Cindy Zerbe was diagnosed with breast cancer on September 13, 2021. It’s the news no one wants to hear.
“It rocks your world,” Zerbe said.
But after she stated that she had breast cancer, Zerbee received support from her co-workers, family and friends. I also learned about others who had it.
“It lets you know you’re not alone in this fight,” she said.
Zerbei met with doctors to determine the best course of action. I decided to have the surgery. As of October 1, Zerbee is a one-year cancer survivor.
Zerbee, 65, happily works as a secretary at Wacosta Elementary School in Grand Ledge. Women are advised to get mammograms and self-exams. She also wants breast cancer patients to know that they are not alone.
“Don’t be afraid to ask for support or help,” she said. “There is nothing wrong with that.”
The importance of early diagnosis
According to the American Cancer Society, Breast cancer makes up 30% of all new gynecological cancer cases each year. October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month.
Dr. Mohamed Youssef Hamdan – Oncologist / Hematologist For Sparrow Ionia Hospital and Sparrow Herbert-Herman Cancer Center – works in a multidisciplinary clinic for patients after their diagnosis to discuss personal plans for treatment. Hamdan said the clinic receives about five patients a week.
But while treatment is important, many decisions made boil down to diagnosis.
Hamdan said that the results of breast cancer patients have improved since the tests became more advanced, especially the tests that achieve positive results before symptoms start.
“Once symptoms develop, we are dealing with a more advanced case than we would like to see,” he said.
Hamdan said risk factors include family history and hormone intake. Maintaining a diet low in fat and controlled cholesterol, along with a healthy weight, can help reduce the risk of breast cancer.
Dr. Elena Coppola, an oncologist at Karmanos Cancer Institute in McLaren, northern Michigan, said the hospital treats about 500 breast cancer patients annually.
To aid diagnosis, McLaren uses a 3D mammogram, which creates a three-dimensional image of the breast. She said breast cancer cases have increased over the past few years – but added that the enhanced diagnoses are likely due to improved technology and diligent screening.
McLaren encourages mammograms for women over the age of 40, as well as regular self-examinations.
“We used to tell people to do them on a monthly basis and now we said, just get to know your breasts,” Coppola said. “Every now and then, get to know your breasts and see if there are any differences in their nature.
“Sometimes there is a lot of anxiety with breast self-exams and patients are like, ‘I don’t do that anymore because I don’t even know what’s lumpy and what isn’t. “So, we just tried to say, ‘Just get an idea of what your breasts feel like and then, if there’s anything different, that’s what we want to know.'”
Provide emotional support
Treatment is not limited to chemotherapy, radiation, and surgeries – mental health has become an important part of treatment.
McLaren employs social workers to help patients through the emotional aspects of their diagnosis and treatment. The Karmanos Cancer Institute also partners with a clinical psychologist and has a massage therapist on site.
The Quail Family Cancer Center through Munson Healthcare has hosted the Breast Cancer Support Group for the past six years. The group is open to any Monson cancer patients, even after they have completed treatment.
Before the COVID-19 pandemic, the group met in person an average of 6-8 people. Once the pandemic started, the group moved to a virtual environment and began attracting 12-14 people to each meeting. Linda Meyer, who runs the group, said they will continue to have a virtual side, even if they resume meeting face to face.
Most group members are in therapy after treatment because during treatment they talk regularly with their doctor and a navigator nurse, such as Meyer, who helps guide them.
Once patients are in remission and no longer meet with staff, a support group helps navigate post-cancer treatment.
Mayer has worked as a navigator nurse for the past four years. Managing a support group is part of her job. The other is meeting newly diagnosed patients.
“Patients deserve to have a designated contact person, someone they can reach out to when they have questions or concerns, or who will follow their care to make sure appointments and things like that are scheduled for them,” Meyer said.
“Having a navigation nurse to be able to answer questions is always a good thing. Then, when the surgeries are over and they are established with the medical oncologist and things like that, then patients tend to join the support group.”
Living After Cancer
Sandra Shedd, 61, lives in the Building District — volunteers when she can in the city’s school district. She also loves gardening, baking, spending time with family, and “doing something meaningful every day.”
In May 2021, Shedd found a lump in her right breast near the bottom of her bra line. Doctors confirmed it was invasive ductal sarcoma. The cancer started in the milk duct and then left and spread to the breast.
“She doesn’t have much you can fight with it,” Shedd said.
Shedd underwent a double mastectomy in November 2021 and underwent oral chemotherapy until April.
Then, one day, while she was throwing a ball at her dog, Shedd experienced pain on the left side of her body. She went to the emergency room and discovered that her left lung had a mass in her left lung and broken ribs. The cancer had spread to her left lung, but her right lymph nodes were clean.
“This is the kind of cancer I have…it spreads if it wants to,” she said.
Shedd was diagnosed in July with metastatic breast cancer after lung surgery and began chemotherapy again in August. She doesn’t know why her ribs are broken – she doesn’t have cancer in her bone.
Shedd’s children, siblings, and friends were supportive of him. The B Foundation in Belding, which helps support people with cancer, donated to help Shedd pay for medical costs.
“Don’t be afraid to get a mammogram,” she told others now. “They can’t diagnose it if you don’t let them find it.”
April Ackermann, 39, from Lyon, is a breast cancer survivor. She works at My Community Dental Centers in Ionia. She enjoys gardening, canning, and watching medical shows.
Ackermann was diagnosed with breast cancer in August 2016 after finding a tumor herself. On the day of her diagnosis, Ackermann cried when she went to her best friend’s house to pick up her daughter—unsure how bad the cancer was.
“I honestly didn’t know, at the time, whether I was going to live or die,” Ackermann said.
Two weeks later, she underwent a left mastectomy. I started four months of chemotherapy in October of that year, took a break to recover, started five weeks of radiotherapy, and then underwent reconstructions.
Today, she has regular checkups and lab work. Ackermann used to attend a young survivor support group in Lansing, which helped her cope with the disease.
“It was really helpful to hear stories from other young people like me who have been diagnosed with cancer, especially those who have children,” she said.
Ackermann advises women with breast cancer not to search the Internet for information — just listen to your doctors. She also said that she relies on family, friends, and other survivors.
“If you know someone who has been through it, it really helps,” she said.
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