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Healthy People interview: Jane Hildebrant, six-year breast cancer survivor

Sunday, October 19, 2014

ReadhHealthy: How old were you when you were diagnosed with breast cancer?


Jane Hildebrant: I was 40, and it was 2008.


RH: Can you tell us about your life at that time?


JH: Greg and I married on 10/4/03. We were in the process of adopting from China, redoing our antique log cabin and enjoying life! I had taken up running in 2007 and my New Year’s Eve resolution was to complete a marathon before I turned 40, which I did in October  2007 when I ran the Marine Corps marathon. I enjoyed running so kept at it. I turned 40 in December 2007 and was diagnosed the following April.

RH: Were there symptoms or concerns that led you to the doctor, or was it found during a routine exam?


JH: I found out because of baseline mammogram that  I went for upon turning 40. It was on St. Patrick's day, followed by a needle biopsy on April Fool's day...I didn't laugh!

RH: What was the diagnosis process (mammogram, MRI, biopsy)? How long did that take?


JH: I had a mammogram on 3/17 followed by sonogram and biopsy on 4/1; confirmation on 4/8. (Greg's grandmother died and we had to go to Michigan after my biopsy for the services. We drove and I cried the entire ride, as I just knew my test would be positive, based on how the nurse who did the biopsy talked to me.)

RH: What was your actual diagnosis?


JH: Stage IIB in the left breast.

RH: Do you remember the moment when you were first told you had breast cancer? Can you remember your reaction?


JH: I remember it, although it is more like a movie when thinking back about it. We were at the local hospital where I had all the diagnostic work done. They led Greg and me into a dark room with the radiologist who just basically said, “So, we reviewed your results and they are positive for cancer.” Greg sort of grabbed me and I had a few questions about next steps, took their referral for a surgeon and we left. The first person I had to call was my mom; I burst into tears when I told her. She was at work and her immediate reaction was "oh dear." She was in total shock. 
RH: How did the people who were important to you in your life react to the news? 


JH: Total shock followed by a huge outpouring of support.


RH: Did your doctor discuss treatment options with you?


JH: The surgeon I ultimately selected did.  My first consult unequivocally believed I needed a mastectomy based on the location of my tumor (very deep within the breast)


RH: Did you feel you were being listened to, that your questions were being answered, that you were an active participant in the treatment planning process?


JH: Yes – I chose Dr. Richard Shapiro as my surgeon after he sat in a room with me, my husband, my mom and step-dad and my in-laws and answered all of our questions. 


RH: Was there anything negative or off-putting about your experience with doctors, or anything you with that they—or you—had handled differently?


JH: Only during my search for a surgeon. During one consult the physician decided to read email while talking to me.  I was like, “Uh, hello – I am right across the desk from you!!!”


RH: Are there problems or snags in the health system when it comes to cancer patients that you think need improvement? 


JH: Yes – there is still fragmented delivery when it comes to the integration of physician services/hospital services and pharmacy. This is not unique to cancer patients I’m sure, but when dealing with the big “c” word, one would hope for a more holistic experience.

RH: What treatment plan did you and your doctors decide on? Why was it right for you? Did you feel informed?

JH: A lumpectomy with a sentinel node biopsy performed during surgery. The results of the node biopsy would dictate the removal of more nodes as well be the factor in determining if I would need chemotherapy. I felt this was best for me – I was young and otherwise healthy and would rather be less invasive on my body. However if they found more cancer during surgery, I was fine with the thought of losing my breast. My docs were awesome and spoke to me every step of the way. My biopsy was positive, requiring the removal of the next layer of nodes, all of which were clean, but since the cancer had started to move, I now faced chemo.

RH: Can you describe the physical experience of treatment? What did treatment put your body through?

