Debra Sharker is a member of the Network of Hope at Northside Hospital: she mentors newly diagnosed breast cancer patients, serves as a speaker for the Hadassah “Check It Out” program, teaches high school girls about breast self-exam and serves on a steering committee for “Camp Hope,” a weekend retreat for men and women cancer patients. Additionally, she works on projects such as Wine, Women & Shoes, raising money for ovarian cancer research and The Courage Project, finding vendors for a small lion given to patients. If she could leave her “real job,” she would volunteer full time because she really loves to work with people who share the special bond of being survivors. Here is her story:
In 2010, at age 53, I was diagnosed with Stage 2 invasive breast cancer. I was single and had no children. It was a very stressful time. My father had a stroke while I was in the hospital and my mom was going downhill from severe rheumatoid arthritis and lupus. My sisters had their hands full and couldn’t be with me. So, I turned to my family of girlfriends, and they were incredible. They came from all over to help. My best friend rarely left my side. My chosen family saved the day, being there for me as I went through a mastectomy and chemotherapy, and reconstruction that failed again and again.
Always having someone with me at the “big” appointments-- oncologist, breast surgeon, plastic surgeon—was a must. In the throes of shock and pain and disbelief, that person listened for me. I know that I did not hear the words the doctors were saying – it was just too overwhelming. But I did become my own advocate. I kept all my records – tests, results, and pathology. I used a notebook that became the journal of my journey. I always had a suitcase at my side: with books, snacks, candy, and a sweater – everything that I wanted was with me all the time.
My advice to the newly diagnosed patients I see is to get educated, get second opinions, and ask questions! I say, ask them again and again, until you are comfortable with answers.
I would like to see more progress made in cancer treatment. Chemotherapy is brutal. You lose your hair, eyelashes, and eyebrows at the same time that you are fighting to live. I wish research could isolate the cause of cancer, so that maybe we can change our way of lifestyle, what we eat, when we drink, or what we wear. I see too many women, young and old, who are physically and emotionally abused by cancer.
And I don’t think enough is being done to help women recover. We need help adjusting from being a patient, to being a survivor, to finding a new normal. If there is research about the after-effects and the long-term effects of the treatment, it was not shared with me. I have many physical problems that were not there before my cancer and chemotherapy, and I’ve heard most of the women I know who are survivors complain about the same thing. We are all concerned: are our bodies going to fail us?
And we need direction on how to live in our new normal. I’m single and have no idea how to date and maybe have a sexual relationship. I tried it once – I met a guy on a plane and we hit it off. We exchanged emails and decided to have dinner. As we sat down to drinks, the conversation turned to his bad knee. I told him about my own knee surgery and we laughed while exchanging our tales of woe. Then we asked me if I had other scars on my body. As I answered yes, I had a funny feeling that something was wrong. As I explained about my breast cancer, mastectomy, reconstruction – he asked if I had scars on my chest. I watched his face as I replied that yes, I had several scars on my chest, and I saw his look of disdain and horror. He said a relationship with me could not work for him because scars such as mine, made his stomach turn. It took me only a second to realize that it would never work for me either: my scars are my badge of honor. So I very slowly got up, grabbed my purse, and proceeded to throw my glass of wine in his face. And as I walked out of the restaurant, I felt powerful and happy. But as I get into my car, I burst into tears. How was I going to live with my new normal? Nobody has taught me that.
What my cancer journey has taught me is that it helps to become involved in community efforts and share the message! We can become voices for those who can no longer speak. We can keep the research movement front and center by participating in walks, seminars, and programs. We can raise our issues to our government representatives on the local, regional, state and federal level. We can make calls and volunteer. And we can donate to support research and non-profits’ good works. But even if we cannot give as much money as we would like, we can all lend a hand and a voice to cancer survivor awareness.
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