Survivors talk of coping with breast cancer – and beating it
“I never knew I had what it takes to get through cancer.”
Ann Salter, breast cancer survivor
Fifteen years ago on Halloween, Sharon Petri stared down the scariest moment of her life when a doctor told her she had breast cancer.
The first thought to cross her mind: “I’m going to die.”
Petri fought her cancer and survived, but she says being a survivor, in some ways, is the hardest part.
“Nobody has a frame of reference for it. Most of us really don’t know what to do,” Petri said. “It’s this strange new territory. You don’t know how to plan, feel, or think.”
Petri beat her cancer after a series of treatments of chemotherapy, radiation therapy and surgery. She was finally cancer-free, doctors told her, in the spring of 1998. But she continues to live with cancer – or the thought of it – every day of her life.
“You always kind of wonder if it’s going to happen again,” she said. “It’s always in the back of my mind.”
It was a life-changing experience in more ways than one. After she learned she had cancer, Petri, a registered nurse, shifted her focus to oncology after her dealings with the deadly disease.
Since then, she’s met some courageous people, including Ann Salter, who learned she had breast cancer on Friday the 13th in May 2011. She experienced a moment similar to Petri’s when the doctor told her what she was facing.
“I was breathless. I couldn’t feel the ground below my feet. I felt very alone,” Salter said.
Two months prior to her diagnosis, she celebrated her 50th birthday. It coincided with her achieving a longtime goal of losing 50 pounds.
“I had just got to this point in my life where I’ve reached this age and this goal and asked, ‘what’s next?’” she said. “I never thought it’d be cancer.”
After a series of tests, Salter was introduced to her medical team. That’s when Salter first met Petri, who guided her through the traumatic experience as a “nurse navigator.”
The two women shared their experience during a seminar about breast cancer last week at Washtenaw Community College, one of the several events commemorating Breast Cancer Awareness Month.
“Sharon was my biggest cheerleader,” Salter said. “I needed to listen to all the medical advice and talk to someone who understood me and what was going on.”
Prior to her diagnosis, Salter got a mammogram. Everything appeared to look normal, except for what her doctor said might be a few calcifications. So when she received her six month follow-up appointment, Salter dismissed it.
“I just tossed it in my inbox. I thought nothing of it,” Salter said. “I was in a new place in my life, feeling good about my weight loss… I felt healthy.”
A few months after she received her reminder, her husband discovered a lump in her breast. Both a physical and mental pain grew inside her at the detection of what she described as a marble-shaped lump near the surface of her skin.
“I didn’t know what to think, I tried not to think the worst,” she said. “I never thought I’d hear my name in the same sentence as ‘cancer.’ Never me.”
On June 1, 2011, Salter began her series of 16 chemotherapy treatments over the course of five months.
“The mornings I had chemo, my husband and I went dressed up like we were going to a business meeting,” Salter said. “I wasn’t going to let cancer make me look sick.”
Salter was driven to stay strong not only for herself, but for her husband and her daughter.
“They didn’t deserve to see me sitting at home crying,” she said. “They were there for me and I owed them more than that.”
She not only worked on her mental strength, but continued seeing her personal trainer, Emily Rodgers, while enduring treatments. Her workouts became a distraction from the frustrations stemming from having the disease.
Salter would walk or run on her days off from treatment. It became a routine and a means of restoring a sense of normalcy and control that she had lost.
“I felt better if I took the day on rather than off,” she said.
On Oct. 16, 2011, Salter completed her treatments and merely four weeks after, she had a double mastectomy. Then, on Feb. 6, 2012, the last part of the process was complete. She had received her implants and the nightmare was officially over.
“You never know what you can do until you have to do it,” she said. “I never knew I had what it takes to get through cancer.”
Salter now wears on her finger a daily reminder of individuals who helped her through her journey. Imbedded in the gold band are 10 stones, representing her five-person St. Joseph Mercy Hospital medical team, her personal trainer, her husband and daughter, a diamond for her spiritual strength and one pink stone for breast cancer.
“I call it my ‘power of 10’ ring,” she said. “I celebrate all their birthdays – so I can celebrate mine.”
And she does.