Claire spent her career supporting patients with cancer, but after one phone call on her 57th birthday, she became one of those patients at Sunnybrook’s Odette Cancer Centre.
Long before she was diagnosed, breast cancer was a part of Claire’s life in a profound way– it was her life’s work. Claire has spent the majority of her life as a psychotherapist for cancer patient groups, and has spent hours researching and teaching. All it took to cross over the threshold between professional and patient was a single phone call on her 57th birthday.
Claire came home that evening to find her husband sitting on the couch with a look on his face she says she can’t describe. He told Claire that her doctor called, and wanted her to call him back right away.
“I knew right then that something awful had happened.”
Claire had had a routine mammogram which she had all but forgotten. When her doctor said that the scan had found something that looked cancerous, her first thought was about the story she had heard so many patients tell: “So this is how it happens.”
Breast cancer was very familiar to her, but now it was personal. Claire was referred to Sunnybrook’s Odette Cancer Centre, and after another mammogram, an ultrasound, and a biopsy, the rapid diagnostic clinic confirmed her diagnosis: breast cancer.
They made it possible to hang in there.
Mastectomy and reconstruction
She met her surgeon the next day. “She was wonderful. She met me as a professional, as a patient, and as a woman. She even hugged me.”
Claire’s doctor suggested immediate breast reconstruction in addition to the mastectomy. Breast reconstruction hadn’t been on Claire’s radar; she just wanted the tumor out and didn’t care about the aesthetics. However, her doctor explained that psychological recovery is easier for women who have had a reconstruction, and if it wasn’t done with the mastectomy, it would be a two-year wait. “I went along with it. I truly trusted my doctor.”
The surgery took 11 hours, and her doctors removed the tumor and took tissue and skin from her abdomen to reconstruct her breast. “I had about three feet of scars. I looked like a painting by Picasso – ‘Woman with One Nipple’. I felt pieced together.”
A new perspective on chemo
After her surgery it was time to think about chemo. Claire knew all her options, and she requested oncotype testing. The test profiles tumors to determine how beneficial chemotherapy treatment would be. Claire’s test results came back: she had a moderate risk of recurrence, and chemo was recommended.
Claire didn’t react well to chemotherapy. “If there was a potential side effect, I had it.”
The treatment was punishing, but Claire’s team at Sunnybrook supported her through every step of it. Her pharmacist called her after every treatment and worked with her oncologist to adjust her support drugs. “They made it possible to hang in there.”
Claire’s last treatment was on New Year’s Eve. She began 2016 “kind of a wreck”, but cancer free. Her hair slowly grew back, and she went back to work. She describes her experience as “advanced training” in her field. Now, she has done the research and lived through it. When a patient tells their story, Claire has a deep understanding of it, because she’s been there too.
Outside of work, Claire is healthy. “I run 35 km a week. I sleep a little more, and there are a few side effects, but I am cancer free. I am so grateful for Sunnybrook; they saved my life.”
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