Patricia Sica’s cancer narrative is infused with pain, fear and anxiety, but also colored with immense courage, strength and hope. Her journey stretches back to 1986 when, at the young age of 40, Patricia was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s disease and underwent total nodal radiation, causing her intense nausea and extensive skin burns. This is not how she had planned to spend her early retirement.
Things began to look up for the next several years, however, until in 1993 Patricia received another nasty shock: a relapse of Hodgkin’s disease. This time she underwent chemotherapy, finishing her course of treatment in 1994. During this time, Patricia had asked her surgeon to perform a prophylactic mastectomy. She was wary of the fact that her previous radiation treatment had made her very susceptible to breast cancer, but she was told she was over-reacting, and they were not done.
Five years later Patricia noticed a pea-sized lump in her breastbone—she immediately alerted her doctors who, after gallium scans indicated the tumor was negative for a reoccurrence of Hodgkin’s, told her that it was most likely scar tissue on her sternum and that they would “watch it for awhile.” Eight years of “watching” the tumor slipped by, with Patricia increasingly convinced that it was growing. Eventually she asked her doctors to measure her tumor, and over the span of a year they agreed it had changed and sent her for a biopsy, with assurances that it was probably benign and non-metastatic. Her results confirmed otherwise—she had mucinous carcinoma of the breast, and it had traveled to her right axilla area.
She and her husband went for a consultation to the Stanford Medical Center, where some of the world’s leading experts in Hodgkin’s disease are staffed, and where many documents focused on breast cancer after treatment for Hodgkin’s disease have been published. Patricia recalls that it was “a wonderful experience”—in one day, she was able to meet with a panel of doctors, each individually examining and interviewing her, and was presented with their collective recommendation. They told her it was probably the most complex case they had ever encountered but put together a treatment plan that her doctors at home agreed with and followed.
Patricia faced many challenges throughout her multiple diagnoses and treatments. She admits she’s a bit of a fatalist in that she doesn’t waste time asking “why me?” Instead, her philosophy is, “it is what it is, and you deal with it the best you can.” While she endured many difficult and unhappy times, she explains that the emotions born of a cancer diagnosis are all centered around the idea of control—“When you’re diagnosed the big deal is that you feel out of control of your life. When you start treatment you feel like you’ve taken control, and that you’re doing something…like you’re in control again.”
The Cancer Support Community (CSC) first came to Patricia’s attention after her first diagnosis of Hodgkin’s in 1986. A few years later she saw an article in the newspaper about a couple of nurses trying to open a facility in her immediate Thousand Oaks, California area. She contacted the nurses and spent the following three years on the original board raising money for the launch of The Wellness Community (TWC) Valley/Ventura—an affiliate of the CSC. She has been very active in TWC for 20 years, primarily through fundraising and leading orientations for newly diagnosed patients and their families. Although Patricia is a big believer in support, she ironically has never attended a support group herself—rather, through reaching out to patients and offering guidance, she takes comfort in comforting others.
She first learned of the CSC’s Cancer Survivor Registry’s Breast Cancer M.A.P. (Mind Affects the Physical) Project in an e-newsletter from TWC in July of this year. Always “happy to help someone else,” as she says, she registered online right away and became a participant.
Cancer certainly changed Patricia’s perspective on life. Before diagnosis, her focus and priorities had always lain with her career and family. “You take things for granted. You’re so caught up in just living your life that you don’t appreciate the little things, but once I was diagnosed in ’86 that never happened again. I appreciated the stuff that was in between,” she says. This initial diagnosis was incentive to get back in tune with the things she once loved—in fact, cancer served as motivation for Patricia to rekindle her passion for art, return to graduate school and pursue an art degree.
Although she feels she did everything she could in terms of diligently going in for breast MRIs and mammograms, Patricia wishes she had been more proactive about having her breasts removed. Looking back on her own experiences, she would advise others, above all, to be aggressive, not to panic or rush, and to make a treatment decision that is state-of-the-art. “I feel like it’s only because I’ve been pretty aggressive in dealing with these things that I’m still kicking around,” she laughs. After all, she was told quite point-blank that she did not need a mastectomy when ultimately, it turned out she did. In most cases of cancer diagnosis, especially breast cancer, the cancer was probably there for a number of years, which means there is no reason to panic or rush a treatment decision. Patricia urges people to investigate their options thoroughly, and to go to a major cancer hospital where they can seek opinions from the best and the brightest—“make sure that you’re doing the right thing,” she says, “It’s your life, it’s not a time to take short cuts, it’s not a time to leave any stone unturned. And don’t feel ‘oh I have to start treatment right now’—you don’t need to start treatment right now. You need to make sure you’re making the absolute best decision you can and avoid any surprises later on.”
In terms of dealing with treatment, Patricia encourages people to join support groups—she would like to remind everyone, “The doctors are just treating the disease.” Through patient-to-patient communication, survivors can work together toward emotional healing, and also find out what works (i.e. coping methods, treatment options, etc.) from the first-hand experiences of others going through the same thing. She also believes that patients should do whatever they need and want to feel better: “Distract yourself. A lot of it is escapism, just get through treatment, then pull your socks up and get back to your life!”
The M.A.P. Project is an initiative launched by the CSC’s Cancer Survivorship Research and Training Institute, designed to discern and address the emotional and social needs that accompany a breast cancer diagnosis. Through joining the registry, women are offered a unique opportunity to help guide and inform research directed at ameliorating the breast cancer experience. The M.A.P Project strives to grasp the full impact of breast cancer, and to propel research forward in ultimately improving the lives of millions touched by cancer. This research initiative is made possible through a munificent grant from the National Philanthropic Trust Breast Cancer Fund. For further information or to join the movement, please visit www.BreastCancerRegistry.org
The Wellness Community Valley/Ventura
is an affiliate of the CSC and provides a space for both cancer patients and their families to take sanctuary. Programs are free and include networking and support groups, education workshops, health and lifestyle classes and social activities. Guests will find support, companionship, education, and above all, hope. The CSC urges cancer patients to fight for their recovery through active participation in their treatments.
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