Women supporting women through diagnosis, treatment

Podcast: Cancer mentorship program provides support for newly diagnosed patients

Women supporting women through diagnosis, treatment

Episode Transcript

Courtney Collen (Host): Hi there. Welcome to One in Eight, a new podcast series brought to you by Sanford Health. I’m your host, Courtney Collen with Sanford Health News. This series continues an important conversation to all about breast cancer awareness because one in eight women will be diagnosed with breast cancer during her lifetime. Normally we’re sitting down with our Sanford Health medical providers on a wide variety of topics from research and prevention to diagnosis and treatment. But today we have the unique privilege of talking with a woman who has been diagnosed and conquered breast cancer. Now serving as a mentor, supporting women going through that same journey. I want to introduce Sandy Dunn. Sandy, thank you so much for joining me.

Sandy Dunn: Hello Courtney. Thank you for having me.

Courtney Collen (Host): You didn’t just fight and beat breast cancer once you did this twice, is that right?

Sandy Dunn: It was twice. The first time I was diagnosed was in 2008. I was just right before my 46th birthday. It wasn’t a plan to do it. I was doing a test for something else and they discovered this lump and you just think it’s gonna turn out to be nothing as we all do. We just, you know, go for the positive. And it turned out to be breast cancer after all the testing was done. So this meant chemotherapy surgery. And, and at that time I elected to do an, a lumpectomy because I was able to do that. So that’s when they just remove a partial, just the lump and they don’t have to remove the whole breast. And then I did radiation after that. And then you get back into life, you know, you get back busy living and feeling like you’ve beat this and it’s done in past.

I then was re-diagnosed in 2010. So I had my year of recovery and then I kind of went right back into it just long enough to get my hair to my shoulders. Again, I was so mad about that because that’s really a hard part of it is there’s, there’s so many fears that go along with being diagnosed with a cancer and, you know, with breast cancer, it’s worrying about, you know, am I my breast going to be removed? Do I remove both? Do I just do a lumpectomy and not just a lumpectomy, but you know, is that the option I will choose? It’s the radiation. You hear stories about radiation. It’s really the fear of the unknown, but for many women I speak with, it’s also the losing of the hair. It makes it so public. You know, we know our hair’s going to grow back. You know, we can have people tell us it’s okay, it’s going to grow back. Well, it takes time for it to grow back and it makes it public. You can’t choose how private you want to keep your journey. It makes it very public.

Courtney Collen (Host): What kept you going through that?

Sandy Dunn: There was so many differences in each journey. The first journey was a different than the second. The second was much tough, tougher, obviously, because being diagnosed so quickly again, we realized my cancer was much more aggressive than when he hit. We had initially thought. So we had to go at a much tougher in a, in a much different route the second time. But the one thing I did to stay consistent with was the positive energy. I was very much focused on living my life, the best I could live it. So when I was diagnosed in 2010, I thought, you know, I don’t want remembered 2008 as being the year that I was fighting breast cancer. I wanted to build so many memories that would offset that. So that’s what I did. I spent extra amount of time with family and friends, and I just made sure that I was laughing a lot. I even just as a coincidence, again, I just, even the day before my hair fell out, I went and bought a brand new car. Guy was kind of a, you know, take that cancer. But it was, it was fun. You know, it was exciting. And it was the next morning when my hair was sliding down my back and I thought, Oh, I can’t go to work today. I mean, how am I going to do this? I had my rig, my wig ready, bought and ready, but it’s a shock. And I just made myself walk to the garage door and open that door. And I looked out and saw my shiny new car. And I thought, Ooh, I’m going to drive my shiny new car to work today. And I went in the bedroom and slapped my wig on my head in a way I went.

And that’s just, just the mindset I just kept now. And, and that was the thing that was consistent with 2010 was positive energy. I truly believe. And I think it’s been even proven medically that positive energy helps us heal. You know, it does increase your survival rate. And I just wanted to be that I remember 2008 and that’s really truly what I remember from 2008 is, Oh, I went and bought that card that I loved so much and had so much fun. Took friends, you know, riding it and things like that. So that was, that was my takeaway. And of course there’s many other things too, add life takes on a whole new meaning after, after a cancer diagnosis, doesn’t it. You always say, it’s going to be someone else. You hear the stories and, and you, you know, you cry for people and worry for people, but you always think it’s going to be someone else. Then when it’s you, it’s, it’s just a shock. You know, I think anyone who tells you, you know, that can tell you that when they’re diagnosed it, you, you freeze up, you know, everything inside, you kind of stops. You go cold with fear. When you hear that saying, it’s true, you’re just turned cold inside. And what am I going to do? I had two of my three children were still living at home. They were teenagers. So you’re very concerned about, you know, your children, you want to finish raising them. You worry about your parents. My parents were both still alive and I knew this would be devastating news for them and siblings and family and friends. So it takes on, it does take on a whole new meaning you, I think it’s so interesting. I think people think that when your, the CA the person with the cancer is that, you know, this family and all your friends are going to come to you and be supportive and they are in it’s wonderful. But what you don’t realize is that you’re so protective of your family and your friends, because we love them so much. We want to them. And so there’s been a program that’s been created to help this because we find ourselves not always wanting to cry and, or fierce, or our family and friends, because we don’t want to we’d want them to be afraid. We’re, we’re trying to protect them.

