“I was not a typical cancer patient,” said two-time survivor Gardenia Thurman. Gardenia works at Northside Hospital planning the cancer conferences and tumor boards, so she has been in and around the world of Oncology and all of its related departments for 19 years.
“I was first diagnosed with ductal carcinoma in situ (DCIS) in 2015. We caught my breast cancer in stage 0 during my yearly mammogram. I was not afraid because working in Oncology, I knew the doctors, surgeons and oncology team at Northside were the best.” Her treatment plan was a lumpectomy followed by radiation and the drug Tamoxifen for 5 years. All was well, or so she thought.
In 2018, Gardenia felt a cyst and had it checked out. She was told that they needed to keep an eye on it. Six months later at her next biyearly mammogram they spotted a different cyst, and found out that the cancer had spread to her mammary lymph nodes. She now had Stage II breast cancer. In 2019, she had a bilateral mastectomy followed by 18 weeks of chemo in addition to radiation.
“The second time I was diagnosed gave me pause. I’m a very positive person, but I hadn’t really prepared myself for that possibility,” stated Gardenia. “And by prepared, I mean financially and in other ways like saving up PTO time and having the right insurance.” She had just been on vacation the week before she was diagnosed and had used up all of her time off.
“I am so blessed to have amazing co-workers who donated their PTO time to me for my surgery and helped me get through the journey every step of the way,” she said. “My extended family in the area also supported me, but my co-workers knew exactly what I was going through because they see it every day. I remember telling a family member that deep down my bones ached, and it didn’t really compute. My colleagues knew when I said my bones ached that it felt like someone smashing a hammer constantly into every bone in my body.”
Her advice to others is that educating yourself and being proactive are the most important things you can do. Also, connect with others who have gone through what you are experiencing. “I connected with a Facebook page for women who have had a double mastectomy, and I got a lot of really good advice and support.” There are many people available to help: nurse navigators, support groups and counselors, etc.
In addition, Gardenia says she wished she had asked the plastic surgeon more questions and plugged herself into nutrition counseling prior to chemo to minimize the nausea. “Use every resource you have, and be proactive.”
When asked what the worst part of at all was, Gardenia said that the drains after surgery were awful, as well as the chemo. “ Radiation felt like a bad sunburn to me, but chemo upends your whole world. You have absolutely no energy and food doesn’t even taste good.”
This past September Gardenia endured another surgery to remove scar tissue, but she is looking forward to December when she will have her reconstruction.
“I am definitely looking forward to putting a PERIOD at the end of this journey. I look forward to being able to sleep on my stomach J, giving tight hugs without discomfort and on a bigger scale, planning a trip home in 2021. I haven’t been home since 1998, long overdue.”