How Humor Helped Caryl Schweitzer’s Breast Cancer Recovery
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Caryl Schweitzer, director of development for Bakersfield Memorial Hospital Foundation, had dealt with lumps in her breast for quite some time. In fact, her doctor had been keeping an eye on one lump in particular for nearly four years. When he suggested a biopsy after Caryl’s annual mammogram, she wasn’t worried — she’d had plenty of biopsies in the past. But when she was diagnosed with breast cancer, her whole world was turned upside down.
“Surely this is a bad dream,” Caryl remembers thinking. “I wasn’t supposed to get breast cancer. I did everything right — ate well (enough), drank little alcohol, never smoked, breastfed for a long time. However, I did have a lot of stress in my life and didn’t exercise as much as I should have. Stress without exercise is bad for you!”
Her husband actually found out about the diagnosis before she did. Her doctor told him before she woke up from the surgery. That night, they told their 12-year-old daughter, then Caryl’s mom, and then the rest of their family and friends.
“I made a list of everybody I thought should hear it from me and not through the grapevine, and I phoned them,” she says. “Blogging wasn’t a big thing then, so I sent an email newsletter titled ‘Keeping You Abreast’ every four to five weeks to keep people updated.”
A week after her biopsy, Caryl had a lumpectomy and 15 lymph nodes removed. She then had six rounds of chemo, followed by 34 radiation treatments.
“Everybody thinks losing your hair is the worst part of the treatment,” she says. “While that was certainly a weird experience, chemo was dreadful.”
Each chemo treatment lasted about two and a half hours. She would start to feel the effects by the middle of the third day. By days four and five, she was miserable. Then she’d feel normal by day seven, only to have to get ready for the next round.
“The hardest part was knowing that it was going to happen again and again and again,” she says. “The best way for me to describe how it felt was having the worst morning sickness imaginable, mixed with the worst hangover imaginable, mixed with the worst flu imaginable.”
She was off work for six months, and it took her about eight months to grow her hair long enough that she felt comfortable going out in public without a scarf, she says.
“[The radiation oncologist] said the surgery took the cancer away, and the chemo and radiation were used to sweep up and make sure they got it all,” she says. “So on November 4 this year, it will be seven years!”
Today, she sees her oncologist every six months to look at her blood markers, and she has an annual mammogram and breast exams.
Laughter Really Is the Best Medicine
“To me, the best way to deal with the treatment is with humor,” Caryl says. “Bald is actually funny. And thank goodness, my family is funny. The diagnosis isn’t humorous at all, but if you choose to do the treatment, you have to live with what it does. So turn those sour lemons into lemonade! I’ve never been one to mope around about anything, so this came naturally for me.”
During her chemo, she didn’t need anyone to stay with her during the two-and-a-half-hour treatment. She just brought a good book and read. When her treatment was finished, she often had no interest in food at all.
“During the bad chemo days, food is the last thing you want to think about, and nothing tastes good,” she explains. “For those who want to bring food and make visits, the best time is a week after chemo. My husband couldn’t believe I couldn’t stand the smell of toast. In my situation, my illness was a family thing, and I had all the care I needed.”
If you have a friend with cancer, don’t forget to also support their family, Caryl advises.
“We tend to focus on the patient, which makes sense, but caregivers are often overlooked,” she says. “They’re going through a very hard time. Compassion and kind words are very important for the family.”
A Network of Friends Can Help
Caryl also found solace with people who had been through similar treatments.
“I did seek out friends who had breast cancer and other kinds of cancer,” she says. “That bond is important so you don’t feel like you’re the only one who’s ever gone through this.”
She also had a network of friends she could turn to online anytime she wanted.
“My emails to my friends and family were my outlet,” she says. “I could tell everybody at once! I think a network, either online or with friends, is very important for any major life event. It keeps you from feeling isolated and opens a path for discussion. Discussion provides information, and information is power.”
Don’t Neglect Mammograms and Breast Exams
Caryl can’t stress the importance of preventive exams strongly enough.
“Since I’ve had breast lumps most of my life, I’ve had regular mammograms since I was 21,” she says. “I think that regular mammograms and breast exams are essential. Knowing your body and its changes is important, too.”
Today, Caryl says she sometimes forgets she even had breast cancer.
“Sometimes I don’t even remember I had breast cancer,” she says. “Even though I have a few physical things that I blame on chemo — I get frequent sores in my mouth, skin irritations don’t heal as quickly, and wine doesn’t taste as good — I know that I fared a lot better than many women (and men) who have had breast cancer. I have to catch my breath when I hear of somebody who passed away from it. If I can assist anybody on their path through an event such as this, I hope I can help them.”
Featured image source: Bigstock
Image source: Caryl Schweitzer