What I Wish I’d Known Then
With two daughters in college, Gayle Siems immediately thought of her family when she was diagnosed with breast cancer in early December of 2018. That Tuesday, Gayle and her husband, Brian, had gone to her call-back appointment at the Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Center anticipating that it was just a fluke and she’d simply need more frequent follow-ups.
But her appointment revealed that she had invasive ductal carcinoma, a tumor in the milk duct that had started to penetrate the wall to invade nearby tissue. Although the news was different than Gayle expected, her doctor was incredibly positive. He explained that her lump was one of the most common types, and that it was very small (4 mm) and slow-growing.
Anyone who knows Gayle, knows that she has a get-it-done mindset. After receiving the biopsy results and talking with her surgeon, she decided to move forward with a lumpectomy followed by radiation. Both treatments went well and she continues to be monitored. Today, she’s sharing some things she learned along that way that may help others going through cancer treatment.
Looking back, Gayle recognizes that she had approached radiation as if it was just another item on her To Do list. Although she was incredibly thankful she didn’t have to undergo chemotherapy, she was surprised at the toll radiation took on her energy level.
“Each radiation treatment was pretty quick and virtually painless, but I didn’t anticipate how tired I’d become,” Gayle explains. “I figured I could keep up my normal schedule and continue to go, go, go.”
But she had to curtail some of her activities and give herself permission to rest. During these times, Gayle appreciated those who checked in on her and prayed for her. Regardless of the type of treatment, patients can always benefit from friends and family who provide encouragement and support.
It’s Okay to Speak Up
After discussing her ongoing needs, Gayle and her physician decided she’d take an estrogen blocker to reduce the risk of her breast cancer returning. Balancing the benefits of the drug against the potential side effects, she began taking anastrozole (Arimidex).
Because bone loss is a common side-effect of this medication, patients are advised to take calcium, do light weight-bearing exercises and incorporate cardio into their days. For Gayle, this sounded like a good plan. After all, she already enjoyed biking, hiking and working out.
However, after taking anastrozole for six months, she began to experience bone pain so severe that she had to force herself to even go for a walk. This was definitely out of character for Gayle, as hitting the trails is one of her favorite things to do. She decided to talk to Dr. Nguyet Le-Lindqwister, her ILCC oncologist. Dr. Le-Lindqwister recently prescribed exemestane (Aromasin) as a replacement drug, hoping that it will have fewer side effects.
Speaking of healthcare providers, Gayle was blown away by the expertise we have right here in central Illinois, “Even before I was diagnosed with cancer, I knew we had a good community of healthcare providers in Peoria,” she says. “But now I know that we have REALLY good providers.”
One of the most important members of her team was her Breast Cancer Nurse Navigator, Mindy Thompson. An employee of OSF HealthCare, Mindy spends her days compassionately guiding patients through the various steps of diagnosis, treatment and recovery. Gayle and Mindy knew each other from church, so their shared faith further strengthened the role Mindy played in Gayle’s breast cancer recovery.
After her experience with Peoria-area oncology resources, Gayle now tells her friends from the Chicago area that they should consider Peoria to be their hub for cancer treatment. In addition to the depth of expertise available in central Illinois, she tells them that the kindess, personal attention and accessibility can’t be beat.
Share Your Story
Not only does Gayle sing the praises of our medical resources, but she’s also found that there’s a community of patients and their caregivers who support each other. Whether she’s on the job at a boutique in Peoria Heights or she’s spending time on Facebook, people have questions about her diagnosis, treatment and side effects.
This ability to share her experience – and the faith that sustained her – is an important part of the healing process. In addition, these conversations empower others to move forward confidently in their own cancer journey.
“One of the biggest blessings is that by sharing my story, at least 10 women have gotten their first mammograms,” Gayle tells us. “I was fortunate that the lump was found when it was small. If it hadn’t been caught, my treatment and recovery would have been much different.”
Gayle said she can’t emphasize enough how important it is to get mammograms starting at the age your doctor or nurse practitioner recommends it. And of course, if you find a lump or notice anything unusual, you should definitely get it checked out right away. She’s also a big fan of 3D mammograms, which are especially helpful for women with dense breasts.
Little Things Mean A Lot
One of the most important things Gayle wants patients to know is that every person’s experience is different. That’s why it’s critical to reach out to for support, even if it’s about little things like thinning hair, weight gain or daily discouragement.
Gayle also advises taking someone with you to appointments so they can jot down notes and ask questions you may forget to bring up. This is especially crucial early in your diagnosis and treatment. Not only is there a huge volume of information to absorb, but it’s easy to get overwhelmed during a stressful situation, so it’s great to have a second set of ears at your appointments.
Finally, women often find it hard to ask for help – with meals, rides to the doctor, prayer, picking up your kids from school, etc. – but Gayle says it’s really important to reach out and let others know what you need. When you’ve been diagnosed with cancer, it’s smart to change your mindset and lean on others for support. So you can pay it forward somewhere down the road.
Gayle’s guidelines for fellow patients
- Expect the unexpected and be gentle with yourself
- Communicate your concerns, side effects and questions with your medical team
- Realize what a fantastic medical community we have in central Illinois
- Share your story and be a resource for others
- Follow recommended screening guidelines and know your body
- Talk about the little things and reach out for support