well — the cancer support group held once a week at Monadnock Community Hospital. It was a different kind of support she got there, she said.

“It’s been wonderful for me,” she said. “We laugh, we cry, we go through all of the emotions. It’s a place you can go and get angry or sad. You don’t have to worry about what other people think. You don’t have to think about worrying your friend or your family too much, because you can tell it like it is with people that really understand.”

She also continued her part-time job at Sharon Arts Center in Sharon throughout her treatment. The job helped her to feel normal, and gave her something to focus on besides her illness, she said. Her employers and coworkers were understanding of the situation, and allowed her to work around her treatments.

“Having my job was great,” she said. “It was fun, and I didn’t think about my cancer at all while I was working, so it was a great distraction for me. Work was really good for me because it made me feel like a normal person. I still had a job, I still went to work.”

The treatment

Pittet said in her research on cancer, the phrase “be your own advocate” had popped up more than once, but she didn’t really know what it meant until she was in treatment. Then, it began to make sense. Her original oncologist wasn’t a good fit, she said, so she found a new one. She sought second opinions.

Doctors recommended radiation to shrink the lung cancer, and then six months of chemotherapy. The treatment was definitely the hardest part, said Pittet. Particularly the fatigue was crippling, she said, and it was hard to get through something as simple as a daytime shopping trip. But at the end of the six months, the treatments had done their job. The tumor in her lung had turned to scar tissue, and the tumors in her spine and one of her adrenal glands were no longer visible in her tests.

Like Russell, Pittet had also been putting off a dream trip overseas. And like Russell, “later” was no longer a concept that had much meaning. Pittet decided to take a long-awaited trip to Europe and Paris, which she had always thought about, but never gotten around to doing. She and her sister took the trip in May and June, to celebrate getting through chemotherapy. Even though she was still recovering, and had to break for resting, for once her fatigue allowed her to just enjoy the trip, she said.

Then, it was back to the United States for a quiet summer. Until her three-month checkup with her oncologist, when she discovered one of her tumors — the one in her adrenal gland — had come back. Pittet sought a second opinion with a doctor at Dartmouth-Hitchcock in Lebanon, who advised removing the gland, which Pittet decided was the right course for her. Now, as far as she knows, she said, she is once again cancer-free.

“Do I know how long that’s going to last? No, I don’t,” she said. “But, I just have to live with the uncertainty. I’m just living my life and trying not to worry about it.”

A word from a support group coordinator

Every Friday at the Monadnock Community Hospital, National Certified Counselor and licensed Clinical Mental Health Counselor Adele Michaelides Thomas facilitates a support group for members who currently have, or are survivors of any type of cancer. Michaelides Thomas has led the group for six years, since it was created as an alternative to a similar group in Keene. Support is a key part of treatment for a cancer diagnosis, said Michaelides Thomas in a recent phone interview.

“Evidence-based studies show that support groups help to improve quality of life, lessen tension, depression and isolation,” she said. “As a facilitator my job is to make sure everyone gets care time. What they get every week is a consistent emotional support. They know every Friday they get to see your group members and your friends. The social contact is very important.”

Support, however you can get it, whether it’s friends and family, church or community is important, said Michaelides Thomas. But a support group can be beneficial in a different way: The people you are talking to understand exactly what you’re going through.

“Providing a confidential space allows them to open up, and gives them the opportunity to discuss it on a different level. It allows them to speak more freely. It creates a different kind of culture,” she said.

It also allows those who are currently going through treatment to interact with those who have come out on the other side — the cancer survivors. Not only can those going through treatment benefit from hearing their stories, experiences and tips on how to get through it, it’s also beneficial for the survivors to feel that their experience has had meaning. Helping others is a big part of why group therapy is useful, she noted.

“One of the benefits we see is how empowered people feel when they’re helping those around them,” said Michaelides Thomas. “It gives a sense of purpose and clarity.”

A support group isn’t the only piece patients and survivors need to maintain a healthy emotional and physical balance, she added. “The support group is just another tool,” she said. “It’s a beneficial one, and it should go with a bunch of tools on your tool belt.”

Michaelides Thomas’ support group is part of MAPS Counseling Services, a Monadnock United Way-supported nonprofit with offices in Peterborough and . MAPS also runs a cancer and a cancer caregivers support group in Keene. For more information about joining a MAPS support group, contact Michaelides Thomas at 924-2240, ext. 8302.

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