Survivors

Breast cancer victims realize their condition is no death sentence

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— They were thought of as healthy people, spiritual leaders and fun-loving humanitarians.

They didn't think it could happen to them. They followed all the rules and still, cancer invaded their lives.

Since Jan. 1, 2000, 77 women in Steamboat Springs have undergone some sort of breast cancer treatment, according to Christine McKelvie, public relations officer for Yampa Valley Medical Center.

Whether people affected by breast cancer attend support groups or simply understand the support system in a city such as Steamboat, all said they were shocked and all didn't think it could happen to them.

"There's a lot of breast cancer in this town," said Nina Darlington, breast cancer survivor. "I guess the thing about cancer is it really is a wake up call."

More than a year ago, Darlington thought it was time for a mammogram. She had not had one in about seven years. After age 40, it is recommended that women get the procedure every two years.

Darlington's doctors thought the cell groupings in her left breast were calcifications. A biopsy was needed no big deal.

With about five 4-inch needles sticking out of her breast like a porcupine ready to quill, doctors took samples of those suspected calcifications to find out they were in the beginning stages of cancer stage zero they called it.

"I was shocked, but I wasn't completely shattered," Darlington said. "Basically, they did a lumpectomy."

Darlington is humble about the procedures, the treatments and the cancer. She said she thinks there is no story really, that her cancer wasn't as serious as many others.

Carolyn Arithson was able to keep her right breast after becoming part of a new study that used chemotherapy to shrink her tumor, followed by surgery to remove it, then more chemotherapy and radiation.

Arithson said she couldn't decide whether to have cancer or not but she did get to decide if she would have a mastectomy or participate in a new study that saved her breast.

"This is the way it is you can't change it. But I got to decide. If you don't make a decision, your choices get made for you," Arithson said.

Arithson found a lump in her breast through self-examination. She went in for a mammogram. It was a cyst. She went back to the doctor to get regular mammograms every six months.

When the lump had gone away, she found another lump in her other breast but didn't think to have it examined.

"I was having all these mammograms and they didn't detect it. I think that gave me a false sense of security," Arithson said.

Two months later during a routine pap smear, Arithson's gynecologist asked about the lump. Arithson's only reply was that she knew.

"You've got to wonder where your brain is," Arithson said.

It turned out that Arithson had stage-three cancer, stage four being the worst.

Another breast cancer survivor, Jean Benton, visited the doctor for mammograms and gave herself regular self-examinations but cancer still found her.

Unfortunately for Benton, doctors had to remove her right breast because the cancer cells were not gathered in one area. Doctors constructed a new breast for Benton with silicone implants.

Darlington said she also knows what it is like under the scalpel.

Doctors poked holes and made incisions in Darlington's breast four different times in one year.

"They said, 'We didn't get it all. We need to go back in.' I just said OK. What am I going to do, get angry about it?" Darlington said. "I have a strong meditation practice and I have been practicing yoga for 30 years that's what saved me."

Arithson is at the end of her treatment but continues to be plagued with lymphedema, a condition that results in a swelling of an extremity because of an accumulation of fluids. It occurs when the lymph system cannot reabsorb or transport protein and lymph load.

For Arithson, an incision in the axillary to evaluate the degree of cancer left her with the risk of getting lymphedema. Three years after her last radiation treatment, Arithson was affected by lymphedema when her arm swelled. With lymphedema, the swelling does not naturally go down unless a patient receives immediate therapy.

"Because the lymph system has been compromised, it no longer works. It doesn't filter as well," Arithson said. "Your arm becomes a great risk to other things."

Arithson is speaking of infections that may hospitalize people or the swelling that practically paralyzes the arm.

Of the people who have the axillary incision, Arithson said she is one of 5 percent of people that develop lymphedema. It can come five days after surgery, or it can come up to five years after.

Arithson helped a friend move some large, heavy mats off a truck. She knew she probably shouldn't be lifting heavy things, but she continued. Later that day, she arm swelled like a balloon but she didn't know where to go for relief.

"I wasn't getting direction from the medical community on where to go," Arithson said.

With a proactive approach to cancer and treatment, Arithson was determined to find relief anywhere she could find it.

After traveling to a lymphedema treatment center in Boulder, Arithson got the swelling down. Although her right arm could swell again at any moment, she is careful with any activity involving her right arm.

"Sometimes I can't even do the dishes," Arithson said to her two children.

Ways to avoid lymphedema include not hot baths, showers, hot tubs, saunas or burns. Traveling in hot and cold climates also can ignite the lymphedema.

Avoiding insect bites, manicures, pet scratches or gardening are important, as well as avoiding lifting heavy objects, tight clothing or wearing rings and bracelets.

It's a condition Arithson thinks about every day.

According to the American Cancer Society, We know that about 192,200 women in the United States will be diagnosed with invasive breast cancer in 2001. And about 40,600 women will die from the disease.

But these local survivors aren't focusing on death.

In Darlington's yoga classes, she finally spoke about living and recovering from breast cancer, knowing that she lives in a supportive community.

"There was an outpouring of love and respect. It was really overwhelming," Darlington said. "I learned that it's really OK to ask for help. You're not the only one. There are people that have been down that road."

Arithson also has been a member of the breast cancer awareness group in Steamboat. Life's struggles have brought her in and out of the support group, which is made up of survivors, for the past four years.

Benton was diagnosed and had surgery in April 1999. By September 1999, Benton made lists of all the fun things she was going to do to live a full life, bought herself a Volkswagen bug and had it painted like a Grateful Dead tie-dye T-shirt.

Now, when her VW bug drives down the road, Benton receives a plethora of people holding up peace signs, waves or thumbs up. And that is her saving grace.

"A woman came up to me and said, 'You have the happiest car.' It's happy and positive," Benton said.

Benton still has blood work done at the hospital every six months and Darlington has a mammogram every six months.

Instead of taking the oncologists' recommended drugs after the lumpectomy, Darlington chose to include a large dose of antioxidants into her daily regimen, as well continuing with yoga, meditation and chanting.

"It really is a blessing to be given this view," Darlington said. "Now if you live your life, is it going to be full or am I going to dwell?"

For more information for those who have breast cancer-related questions, concerns or are seeking support group information, call Carolyn Arithson at 879-1188.

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