On the day before she was to leave an annual cancer retreat, hosted by East Texas Medical Center, Robin Hunt, 56, relished in the star treatment she was receiving at a resort near Lake Palestine. She sat for several minutes with a faint smile as an artist sketched her likeness onto paper. Later, she received a massage and participated in Tai Chi.
“With support like this, I feel special out here,” Mrs. Hunt said. “The people I didn’t know when I got here, I’m going to get to know by tomorrow afternoon.”
Finding new friends with similar experiences is a must for cancer survivors like Mrs. Hunt. Support is key to getting through a cancer crisis at the time of diagnosis, during treatment and well after, patients say.
That’s why Mrs. Hunt is showing up at this year’s Komen Race for the Cure event, to be held May 12 at Bergfeld Park. She’s a part of a team that will be decked out in pink camouflage, as their mission is to “Hunt for the Cure.”
Mrs. Hunt was diagnosed with invasive lobular breast cancer — a type that is more difficult to detect — in November of 2010. The news was a shock to her, as she’d practiced healthy habits and walked regularly. Mrs. Hunt believes a hormone replacement therapy may have had something to do with it.
“I was numb,” she said. “It was the last thing I expected because I had always been a healthy person. I had a yearly mammogram. I did everything right.”
It was the beginning of a rocky series of events that Mrs. Hunt struggles with today. She said 2011 wasn’t such a great year. In fact, it was a “horrible” one. It was the year that she underwent eight surgeries, including a mastectomy, two reconstructive surgeries and removal of lymph nodes.
It was also the year she was laid off from her job at AT&T and lost both of our parents.
“(My dad and I) were in the hospital together. I got out but he didn’t,” she recounted. “My story is unique because I had all these things happen to me at the same time. But if I can get through it, anybody can because I’m no different from anybody else.”
Mrs. Hunt must undergo hormone therapy for five years. She has more than three years to go. She has been cancer-free for a year and a half but she isn’t taking that for granted.
“Recovery is ongoing,” she said. “People think just because the cancer is gone you’re home free. You’re not.”
Mrs. Hunt said she’ll always have a danger of developing lymphedema — a condition when swelling occurs in a limb, causing blockage in the lymphatic system, an important part of the immune and circulatory systems.
“I move really slow in the mornings and my energy level is slow in the evening but in the middle I try to accomplish as much as possible,” Mrs. Hunt said.
DRAWING ON SUPPORT
“I realize that at Komen, a step toward healing is paying it forward to other women,” she said. “Even though I’m a year and half into this, I can still help someone who is just beginning the journey. It’s important to find someone who’s been through it and unfortunately, we’re everywhere.”
Her positive attitude and resilience throughout the ordeal doesn’t mean she’s smiling every day.
“I have pity parties at home,” Mrs. Hunt said. “When I’m home alone, I start thinking about things. You start feeling sorry for yourself and when you get around these people who’ve been through a lot more than I have, then I realize that I could be a lot worse off and that I’m going to make it.”
There’s so much more to cancer than the physical problems. It takes a toll on finances, marriages, other relationships and leaves many patients feeling emotionally drained from the influx of medical information being thrown at them.
Brenda McBride, a licensed clinical social worker at East Texas Medical Center, leads various support groups. She said staying active and connecting with other survivors will help ease mental strife following a cancer diagnosis.
“During the first year, there’s such a sense of grief,” Ms. McBride said. “You’re trying to take care of the physical and it’s hard to take care of the emotional aspect of it.”
One of the implications of cancer, particularly breast cancer in women, is a change in the perception of body image. Patients explain that it can have a harrowing effect. In Mrs. Hunt’s reconstructive surgeries, skin and tissue were removed from her back to form a new breast.
“To lose a whole breast was devastating,” she said. “I felt like it was an amputation … I’m glad I went through the reconstruction a second time. There was a lot of pain involved and extra surgeries. I never would have guessed that my self-image was that important to me.”
She added, “My husband was very supportive — he didn’t care. I was the one that cared about how it looked. So I went through and I’m scarred up. I have scars all over my back. I have a lot of side effects but I’m going to be OK. I’m through the worst of it.”
In addition to her husband, she finds solace in a support group and from church family.
“Don’t attempt to handle this on your own,” she warned. “Don’t be alone. Be around others who have gone through the same struggles. This is not the time for isolation because that is the time the pity parties start.”
Mrs. Hunt realizes that cancer can strike anyone at any time. The most poignant advice she gives to individuals who face a new diagnosis is to never give up. She pledges to continue helping others and she’s hoping there are more studies done on the type of cancer she had. She is also reminding people to not treat people with cancer differently. Her role as a cancer survivor is never complete.
“I appreciate my life so much more,” Mrs. Hunt said. “I’ve accepted that change is the one thing that you can depend on in life and I’ve realized that God will get you through anything.”