In the fall of 2010, Fern Reiss was diagnosed with malignant invasive ductal carcinoma with lymph node metasteses, malignant invasive lobular carcinoma, both sides. While she underwent treatments — four rounds of adtriamycin/cyclophosphamide, 12 taxol treatments, five weeks of radiation, a year on herceptin — she couldn’t find the book she wanted to help her through it. So, she wrote it. Now on maintenance tamoxifen, she shares her extensive knowledge in “The Breast Cancer Checklist.”
Q. When you were diagnosed with breast cancer two years ago, you couldn’t find the book that you wanted to help you get through it, so, you wrote it. What makes this book different from what you found on the bookshelves?
There are a lot of great books on breast cancer, but the book I couldn’t find (and ended up writing) was a book that would keep my life on track through treatment. I wanted something that would keep me organized; I wanted something that would keep me from missing something important that I should know (like, if I timed my surgery correctly, I might get a better outcome; or to make sure I got a dental appointment before I started chemo) and I wanted something that would just walk me through the whole treatment process so I’d feel in control.
Q. What is the single most important tip you can provide parents who have just been diagnosed with cancer?
Think about how you’re modeling behavior for your kids. Everyone has to face adversity at some time or other in their lives–for some it’s illness, for others it’s something like financial hardship–and if you view your cancer treatment as an opportunity to model how-to-behave-in-adversity behavior for your kids, it will help them through your treatment, (and it will also help you.)
Q. What was the hardest part about balancing cancer treatments and life?
“ If you view your cancer treatment as an opportunity to model how-to-behave-in-adversity behavior for your kids, it will help them through your treatment, (and it will also help you.)”
The hardest part is that you sometimes have so little energy, it’s impossible to do everything you’re used to doing. I kept up family time and work, but stopped entertaining. For me, that was a balance that worked.
Q. What are the top 5 things breast cancer patients need to ask their doctors when they are diagnosed?
There are many more than five things, but here’s where I’d start:
* What medical things do I need to take care of before I start treatment (dental work, flu shots, shingles vaccine, Tdap, Pneumovax)? (There’s a long list of things like this in my book.)
* Can I time my surgery for the second half of my menstrual cycle (which research has shown improves outcomes)?
* Should I cryo-preserve my tumor? (That way, you’ll have the cells if you ever need them for a personalized cancer vaccine, which is the way the research is moving)
* Can I schedule my surgeries simultaneously (ie, reconstruction and mastectomy, simultaneous port insertion, brachytherapy catheter, etc) to avoid more surgery?
* Should I consider egg-freezing (in case you should want to have more children post-treatment)?
Q. What can spouses, friends and family do to support the patient and their families during treatments?
* Suggest the patient do a guided visualization tape to lessen the pain of surgery and/or increase the efficacy of chemotherapy. If they don’t have time/energy, make one for them.
* Offer to help shop for a wig or headcovering (which can be an overwhelming and emotionally draining thing to do yourself) or buy them a comfy cap to sleep in.
* Cook for the patient and family, especially whole grain and vegetable-heavy dishes that are more time-consuming (but definitely healthier!) Better yet, organize your community to support them in a meal-sharing system such as CaringBridge.org or LotsaHelpingHands.com to organize the family’s food (and transportation and childcare) needs.
Q. What can you tell breast cancer patients about the post-treatment period?
Some women find post-treatment the most difficult part of the experience, because you’re ‘supposed to be’ done, but emotionally, it’s hard not to feel some sort of ‘what now?’ letdown. Marking milestones–taking the day off to go to a museum or cafe every week or two when you would otherwise have had a treatment; throwing a party or taking a vacation to mark the end of treatment; and making some life changes, whether that’s a resolution not to over-schedule yourself or a commitment to volunteer at a local cancer association, can be extremely helpful.
Q. Your book offers tips on where to find freebies, such as housecleaning services, that are available only to breast cancer patients. What can you tell patients about accepting help, even when it makes them feel weak or somehow less of a parent to do so?
Some parents feel guilty or insufficient when they need to ask for help, but keep in mind that you don’t need to always be superwoman, and that you’re making others happy by accepting their help. And once you’re back on your feet, you’ll be able to pass the help along to the next woman who needs it.