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Life's Crossroads: Twenty-Year Cancer Survivor Tells Her Story of Survival

10-10-2016

Gastonia, NC—Occasionally, we get to a point in our lives when we see our path diverging in front of us and find ourselves at a clear crossroads. These moments usually indicate change and involve choices to be made. When we experience change, whether it involves the start of a new career or maybe we are faced with a challenging health situation, the crossroads we find ourselves can either inspire or paralyze us. The choice is ours to make.

Twenty years ago, Lyn Anderson met her crossroad when she was diagnosed with breast cancer. Flooded with emotion because of this unwelcomed interruption in life, Lyn was faced with a choice – she could give up or she could fight. Lyn chose to embrace her diagnosis and make this a moment of profound and lasting change. This is Lyn’s story of survival.

Lyn thought nothing of it when she arrived for her annual doctor’s appointment. What she thought was just a routine visit, turned into something much more serious. While performing her breast exam, her doctor detected a suspicious lump. Within a few days, Lyn went in for an ultrasound and other diagnostic testing to confirm the news. In January 1996, at age 43, Lyn was diagnosed Stage II invasive breast cancer.

Cancer is prevalent in Lyn’s family, placing her at a higher risk. But regardless of this risk, Lyn never thought it would happen to her. Faced with a decision about how to handle this news, Lyn choose to tackle it head-on.

Wasting no time, Lyn’s doctors created a personalized treatment plan that included surgery to remove the cancerous tissues. Following the surgery, Lyn underwent radiation treatment at CaroMont Cancer Center.

“I worked throughout my entire treatment and would go in every morning before I went into the office,” said Lyn. “That was my favorite time of day—it was quiet, it was dark. I never really heard much except peaceful nature sounds they had playing in the background. It was a very calm time.”

After radiation, Lyn started chemotherapy. To keep her strength up, doctors recommended walking as opposed to strenuous exercise. So, that’s what she did. Lyn says she was very fortunate because she felt mostly well during her treatments and didn’t lose her hair. Lyn completed her last chemo treatment in September 1996 and to celebrate being cancer-free, she joined the YMCA and started a book club.

The beginning of a new life
Twenty years later, Lyn hasn’t skipped a beat and is still waking up at 5:30 a.m. five days a week—sometimes six—to attend different group exercise classes at the YMCA. She enjoys attending Group RPM®, a high-intensity cardiovascular exercise performed on a stationary bicycle, strength training classes and her favorite, Body Flow®, which she says is like a self massage. And she’s still meeting regularly with her book club. Inspired by famous movie actor Cary Grant because of his persistence to turn a passion for acting into a reality, Lyn says she discovered through her cancer journey that life is precious, and “if you want something, you have to become it.” It was also during this time that she decided to make some changes in her life and stop making excuses.

“My girls were 14 and 10 at the time I was diagnosed with breast cancer, so I decided morning workouts were the only way I was going to get it in,” said Lyn. “I would set the alarm and wake up each morning and say aloud, ‘Become it!’ And it worked. I try to live that way today. If you want to be that person, be that person. Don’t make any excuses. That’s when I made that change in my life.”

In a recent letter addressed to her doctors and the medical team who cared for her, Lyn thanked them for giving her a second chance at life. She sent the letter to mark her 20-year anniversary of being cancer-free.

An excerpt from the letter read, “I wanted to let you know how much I have enjoyed the last twenty years. It was the beginning of a new life for me. My life…has been rich, varied, full of love and happiness, heightened by my brush with cancer, but healthy, with your help.”

Advancements in medicine
Through medical research and continued advancements in medicine, doctors are able to diagnose breast cancer earlier when treatment is most likely to be successful. It was around the time of Lyn’s diagnosis that scientists discovered the BRCA 1/2 gene, which can be passed down from either parent and has been linked to breast cancer. Fortunately for Lyn, her cancer was found early enough and doctors were able to make decisions even without the knowledge of the BRCA genetic mutations. But because of her experience and her family history of cancer, Lyn decided to pursue genetic counseling and testing to understand her risk of developing other types of cancer and the genetic risk that could have been passed to her daughters. Lyn and her two sisters underwent genetic testing, which identified the BRCA gene mutation in Lyn and one of her sisters.

“Genetic counseling identifies those at increased risk of cancer, in order to promote awareness, early detection and cancer prevention. It can also help guide treatment and follow-up options for those already diagnosed,” said Ashley Migliaro, MS, CGC, Certified Genetic Counselor at CaroMont Cancer Center. “Having a positive test result indicates that a person has inherited a harmful mutation, but it doesn’t necessarily mean he or she will develop cancer. However, having this information can have important health implications for family and future generations.”

Like other gene mutations, BRCA1and BRACA2 mutations are rare in the general population. In the U.S., between one in 400 and one in 800 people have a BRCA1 or BRCA2 mutation. According to Susan G. Komen® organization, estimates of risk are different for BRCA1 and BRCA2 carriers. BRCA1 carriers have a 55 to 65 percent chance of developing breast cancer by age 70 and BRCA2 carriers have about a 45 percent chance of developing breast cancer by age 70. BRCA1 or BRCA2 carriers may also have an increased chance of ovarian, pancreatic, prostate (in men) and some second primary cancers (new cancers that develop after a first breast cancer).1

Lyn waited to share the genetic testing results with her daughters because she wanted them to be old enough to process the information and make thoughtful, well-informed decisions. Both of Lyn’s daughters were tested and results confirmed her eldest is a carrier of one of the BRCA 2 mutation. Options for the prevention of hereditary breast and ovarian cancer include screening, preventive surgery and chemoprevention. Having seen what her mother went through, an aunt who had BRCA 2 diagnosis and subsequent breast cancer in 2014 and to safeguard herself, Lyn’s eldest daughter made the difficult decision to have a prophylactic bilateral mastectomy and direct to implant breast reconstruction or “one-step” procedure, and a bilateral salpingectomy (BSO).

“I went through my entire cancer treatment without the knowledge of my inherited risk,” said Lyn. “I remember thinking how difficult it would have been to make this decision like my daughter did at 34, but she’s strong and has recovered so well.”

A different perspective
Lyn can see the effect cancer has had on her and her family—her diagnosis, her father who died from pancreatic cancer and then her daughter’s experience. Through it all, Lyn still believes her personal experience with cancer was only a “brush with mortality,” and despite its harrowing effect, she believes her experiences opened her eyes to see the disease from a different perspective.

“Cancer is a terrible disease,” said Lyn. “But, I came to realize that there is one blessing with cancer and that’s that you usually have the time to say goodbye. You realize that life is about being around those you love. I also discovered through my personal experience that I love taste and color and sound, and it [cancer] enriched all that.”

Lyn has a sticker on the back of her cell phone that reads: Pay attention. Be astonished. Tell about it.—three simple instructions that serve not only as a daily reminder of her experience, but her very important decision twenty years ago to live to tell her story.

Categories: Health