Courtney Collen (Host): That journey led you to the Sanford survivorship mentorship program. Tell us about that experience.

Sandy Dunn: This program was not in place in 2008 or 2010 in a course of talking with oncologist. And I think different people having these ideas, I personally felt like I would like to have a woman to talk to that had gone through it. You know, just have a one on one. We get all sorts of medical advice. We get all sorts of medical connections, you know, that we can reach out to, but it was that feeling. I just wanted to talk to a woman to see how answer some questions. And, and we’re really lucky that Roger Maris found the funding. And then they created this mentorship program. And I was fortunate enough to be part of the pilot program for breast cancer. We were the first ones out to shoot, and it was so successful that it’s now available to all the cancers.

Courtney Collen (Host): And now you serve as a volunteer mentor through that program. Tell us about this role and what it means to you to be a part of.

Sandy Dunn: It’s a way to give back. I think when you’re a survivor and I’m a two time survivor, you do start to question, why, why am I surviving this? Why isn’t this other woman that I love over here, surviving it. And so this is a way to give back. I know that when I talk to women who are going through this, I can relate to what they’re talking about. And they can tell that immediately that I understand the fear. They don’t have to explain it. I don’t have the emotional connection with them that their family and or close friends do so they can talk to me about anything. I always preface my conversation that you can ask me any question. You can share any information or fear that you have with me. So it just gives them this open playing field to just start any conversation.

And so they can talk about their deepest fears with me, or they can, you know, we can talk about the bright, happy things, you know, that we’re going to do to make the day better. And I just, that they always know there’s somebody available to them to talk to day or night. I’m just going to give you, I think I can put this in a nutshell, by giving you an example and not every call is like this, but this call changed. It changed me. I was talking to a woman that when we started the phone call was very quiet and not really communicating with me, didn’t really have any questions. So I was trying to ask her questions and I’d get one word answers, just very unresponsive. And it was just worrying me and the call was going to wrap up because we weren’t really communicating. And I just couldn’t let the call go. I was, I knew I would just worry about this woman. So I just finally asked her and some people may be shocked by this, but I said, I’m just going to call her Susie, just for an example. That’s not her name, Suzy, do you feel like you’re going to die? And her answer came back with, yes, I am going to die. And I got to tell you, even though I asked the question, it shocked me to have her answer back that yes, she did feel she was going to die. And I said to her, I said, but why? I said, I’m talking to you. I didn’t beat this just once I’ve beat it twice. I can do this. You can do this. And all of a sudden, she just went, you’ve beat it twice. And I said, yes. And we talked for about another 30 minutes and she couldn’t stop asking questions, sharing her feelings. And when we had started the phone call, the only information I had got from her was that she wasn’t sleeping at night. She was so afraid and that she just couldn’t sleep. And when we ended the call, the last thing she said to me, she said, Sandy, I think I’m going to be able to sleep tonight.

Courtney Collen (Host): Yeah. Women supporting women. It’s what it’s all about. Right? I mean, that conversation alone, you likely changed the outlook on life for a newly diagnosed woman. What does that mean to you?

Sandy Dunn: You can’t even express that. I had to call the mentorship program, one of the liaisons and say, this is why we do this. This is why this is so important. We can’t ever let this stop.

Courtney Collen (Host): How soon is a patient paired with a mentor, like you?

Sandy Dunn: It’s been evolving over the years. It used to be, they would try to match up as much as if you had the same type of cancer, maybe your age group, or if you had children. And they kept it within the breast cancer. I just, for the first time recently mentored somebody who had lung cancer. So it threw me a little bit. It was like, Oh, but it was because we had the same. We were in the same age group, you know, she was about my age. And we both had children and, you know, adult children and grandchildren. So it really, truly is this part of it is really kind of matching up that emotional, where are you at in your life and the emotional needs you have. So yeah, they, the people that are managing the program kind of look at who they think will be a good match for this person. They get the information. So what happens when you’re in the medical center and you’re diagnosed the program used to give you the option if you wanted to be reached out to, but we realized that women are in such shock at that time that they don’t know. One time, we let them know the call is coming and we asked them if they’d like to speak. And usually by then, you know, there’s a little delay there, then they’re ready to talk to somebody. You know, now it feels more like this. Isn’t just another program because you get so many pamphlets on so many different things. You’re just overwhelmed. But at the time we make that first call, they’ve probably had some time to kind of sort some stuff out and they’re ready to talk to somebody, you know, like, yeah, you’ve done this.

What, what was this like for you? You know, what can I expect? It’s simply like, it’s us being able to give simple tips. Like w if you’re going to wear a wig, if you choose to wear a wig, go buy that wig before you’ll go through the chemo, you know, before you lose your hair, nobody because you don’t stop to think about, Oh yeah, I’m going to have to get in my car and drive to West acres or the, you know, the shopping mall and go into a store. And I don’t have anything on my head. Someone gave me that piece of advice and I always say it was one of the best things I did because the day came, when my hair came out, I had my wig all there, ready to go. You know, I knew it I’d played with it enough that I was comfortable with it. I had had it cut and styled. So it felt like me. So yeah, it was, that’s one of the, you know, just those simple tips that somebody doesn’t think of until somebody tells you, I don’t know what I would have done that day. My hair fell out. If I went to my head, my wig there, I would have been just stuck seriously, physically stocked.

