Dianne Julian calls getting breast cancer "the best worst experience" she’s had. It deepened her relationship with her husband. It increased her friendships. It brought a new career with fewer hours, giving her time for pursuits once saved for "some day." But before she could reap these benefits, Dianne had to survive a long and arduous recovery.
After having both breasts removed following her cancer diagnosis in 2008, Dianne had five more surgeries in less than two years due to complications and related conditions.
During this prolonged period of physical distress, the 54-year-old felt paralyzed by depression and pain.
"I could barely leave the house. I was too sick to move," Dianne said. "I cried a lot, which is very unlike me. If anyone asked about my health, I usually burst into tears. I didn’t want to put them through that, so I withdrew—I wouldn’t answer the phone, I wouldn’t answer the door."
Dianne’s poor quality of life began to affect her will to live. "I hoped every night when I went to bed that I wouldn’t wake up in the morning. The pain was just off the charts," she said.
A diseased gallbladder was the source of most of her pain, but the diagnosis took a long time. "My doctor thought my digestive issues were due to the chemotherapy and other therapies, so we were waiting those things out," Dianne said.
"I never realized how big of a connection the mind and body have with each other because I always thought my mind would be fine even though my body might be hurting," she said. "I thought I would still have all of my mental faculties and be able to reason things out and be hopeful.
"I never thought those things would be taken from me, but they were gone. Mentally, I was in the basement. I was terribly depressed, anxious all of the time, and filled with fear. I was embarrassed that I felt that way."
Dianne couldn’t drive for almost a year because of pain when she tried to steer, nor could she return to her job as a pharmaceutical representative due to the lymphedema in both arms. The Issaquah, Wash., resident now works part-time in a local doctor’s office.
Her pain gradually ebbed, with support from the Survivorship Clinic. Survivorship staff helped connect Dianne to providers who helped with bone health and cardiac concerns.
"I love the Survivorship Clinic. They take over where the oncologists leave off," Dianne said. "They really helped me fill in the blanks so I’d know if I’m on the right track."
Other Seattle Cancer Care Alliance providers guided Dianne’s recovery, too. Physical therapists helped her lymphedema and chest incision pain diminish. An SCCA dentist treated Dianne for severe mouth sores. "My jaw muscles froze up and I couldn’t open my mouth or talk," Dianne said. The dentist referred her to psychologist Dr. Samantha Artherholt, who led Dianne to a series of stress management and relaxation training classes.
"Those classes saved me completely. They were the best thing," Dianne said. "There were seven women in the group and all of us were quite skeptical. None of us were ‘support group’ people. But after the first class, we knew it was the best thing we could have done.
"It’s incredible the difference it made. We learned to control the controllables and leave the other stuff behind. It made my jaw muscle relax. It was the first time I had relief from that. I think the relaxation techniques helped reduce my blood pressure and they helped me sleep through the night. Before the classes, I would wake up, panicked, during the night and sit straight up, covered in sweat, thinking, ‘What’s going to happen next?’ I kept waiting for the next bad thing to happen. After the first two or three nights of listening to the relaxation tapes, I slept through the night for the first time in two years."
Dianne plans to return to the Survivorship Clinic annually. "They have more knowledge than I ever had thought about everything related to your health after cancer," she said. "You’re made to feel like they’re there totally for you and they talk about everything. It’s what survivors need."