Surviving breast cancer

Staff Writer
Columbus Parent

According to the latest statistics from the American Cancer Society, breast cancer is the most frequently diagnosed cancer in women. Its cause has famous faces, merchandise, foundations that champion survivors, research and awareness. But breast cancer is more than all that for many central Ohio women. It is a reality. Beyond the buttons and donations, what should we know about breast cancer? Survivors and experts tell all.

How did you find out you had breast cancer?

No story is typical, but Laurie Dixon's sounds familiar. During a routine check-up, her doctor discovered a lump in her breast--one missed by a mammogram. She admitted she was annoyed at having to take further tests. "It was supposed to be a routine thing. I really thought it was a waste of time. I got the news a few days before my husband's birthday."

What were your first thoughts after being diagnosed?

"I was really calm," Dixon said. "Maybe I was in shock, but my first thoughts went to my son. He was in high school and I thought, 'Boy, this is not what he needs right now.' I went on autopilot. As a parent, my first concern was him."

What advice would you give moms with breast cancer who have to break the news to their children?

Lenora Barnes-Wright's daughter was a junior in college at the time of her diagnosis. Barnes-Wright and her ex-husband Willie Wright sat down with their daughter and broke the news. "The important thing is that your child knows you still love her and are still there for her," Barnes-Wright said.

She also advised parents to be sure to have another adult around to take on more of the daily household responsibilities so the child isn't forced to become the adult if the parent is too sick. Barnes-Wright created a network of support around her daughter while she was away at school. She made sure there were other women who could reach out to her daughter if she ever needed to talk.

What surprised you most about breast cancer?

Dixon was surprised that chemotherapy and radiation weren't as bad as she had feared. "Chemo is not fun. You don't feel good, but it was not as bad as I thought. It affected my taste buds and my hair did fall out. I was worried about that because before, you know, before it had all been about the hair."

Name one thing you wish someone had told you about breast cancer.

Barnes-Wright, who holds a Ph.D. in education and a master's degree in public health, had not prepared or heard about "chemo fog." It affected her cognitive processes, memory and responses and was "devastating" for her to go through. She is still recovering from the effects. "What helps is playing games like crossword puzzles and computer games. It helps to rebuild those pathways and patterns that you lose," she said.

For Dixon, it was the wigs that bothered her. "They were itchy," she said.

What got you through those tough days?

"Laughter," Dixon said. "My husband and I laughed our way through it. It's important not to take yourself so seriously."

"Faith and family," Barnes-Wright said. "My faith in God got me through and just the incredible support I had from family, friends, and friends of friends who prayed for me."

If there was one thing you could tell a woman who just got diagnosed, what would you say?

"Make sure you have a support person who is right there from the beginning, going on the journey with you," Dixon said. Her husband was by her side from day one, even shaving her head when her hair began to fall out.

Barnes-Wright also cited having a strong support system, adding that though they were divorced, her ex-husband became her primary go-to guy. Willie was named a 2008 Stefanie's Champion at the foundation's awards luncheon on April 23 of this year. Barnes-Wright said that people without insurance who are diagnosed with cancer should seek help from Columbus Neighborhood Health Centers (

American Cancer Society's Patient Navigator Program

  • The American Cancer Society's Patient Navigator Program helps cancer patients, survivors and caregivers work through their cancer experience. "We help anyone, no matter where they are in their cancer journey," said Kathleen Gough, an American Cancer Society patient navigator serving central Ohio. "For cancer patients, this allows them to focus more on getting better and not worry about the little things."
  • The program, which focuses on the medically underserved, now provides support for patients in all 88 Ohio counties offering the following services:
  • Identifying resources for financial assistance, medication needs, home health care, insurance questions, transportation and other concerns.
  • Referring the client to support groups, classes and other programs for information and support.
  • Providing literature on coping with cancer, what to expect during chemotherapy and radiation, and how to deal with the side effects of treatment.
  • Identifying activities that can help ensure a better quality of life.
  • Listening, caring and helping the client in his or her time of need.
  • To reach a patient navigator in this area, call (800) ACS-2345.

