Breast Cancer stories: Surviving breast cancer ‘also brings gifts’

Editor’s note: As part of Breast Cancer Awareness Month, this newspaper is sharing several stories throughout the month about people who have survived the disease, as well as those working to improve their odds. Today we profile Jane Sawyer.

A conversation with Jane Sawyer:

  1. When were you diagnosed and what type of diagnosis did you receive?
I was diagnosed in fall 2009 at my annual mammogram appointment. My diagnosis was Stage I Her2+ breast cancer. I was in disbelief when the doctor gave me the news, despite the fact I was no stranger to cancer. My mother had died eight years earlier from breast cancer, her onset was late in life and the type of cancer purportedly not hereditary. My sister, a non-smoker, had died a year before my mother, of Stage IV lung cancer at age 45. Finally, I was treated for cancer 20 years earlier, and had a hysterectomy, shortly after my son’s birth.

Part of why I was in shock with my breast cancer diagnosis was as a fearful new mother concerned about my mortality, I’d asked my oncologist, 20 years earlier, about the possibility of reoccurrence. No, he had said,my cancer was caught early and if ever I had cancer again, it would most probably be colorectal cancer, late in life. That statement stuck with me, verbatim. It was my warranty, engraved in memory, so I completely denied myself the possibility of believing I would ever contract breast cancer and the thought of sharing this warranty with my new oncologist, came to mind immediately. “Hey, wait a minute, there must be some mistake here... I’ve got a warranty!!”

2.) What type of treatment did you receive?

I underwent one lumpectomy and a follow-up surgery to assure clean margins; then a year of Hereptin infusions that started concurrently with my six months of chemotherapy. A month after chemotherapy finished, I went through 36 radiation treatments.

3.) Was there any one person/thing/routine that served as your rock during this time? If so, please describe.

I think that keeping up some daily exercise really helped me. I’ve always been a walker, so although I couldn’t continue with my YMCA sport walking group because of fatigue, I did walk to my local supermarket to get groceries for dinner a lot and I walked the neighborhood, if only to the end of the block and back. Sometimes, I tried the treadmill and elliptical trainer. Mind you, these were not tough workouts, I think I was really proving something to myself. “Look, you’re not that sick... you went to the gym for a half hour. etc.” I do also remember the days of leaning hard on the CostCo cart for support, because of exhaustion. I also relaxed by making color pencil notes and drawings in a hardbound notebook as I read motivating articles or books about cancer and healthy lifestyles, diet, etc. And, I sewed my own head covers during treatment.

4.) How did this diagnosis impact your finances? Did you have any insurance struggles?

My diagnosis was concurrent with a layoff, and I looked for a job throughout the treatment and didn’t even think of going on disability until the last two months of treatment. Big mistake. I ran through a lot of savings, in part because I had taken early retirement after being reorganized out of my job and career three years earlier. I’d been working before this diagnosis, but really hadn’t bounced back to the same income or satisfaction with my work. Thankfully, I did retire with insurance benefits that were great throughout the treatment. I am blessed, also, to still have my 91-year-old father who helped out with some money.

5.) Did this diagnosis impact your work? If so, how?

I spent most of my career as a career counselor and outplacement consultant, so this, to me, is the most interesting part of the whole experience. I have always yabbered about wanting to have my own business. Cancer served that opportunity up to me on a platter. In 2010, near the end of treatment, I started sewing and selling headwear for chemo patients. I sell my trademark KerchiefPlus head cover online at and in 60-plus hospitals, cancer treatment centers, boutiques, and wig shops. It’s a feel-good business because I’m providing an attractive, quality product; I’m proud of my designs, and I get a lot of positive feedback from customers. It’s a struggle now, but the business is growing steadily.

6.) Is there anything about this experience you want people to know, that they may not know or is not commonly known?

Whether or not you think you have a warranty, a cancer diagnosis comes as a shock and a challenge, but it also brings gifts. We slow down and live one day at a time, appreciating the good in our lives. We think through what is important to us and think about our futures in a different way. There are opportunities to find some good friends at support groups, and to let go of a lot of not-so-important notions and values that previously guided us. You can play the “C” card and beg off of stuff you don’t want to do because you don’t feel well enough... and probably never will again :-). Whether it’s careers, relationships, driving that car, living in that neighborhood, maintaining that lifestyle, cancer can be a sort of magnetic storm that plays with your compass, allowing you to finally find your true north.