Courtney Collen (Host): Yeah, I love that. What is the most important advice you give to a woman when she has just been diagnosed? When she just heard those words, you have cancer,

Sandy Dunn: Communicate, communicate, communicate! Figure out who your people are going to be. You need to make sure that you like the team that you have assigned to you at the medical facility. People feel like that they just have to take who they get kind of a, a deal. And that’s not true. This is a case of personalities, and this is people you’re going to be working closely with. So make sure that you’re in colleges and your surgeons or people that you feel that you have trust in them, that you have confidence that you feel like they’re hearing you, and that you could understand what they’re saying back at you. So first place is the communication with your medical team. And then find that support system. You absolutely need to find a support system, so you can talk through it and talk it out because you are frozen in fear, but once you start talking and getting information, information, knowledge is power. What I always tell women I talk to is start building that tool box. You don’t, you don’t take every tool you can get and put it in there. You might not need one of them or two of them, but, you know, get those tools in there. So learn who your contacts are, learn her, your sources are. And that can help break down that fear.

Courtney Collen (Host): We hear a lot about the importance of prevention and early detection for breast cancer, but we don’t often hear it from somebody who has lived through breast cancer. Talk about how important it is for women that they get their annual mammogram.

Sandy Dunn: When I was there my cancer was detected. It was in the early stages. I really want women to get those mammograms. Yeah, it’s too easy to forget about it and say, Oh, they kind of hurt. They pinched. And I don’t have time. We don’t have time. What we don’t have time for is to fight the long fight to survive. We do have time to get in our car and run over and get a mammogram. And you need to pick a date that’s special to you every year. So you remember it, or October is breast cancer awareness month, great month to, you know, you’re going to see pink ribbons and this kind of talk all over great reminder, but get that, get that mammogram and don’t, and don’t let yourself cancel it, make sure you stick to it and get to it and bring a girlfriend, bring a family member, you know, make it, make it a day. Go have lunch afterwards. Yeah, exactly. Because we should celebrate that. We have the tools to get early diagnosis, so yeah. Make it a party celebrate. I know a lot of people, when you have to go in and have these treatments done, there is a feeling of dread that can go with it. But what I did is I chose to every time I put my hand on that front door, I would be so thankful. I would be thankful for the people that work behind those doors that were there to fight with me and help me survive. So then again, it became a positive feeling walking through those doors, instead of that feeling of dread was I would just take a moment and say, thank you to everyone behind those doors in my mind for and to thank everyone I could in the hall too. You know, thank you. Thank you for being here today. Thank you for helping me. So that you go in with that positive attitude, that positive energy and positive energy spreads. So if you say thank you to someone they feel appreciated and all of a sudden their day is better and their energy comes up. So they’re probably, you know, more friendly to the next person they meet. So it’s very contagious. So yeah,

Courtney Collen (Host): That’s what, that’s what it’s about. I feel like there’s so much to be said for having a positive attitude.

Sandy Dunn: Exactly. It’s contagious.

Courtney Collen (Host): October is national breast cancer awareness month. What does it mean to you? Having, having fought and beat breast cancer twice? Have we come a long way in the conversation about breast cancer?

Sandy Dunn: When I was growing up — I’m 58 years old. Now, when I was growing up, nobody said the word breast out loud and especially in the company of men. And we now have male sport teams that wear the pink ribbon on their uniforms. And that tells me how far we’ve come. So in October, when you’re seeing all this pink, men can now say the word breast, without everybody blushing in the room, you know, we can say it it’s, it’s out in the open and this just shows how much conversation needs to happen and how far we’ve come in, really a short amount of time to make such awareness on this disease. It’s helped for me not feel so alone. You know, you’re not alone because it’s a huge drive that happens every October and throughout the year, it doesn’t really ever go away. But there that is that hurt huge drive in October. It makes you feel part of something and it makes you feel part of a solution. And I think that’s so important for all of us to feel like we have a hand, we have some control and this and that we can be part of the solution. I love October. I love to see the support. I love that this is out, you know, and most of all, I love that we’re constantly saying in October is get your mammogram, get that mammogram on the schedule.

Courtney Collen (Host): Yeah, Sandy, it was such a pleasure talking to you and getting to know you. I mean, having received that diagnosis of breast cancer twice, I cannot think of a more perfect person to serve as a mentor, supporting women who began a very similar journey. So thank you so much for your time. We appreciate you.

Sandy Dunn: Oh, thank you so much for having me and letting me tell my story.

Courtney Collen (Host): I’m Courtney Collen… catch the next episode of one in eight hour breast cancer podcast series coming your way soon. Stay well and have a great day.

Posted In Cancer, Cancer Treatments, Community, Imaging, Specialty Care, Women's