In the spotlight: Breast cancer survivors, local celebrities

Stefanie Spielman-Diagnosed at the age of 30, Spielman has battled breast cancer three times. Founder of the Stephanie Spielman Fund, her foundation has raised approximately $5 million since 1999. (Source: The Stefanie Spielman Fund for Breast Cancer Research website.)

Heather Pick-After being diagnosed in 1999, Pick's cancer re-emerged in 2004 in her bones. She has since continued to battle the disease while maintaining her family and career as a popular morning anchor on 10TV News. Pick is a friendly face who serves as a daily reminder to those battling the disease to never give up. (Source: Komen Columbus feature stories.)

Maria Durant-A busy television reporter for ABC6 News, Durant was diagnosed while undergoing a routine mammogram and opted for a relatively new test-an Oncotype DX analysis-to find out her chances for a recurrence and to help define whether chemotherapy would be included in her treatment plan. Her current prognosis is great and she continues to come into central Ohio homes each day. (Source: The Ohio State Medical Center annual report, 2006.)

More advice from Laurie and Lenora

Laurie Dixon:

  • Find a good team of [medical professionals] that is compassionate." She praised the physicians and staff at Riverside Methodist Hospital.
  • Get up every day and just go through it. There is no cure, but it is highly treatable when found early.
  • Back yourself with knowledge, support and a sense of humor.
  • Try on wigs before you start losing your hair. Hope's Boutique is the best. They have a wide array of wigs and bill your insurance directly. A lot of shops don't do that. You have to pay up front and get reimbursed by your insurance company. is also great for wigs, at about a third of the price.

Lenora Barnes-Wright:

  • It's a journey, you can't rush it. The hardest thing to do is to let go. You become accustomed to doing things for yourself.
  • Sign up with the American Cancer Society's Patient Navigator program. They've got training, but they've also been through what you're going through.
  • Get accurate information, check sources and become very familiar with your diagnosis.
  • Barnes-Wright wanted to acknowledge the professionals at The James Cancer Research Hospital.

Signs and symptoms of breast cancer

  • Lump or swelling in the breast or underarm area.
  • Skin irritation or dimpling.
  • Nipple pain or retraction (turning inward).
  • Redness or scaliness of the nipple or breast skin.
  • Discharge other than breast milk.
  • Any of these symptoms may be caused by cancer or by other, less serious health problems. If you have any of these symptoms, see your doctor.

Risk factors

  • Gender: Breast cancer is 100 times more common among women than men.
  • Age: Ninety-five percent of breast cancers occur in women age 40 and older.
  • Five to 10 percent of breast cancer cases are hereditary and result from gene mutations, most commonly mutations of the BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes.
  • Family history: Having one or more first-degree relatives--mother, sister, or daughter--diagnosed with breast cancer increases risk.
  • Race: White women are slightly more likely to develop breast cancer than are African American women, but African American women are more likely to die of this cancer because their cancers are often diagnosed later.
  • Ethnicity: Ashkenazi Jews are at increased risk.
  • Obesity and high fat diet: Obese women and those who consume a high fat diet have an increased risk, especially after menopause.
  • Alcohol: Women who drink one alcoholic beverage per day have a slight increased risk. Women who drink two to five alcoholic beverages daily have 1.5 times the risk of a nondrinker.
  • Physical inactivity: Those who do not engage in strenuous activity during youth and moderate to strenuous activity as an adult have higher risk than those who do.
  • Long menstrual history: Women who started menstruating before 12 or who went through menopause after 55 have a slightly higher risk.
  • Diethylstilbestrol (DeS): Women whose mothers were given DES during pregnancy have slightly increased risk.
  • Oral contraceptive use: Women who use oral contraceptives have a slightly increased risk compared with women who have never used them.
  • Post-menopausal hormone therapy (pHT): Long-term use (several years) of PHT (especially combined estrogen and progestin therapy) is associated with increased risk.

(Source: The American Cancer Society)

Making Strides

Making Strides of Columbus kicks off Sun., Oct. 5 at COSI, 333 W. Broad St. Registration runs from 8:30 to 9:30 a.m. Exercises by local health professionals is from 9:30 to 9:40 a.m. Opening ceremonies then commence, ending at 10 a.m., followed by the start of the walk. The Strides route begins downtown, winds through German Village and returns to COSI. Following the walk, refreshments and snacks will be provided by Panera.

Find out more