Christine Stone, a loving mother and wife, inspiring feminist, and devoted friend, sat down to discuss life with breast cancer and its toll on her mental health.
Prior to receiving your diagnosis, did you know much about breast cancer?
Before I was diagnosed at the age of 38, my family had already been touched by breast cancer. My grandmother passed away from it when I was 13 years old. But, what I did not know was that because my grandmother was diagnosed at a young age, I was at an increased risk for breast cancer.
How did you originally find out that you had cancer? Did you have any warning signs?
I was pretty regular about doing self-breast exams, and one day I felt something that felt like a marble. I tried to tell myself it was nothing, but my curiosity got the best of me and I ‘Googled’ it. I made an appointment with my primary care doctor, and he sent me to get a mammogram and ultrasound. For younger women, 3D mammograms, ultrasounds and MRIs are very important to detect cancer, as their breast tissue can be very dense.
Where did your mind take you when you were first diagnosed?
I had to admit, my heart hurt when I was first diagnosed. You don’t know right away if the cancer is localized to just the breast, or if it had spread. My mind went everywhere— Was I going to be ok? Was I going to die? In the early weeks of my diagnosis, I lost my appetite. I’d never had that happen before. I cried so much. A dear friend who had been through cancer told me that once my doctor laid out a plan for my treatment, I would feel a lot better. And I did.
What treatments did you go through?
After I had a single mastectomy, I was referred to an oncologist. Given my young age and the fact that cancer was also found in two of my lymph nodes, my oncologist suggested chemotherapy. I went through six months of chemotherapy and five weeks of daily radiation. For the past five years, I’ve received monthly injections of Zoladex to stop my body’s production of estrogen. I also take a daily pill called Anastrozole. I expect to keep getting these injections and taking this pill for another five years.
How did having breast cancer, and the subsequent treatments, impact your mental health?
I really tried to keep a positive attitude. It sounds cliché, but it is so important. That’s not to say I didn’t have my bad days, I surely did. There were days I didn’t recognize myself in the mirror: my hair was gone, my face puffy from the steroids they give you with the chemo. Not to mention the delay in reconstruction leaves you with a body you never imagined. But, luckily the good days far outnumbered the bad. And, you get through it.
What helped you make it through the rough days while fighting breast cancer?
I am fortunate that I have a great partner who listened to all of my fears, my mom went with me for every chemo treatment, and my close friends were always checking in on me. My girls who were in 8th and 10th grade at the time, really helped me stay present. Not to mention they kept me laughing. My favorite photo during that time is when I had just set my wig aside, I was tired of wearing it all day, and my daughter threw it on, making a funny face. It still makes me laugh today.
Did you notice any lasting impacts on your mental health after beating cancer?
At first, I was not prepared for the recovery it takes after the tough treatments ended. And that included my mental health, not just my physical health. After my diagnosis, I spent about eight months surrounded by a cheering squad, and now I was venturing back into the world with a new body, fatigue still lingering from chemotherapy, and rapidly depleting hormones. I actively removed stress and pressure from my life. I started painting, something I always wanted to learn. I really went easy on myself.
What advice would you give yourself 20 years ago based on where you are today?
If you have a strong family history of breast cancer – sister, mother, aunt–- start having your mammograms 10 years younger than the age that relative was diagnosed, or age 40, whichever is younger. Also, I would remind my younger self that life is finite – for everyone – do things now. If you want to travel, do it now. If you want to move across the country, do it. Go back to grad school, what are you waiting for? You never know what life will throw at you.
What more can we as a society do to help those fighting breast cancer and breast cancer survivors?
I am very lucky that I have health insurance that has covered my surgeries, treatments and medications. But, I have seen first-hand women who literally have to decide between the cost of chemotherapy or paying their rent. During one of my first treatments, I saw my nurse give a patient cash out of her own pocket because she knew she needed to buy groceries. The financial toll cancer takes on patients is real.
Integrated care is badly needed for those fighting breast cancer, including mental health care. I have met many women who do not have a spouse or partner to provide the emotional support they need. And while you have acupuncture, yoga and support groups, a more coordinated approach would make these resources available to the women who could use them the most.