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04 October
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Portland Portrait OF Breast Cancer

Breast Cancer: A Portland Portrait Part One

Symbols of Beauty and Intimacy

Breasts.

Surely the most mysterious part of the human anatomy, they are canons of beauty; powerful symbols of intimacy for women – intimacy in relationships between a woman and her lover, a mother and child, with society, and even with herself. Our culture is obsessed with breasts, covering them, revealing them – changing them in every way. Mothers give life to babies with them, making them as miraculous as the stars in the nighttime sky. The miracle that gives life, though, can threaten to take it away when something goes wrong. When a woman finds a lump in one breast as she showers; when a routine mammogram ends up unexpectedly taking all afternoon instead of the usual half-hour, or when out of the blue, a woman finds it difficult to raise her arm – the consequences of these symptoms can be deadly.
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There is no cure for breast cancer because the cause is not yet known. Some of the country’s finest crusaders against the disease are right here in Portland. At the top of this list of heroes are patients and their families. They are mothers, daughters, sisters and wives and the people who love them. Frequently, patients and their families become advocates, activists and leaders. One day a woman feels healthy and invincible, the next she could be diagnosed without warning. Her life will forever change.

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Forever Changed

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Holley Thompson’s face glows. Her eyes seem to dance. She’s happy to be able to tell her story  if it helps someone else. She shows a photo on her laptop of herself pre-cancer; with long, wavy dark hair. Now, it’s very short and blonde. Initially diagnosed with Stage IV in May of 2006, the most advanced stage of cancer, she was told she might have a month to live. Holley had no warning signs. There was no lump in her breast. One month prior she’d found an enlarged lymph node in her armpit, on her daughter’s eleventh birthday. She thought she’d hurt her arm. As a dog-groomer, it became impossible to work; her entire arm hurt.
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“We think we’d feel a lump, but that’s not necessarily so.” she says.

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At the age of 43, she was four months behind on her yearly mammogram, but wasn’t worried. When antibiotics didn’t work for her arm, her doctor asked about her last mammogram. She’d forgotten. The mammogram led to a flurry of activity, an ultrasound, then biopsy. She had cancer, a very aggressive type.
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“The cancer was so small, it was right up against the chest wall, and had already spread from the top of my spine to my femur.”

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She spent that month “scanning and staging” and began chemotherapy June 6.
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“No one told me the people who give you chemo have to scrub up and wear gowns, masks and gloves. They can’t touch it because it’s poison. I wasn’t prepared for that.”

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She was to spend six months doing chemo. She made it three weeks, and ended up in ICU from organ failure, on life support for almost a month.

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“At one point, I was lucid enough to know I was dying. I couldn’t talk, and I wanted my family. It was 2 a.m.; I was trying to tell the nurses to call my family. They finally did, my daughter was hysterical. I remember she put two rocks in my hand, and the nurses led her out, she was so upset, but I refused to let go of the rocks. It was my connection to my child.”
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How Holley survived is still a mystery. Doctors said it must have solely been her will to live. She went home almost a month later, so weak she could barely eat. She kept throwing up, lost 35 pounds in two months. She spent the summer recovering, with no treatment. She’d put together the Relay for Life and her partner, Mark, wheeled her around the track that summer.
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Her health began to turn around after seeking a second opinion with Dr. Devon Webster at OHSU. Everything clicked for Holley with Dr. Webster, who’d memorized Holley’s entire chart before their first appointment. Holley loved her doctor’s name (was asked to call her Devon), her attitude and above all, the hope Dr. Webster gave her.

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“For the first time, I thought I might actually be able to live for a number of years. Devon was so positive. She was everything I’ve ever wanted in an oncologist.”
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Now an amazing breast cancer source of information, Holley volunteers at St. Vincent’s new Cancer Resource Center, has educated herself on all the types of breast cancer and treatments, participates in listserves, support groups, and organizes Relay for Life near Forest Grove. She recently had a PET scan which showed her body is cancer free, except for two tiny spots. She is very excited, and may plan a trip to England next year.

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“I’m more compassionate. I’ve had a lot of time to journal, reflect and think…I would hope…. it’s changed me.”

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She spends precious time with family, her horses, the Relay, and as a volunteer.

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“Blah…blah…blah….cancer”
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PSU Assistant Professor Susan Reese went in for her routine Mammogram while on Winter Break in December 2005. She mentioned some pain in her left breast. She ended up spending most of the afternoon at Meridian Park – by the time she left she was scheduled for a biopsy. She was on Highway 205 on December 29th, it was pouring rain, her phone rang, her doctor had results. They talked for ten minutes.

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All Susan remembers was “blah, blah, blah….cancer.” Suddenly, as with all cancer patients, it was a scramble for information on treatments. It was mind-boggling.

