Wendy Chambers leads a blessed life – she has a wonderful family, a collection of friends that have been gathered over her lifetime, and she’s had a long and successful career in consumer insights at several major corporations – most recently at Pepperidge Farm. She is also a two-time breast cancer survivor.
Wendy’s cancer journey started nine years ago, while she was living in New Jersey. Cancer cells were found in the lining of her breast milk duct in her right breast. The diagnosis: ductal carcinoma in situ (DCIS), stage 0. Stage 0 meant that the abnormal cells had not spread outside the ducts into the surrounding breast tissue. Wendy had a lumpectomy, followed by radiation therapy.
Just shy of five years later, shortly after she moved to Connecticut, she found a suspicious lump in her left breast. After hunting for specialists in the area, Wendy scheduled her annual mammogram. The radiologist discovered three tumors, none of which had been there the year before. This time the diagnosis was stage 3A breast cancer. The doctor’s sense of urgency both impressed and comforted Wendy. They opened all doors and before she knew it, Wendy was in the operating room at Smilow Cancer Hospital for a double mastectomy with immediate reconstruction, to be followed by chemotherapy and radiation.
One of the hardest things Wendy has ever had to face in this life was getting that second diagnosis.
“I remember walking away from Smilow with my new chemo binder, giving me information on what I needed to know about my treatment, in one hand, and a fistful of tests and appointments in the other. My husband and daughter were walking silently alongside me. I have never been so scared in my life. I felt weak in the knees and grieved for two solid days. And I prayed that it would be ok. I was scared to death, but I picked myself up and was determined to get on with it.” Wendy realized that, at that moment when she stared back hard at what scared her the most, she became a survivor.
Wendy’s very supportive large family includes her husband, two sons, a daughter, two daughters-in-law, one grandson and another grandchild on the way, four older siblings and their spouses, and a whole slew of nieces and nephews. Her husband understands the rigors of treatment well, since he is also a cancer survivor who received his radiation therapy for prostate cancer at Smilow. Wendy’s family, along with her host of friends, supported her, accompanying her to her treatments, making visits and calling her, praying with and for her, bringing meals to her home. “I credit my family, my friends, and my faith for getting me through it all,” said Wendy.
“I must also talk about my experience with the staff at The Breast Center at Smilow Cancer Hospital. Through both rounds of cancer, I had doctors and nurses who focused on treating my cancer. But at Smilow, they not only treated my cancer, they never forgot that they were also taking care of my family and me,” noted Wendy. “One of the nurses, Lynnanne, was especially sensitive and called me when my long, curly unruly hair started to fall out. It was very hard for me to process and she called at the exact moment I needed her. She acted like I was the only person she needed to take care of that day.”
Smilow also offers other opportunities, such as the Survivorship Clinic, the only dedicated, multidisciplinary resource for adult cancer survivors in the State. “You can see specialists there who you can talk with about exercise and nutrition, who can help you with your emotional needs, especially after you finish your treatment. They helped her find a gym, Mission located in Southport, that has special programs for survivors. They knew how to develop a program that allowed me to get back into great shape as well as to work with my new body. It also provides a tribe of fellow cancer patients where you feel like you belong.
“It was a long treatment plan”, noted Wendy, “and I spent many holidays as a patient. I finally decided that I didn’t want to be in treatment for another one. I was very determined, very positive, and working with the team at Smilow, we made it happen. I had my last treatment the day before St. Patrick’s Day in 2015, so I was able to make that personal goal! I always say that I had a GOOD experience with my first round of cancer, but I had a GREAT experience the second time, thanks to the Smilow staff.”
Today, Wendy, is setting out on a new adventure. After a three-week journey driving across the country and back and some serious personal reflection, she decided to leave Corporate America and start a business near and dear to her heart. She is opening Victory Travel – a travel agency specifically for survivors at any stage of treatment and recovery because, “we all need something to look forward to and look to beyond treatment.” She is also continuing to spend time with patients who are in treatment or those who have just received their diagnosis, to whom she offers wise and practical advice, such as:
Don’t put your life on hold because you have been diagnosed with cancer. Don’t let cancer become your life. You will feel totally fine on some days and maybe less fine on others. While you might be tied up with this for the better part of a year, it is temporary. Just roll with it.
Get a countdown calendar and put your treatment milestones on it. Use it to tick off one step at a time. When you are undergoing chemo, focus on it and don’t worry about what’s to come. After each treatment, you can check off another day closer to when it will end.
Plan fun outings that you can look forward to the day before you have chemo. Go to a favorite restaurant or a new one you’ve always wanted to try. Or take the train to New York to visit a museum. Take time to have fun. You will go into your treatment with a different attitude.
If you feel that your treatment has taken you away from your life, remember that this is your life now. Enjoy what you enjoy, love and be loved, have fun – just live. Let chemo and other treatments take focus but don’t allow them to consume your whole life. Work if that sustains you, have lunch with friends, read a book, go to the movies during the day, exercise, walk, just be. Enjoy the time.
Let your family and friends love and care for you. Give them specific tasks to do. You are not a bother. Cry if you feel like it. It does not make you weak…quite the contrary it can make you stronger.
Keep a notebook and write everything down. Take someone with you to appointments and ask them to take notes. You think there is no chance you will forget -- but you will not remember everything you are being told and the decisions you have to make. Those notes will be your lifesavers.
Love and trust your treatment team. If you have any discomfort or side effects that give you any concern…. call them and report it. Understand that there will be bumps in the road along the way. If your treatment team says you need a break, listen and take their advice.