JH: Well, basically it sucked – big time! I came home from the hospital with a drain that my husband had to empty and actually measure the liquid output – how’s that for romance? I was exhausted physically and mentally for about nine months. I lost my sense of taste from the chemo along with my hair. I went through menopause (with hot flashes and all) due to the drug cocktail I was on and my period never returned. I had to have a port which was oh-so-attractive with a sundress. My left breast, although intact, is very different from my right, a result of all the tissue that was removed. I was tired all the time but found exercise made me feel better. I walked a lot. I had neuropathy in my fingers and the fogginess they call “chemo brain.” I felt nauseous most of the time. 


I am still left with the impact of that time in my life as I have scars on my breast, in my armpit from the biopsy, and my collarbone from the port. I have tattoos from the radiation treatment.


RH: Can you describe the emotional changes you went through during treatment?

JH: I admit I cried every night for about six weeks – I could hold it together during the day, and while I never thought I was going to die, I just had no control, which for me was very difficult! I learned to take things day by day, and still try to do so!

RH: Did the cancer diagnosis change the way you interacted with people, or any of your worldviews or priorities?

JH: Hmm. Tough call. I think it changed me in the way I deal with the world overall. A job is job. Stuff happens and some of that stuff will be bad but you can get through it. I also have no qualms about dropping friends who really are not friends, saying what I believe, and trying new things even if I am scared. My new motto is, “Hey, you only go around once. Why not enjoy it?”

RH: What were some of your coping mechanisms?

JH: Running/walking. Quiet time with my husband. Spending time with family. Going public with my battle via a blog and by continuing to work even while bald and becoming a vocal support of cancer awareness. I needed to turn a bad thing into something of value. I chose NYU because it was a teaching hospital. I participated in every single study I could.

RH: Who were some of the people that were most helpful and most important to you during this time in your life? What were some of the most helpful things people did, or said, and why were they helpful?


My family and friends were awesome. One friend organized meals to be delivered on the night I had chemo. She set up a cooler outside my door and folks just left food there. It was an amazingly kind gesture and one that we so appreciated after spending a day in the city being pumped full of drugs, so I could just come home and eat.  When my iron dropped, the same friend made sure the meals that were made were iron-rich. 


Another friend, an avid runner, walked with me when my white blood cell count fell so low that I was not allowed to run. My mom was by my side always. I also had a different friend or family member come to each chemo session with me – it became more of an event and Greg did not have to take so much time off of work. I do also have to mention that my employer and Greg’s were very generous with assistance overall.


RH: How did your views on what it meant to be “healthy” change during this experience?


JH: My views did not change, although due to the fact I had no genetic history of breast cancer and my BRCA test was negative, I could not help but wrack my brain as to what caused my cancer: Was it all the diet coke I drank in college? How about the shampoo or make-up I used? While I had been a huge proponent of organic goods before my diagnosis, I did get a bit hyper-vigilant afterwards and I continue to monitor products for things such as parabens, etc.


RH: What advice would you give someone newly diagnosed with breast cancer?


JH: I would have to say to reach out to someone who has been there. I knew no one – no friends or family had dealt with this beast. However, I had a co-worker who had, and even though we were not close, I gave her a call and will forever hold her in a special place in my heart. She called me right back and talked to me for over an hour, gave me so much great info and then checked in with me throughout my ordeal. She and her husband even had dinner with Greg and me so that Greg could meet another husband who had lived through the journey we were embarking on. She was simply awesome and part of why I am such an avid believer in paying it forward by helping anyone I can!


Also, there are no stupid questions and you should get answers to all of them from your healthcare professionals. Use a doctor you trust and who respects you rather than relying on what others say. 

RH: Can you suggest any websites or other resources that were helpful to you or that a patient or family member dealing with a breast cancer diagnosis may find helpful?

JH: (Politics aside, they have a lot of good info)  (American Cancer Society – just the facts!) (My own blog--I send newly diagnosed friends here as I tried to be very descriptive about my treatment)



Cancer Vixen: A True Story by Marissa Marchetto


Five Lessons I Didn’t Learn From Breast Cancer (And one Big One I Did) by Shelley Lewis


Crazy Sexy Cancer Survivor by Kris Carr