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“You have to make decisions about life and death you’re not prepared to make” says Susan.
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Like Holley, finding the right oncologist was almost magical. Her twenty-something daughter picked up a copy of Portland Monthly, pointed to Dr. Nathalie Johnson’s picture on the cover, and said “This is who you ought to see, Mom.” Susan looked at the cover, phoned St. Vincent’s to see if she could even see a doctor who was on the cover of a magazine, and made an appointment. As soon as she met Dr. Johnson, she “knew this was the person.”
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Late January, Susan had a mastectomy. Scheduled to teach at PSU for Winter Term, she was also supposed to go to a writing residency for Pacific University’s MFA program. PSU was extremely supportive. She decided to go to the residency and not teach that term. On the coast Susan wrote twenty-four hours a day and found support with writers and faculty like Marvin Bell and Peter Sears, her advisor, whom she says was a ‘knight in shining armor.”
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“Every person who is diagnosed with breast cancer should take two weeks between the diagnosis and surgery and go to a writing residency,” laughs Susan.
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Her husband thought she’d come back from surgery groggy and depressed. He heard her as she was returning from Recovery. Susan had been so afraid she’d die, that she was yelling “I’m alive! I’m alive!” as she was wheeled down the hall.
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Recovery at home was difficult; she couldn’t even make it up the stairs to the bedroom at first. Susan had drains and bulbs and had to measure fluids. Her husband posted instructions on the wall for caregivers; she had a listserv of people for updates. Susan slept in the basement and remembers feeling she had to have poet Ted Kooser’s Winter Morning Walks, a book he wrote as a result of his own battle with cancer. Initially she thought “I don’t need that book.” but after ‘first steps’ in the driveway, she decided she “had to have Ted Kooser’s book.” After several weeks, she made it to the bedroom. “It was like climbing Mt. Everest,” she recalls.
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She returned to teaching for Spring Term, and, after a second surgery in May, graduated in June. She finds it “All pretty astonishing!” She teaches a course called Writing to Heal. Her students know her as a llama-raising, dragon-boating writing teacher. With her reddish blonde hair, easy smile, and glasses, Susan says she’s now the “poster child for survivors – and for Pink Phoenix,” a dragon-boat team in Portland for Breast Cancer survivors.

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Even When You Do Everything Right

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Heidi Hochenedel, former professor of Spanish at Marylhurst discovered a lump in the shower at the end of June, 2006. She’d just completed a five-mile run and was feeling healthy. She was to leave the next day on vacation. Though they had discovered something on her recent mammogram, her doctor wasn’t worried. Only 39, Heidi had no family history of cancer, is a vegetarian, ate lots of vegetables and fruits, and never smoked. They scheduled a cautionary biopsy after her vacation. Her husband, Todd, is a doctor at St. Vincent’s. The doctor who conducted the biopsy called him, asking if he wanted to be the one to tell her. Todd, quite shaken, told his wife that evening she had cancer.
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Heidi also saw Dr. Nathalie Johnson.

“She’s wonderful. She made it so much easier to handle – we had so many questions. Chemo?  Surgery first?”

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Still shocked by the diagnosis, Heidi had two different types of breast cancer, and decided on a double mastectomy. Surrounding herself with friends, she had a party before surgery. Everyone brought a stone for a bracelet. Another friend painted her topless on canvas; it elegantly hangs in her bedroom. She had a hat and scarf party before chemo; a few friends shaved their heads. Today she’s lovely with a creamy complexion complemented by dark hair that drapes her neck. You’d never know the battle she’s been through.
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“We live in a culture where it’s easy to blame the victim- assume we can prevent cancer by eating right, by not smoking. Cancer didn’t make me feel sick. I felt great. I was sick from the treatment, from chemo.”

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Both Heidi and Todd also credit naturopathy for helping Heidi get through chemo. Heidi saw Dr. Barbara MacDonald at A Women’s Time in NW Portland.

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“I breezed through chemo because of her regimen.” she says, which included exercise and Chinese herbs.

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Husbands and Breast Cancer
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Todd says the experience has been “a nightmare.” He says it’s even more difficult because he’s a doctor and felt he had to help her medically, as well as support her as a husband. He helps with their kids and works. Heidi agrees “he was much more upset” than she was. Husbands go through it, too.
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Mad Greek Deli owner Pantelis Kosmas knows how deeply husbands suffer. ‘Pondo’ had recently married Gina, a beautiful blonde with three children.

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“She’d just had a mammogram, and she was leaning against her computer and felt a lump.” says Pondo.

She had Stage IV cancer, and was given a three to five year prognosis. She began chemo in the fall of 2003.

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“She would start feeling better and then she’d start chemo again,” says Pondo.
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After thirty-three treatments of radiation, the cancer came back, spreading to her spinal fluid and brain. Gina developed cerebral meningitis and was hospitalized. On July 4th, Pondo spent time with the kids, watched fireworks, then packed a bag and left for the hospital. At 12:30 a.m. on July 5, 2004, Gina died.

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Pondo now organizes a team every September for Komen’s Race for the Cure, with over 400 people on his 2005 team, and 500 in 2006.

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It Will Take Everyone To Find A Cure
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Dr. Devon Webster, herself a breast cancer survivor, is trying to recruit 1,000 people for Race for the Cure, which takes place September 23. A Sisterhood Luncheon happens the day before and is one of only a few in the country. This is a call to Portland to help fund the research that will find the cause of Breast Cancer and ultimately a cure. Will you race, sleep in, or lunch? This disease is not just a woman’s disease, it affects everyone, and it will take the work of everyone to end its destruction. Breast cancer sooner or later affects everyone; you’ll have a friend, your sister, mother-in-law, your wife, a daughter or mother at some point affected by the disease. To discover the cure, researchers must find its cause. To do that, everyone must help. Contact your local Susan G. Komen Foundation office to see how you can get involved. Help is needed year-round—not just in October. The good news is women are living longer and more comfortable lives after diagnosis. If everyone pitches in, the numbers of survivors will continue to rise.

This article, written by Kerri Buckley and first in a series of three, appeared in Portland Family Magazine September 2007. Holley Thompson died in March 2009. Dr. Devon Webster is now seeing patients at the Rose Quarter Women’s Clinic.