Living life after breast cancer treatment: Now what?

Evelina Rossetti plays with her granddaughter at her home in Manchester Township. She has been cancer free for three years (Photo by Kate Penn)

Evelina Rossetti plays with her granddaughter at her home in Manchester Township. She has been cancer-free for three years (Photo by Kate Penn)

Evelina Rossetti thought she would be tough enough to withstand the effects of chemotherapy.

When she began treatment in April 2009, she didn’t feel much ­— at first. But then her heart started to palpitate. She was having a bad reaction to an experimental drug, so her doctor changed her treatment plan. In the next several months, she developed sores in her mouth and throat, her gums began to recede, her hair fell out, and she had frequent nosebleeds. It hurt to eat and talk.

Rossetti, now 59, of Manchester Township began radiation in July of that year. By her fourth treatment, it started to burn her skin.

“There were days when I’d pray to die,” she said.

After putting life on hold for more than a year to fight the disease, she learned she was cancer-free in March 2010. But like many other survivors, treatment had stripped her of the energy and life she once knew.

Where was she to go from there?

The journey continues

When people are diagnosed with breast cancer, many patients — and their families and friends — focus on getting through the treatment that must follow and ultimately beating the illness. However, experts say the journey doesn’t end there. Survivors often face new challenges when they transition back to life after cancer.

“Patients tell us all the time, they’re a different person,” she said.

After Rossetti finished treatment, she returned to work as a real estate agent. Before cancer, she worked 14-hour days, exercised four days a week and felt invincible.

After cancer, she said, she didn’t have the energy or motivation to make it through a work day. To become active again, she attended a Zumba class, but she danced for only a minute before she felt weak and had to stop.

She quit her job and learned she’d have to gradually rebuild her physical strength.

However, facing cancer also changed her outlook on life. She noticed how people always seemed to be in a rush. She wanted to slow down and enjoy life. She wished others would, too. McElwaine said facing mortality often changes patients’ perspectives. After six months to a year of regular treatments and exams, the lack of monitoring sometimes causes anxiety in survivors.

Facing uncertainty

Kathy Allen, oncology social worker at the York Cancer Center, said cancer survivors face a unique level of uncertainty. Even after they’ve become cancer-free, there’s always the possibility of recurrence.

“No one can tell them anything 100 percent,” she said.

Lisa Fritz, co-founder of P.I.N.K. Partners — a breast cancer support group — was diagnosed in 2004. In those few months after finishing her treatment, she said, she felt somewhat abandoned.

Before cancer, she worked as a surgeon. Treatment caused her to develop neuropathy in her hands, so she had to change careers. Today, she works as director of medical education for Heart of Lancaster Regional Medical Center.

“That’s probably the toughest thing,” she said. “It would’ve been one thing if I retired of my own volition.”
Although she loves her job, Fritz said, she had to mourn the loss of her profession, along with her diagnosis, her physical changes and side effects of treatment.

“It’s all part of getting through the process,” she said.

Allen said many patients aren’t hit with the emotional side of cancer until they complete their treatment.

When she works with survivors, she said, she gives them permission to experience their feelings and aims to normalize their journeys.

“Even with a lot of support, cancer still feels very isolating to the patient,” Allen said. “Unless you’re going through it, you can’t understand the day-to-day.”

Working through the emotions

She said many families and friends of survivors don’t realize that their loved ones likely won’t bounce back to who they were before cancer. To be supportive, Allen recommends just listening and not trying to talk her out of her emotions. That negates what they’re feeling and makes them reluctant to share in the future.

She said cancer forever will be a part of survivors’ lives, but it doesn’t have to define them.

“I get to see every day what people are capable of that they never knew they were,” Allen said.

Rossetti said cancer was a wake-up call for her. However, now that she’s slowed down, she’s not quite sure what she’s supposed to be doing.

For a while, she sold Silpada jewelry, but she didn’t enjoy it. Now, she works for a company that exchanges cash for gold. She likes it because she’s able to hand people cash for something they don’t want anymore, and that makes people happy.

She said she’s still dealing with the physical and emotional trauma she faced during cancer, which broke down her walls and showed her she’s not infallible.

Rossetti said she’s on her way to finding the person she’s meant to be. While she works on it, she knows one thing, for sure. She won’t do anything that doesn’t make her happy.

Leigh Zaleski

I'm a health features reporter for the York Daily Record/Sunday News and healthy living blogger for No Sweat, York. Contact me with story ideas at lzaleski@ydr.com, 717-771-2101 or @leighzaleski on Twitter.

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