Editor's note: In honor of October being National Breast Cancer Awareness Month, The Banner-Press is publishing a four-week series, "Think Pink," sharing the stories of community members who battled or are battling breast cancer. The Banner-Press' masthead will also be pink this October to commemorate the month.
When Joanne Andel received news of her breast cancer in August 2013, the initial diagnosis really didn’t come as a shock to the longtime Bruno resident.
When she felt the lump in her right breast during a self-exam, a wave of realization swept over Andel, her daughter, Jessica, and her husband, John. After all, two of Andel’s three sisters were previously diagnosed with the disease. One is still alive, the other is not.
“I just figured that’s what it’s going to be,” Andel said. “So it’s something where you’re ready for it, but you’re never really ready for it.”
Diagnosed with Stage 4 breast cancer, Andel has now been cancer-free for about five years. But it’s been a long journey getting to where she is today. It’s been a trek that she said she never would have been able to make without a hardcore group of supporters right by her side.
After her initial diagnosis, Andel completed rounds of chemotherapy for a year at Nebraska Hematology-Oncology every third week – normally on Thursdays. Beginning in February 2014, the radiation sessions geared up, with Andel receiving treatment every day in February leading into March, with the exceptions of Saturdays and Sundays. Two times she received chemo and radiation on the same day.
Even with all that, Andel reflected upon treatment sessions with an optimistic tone.
“I was pretty lucky, I didn’t get super sick or anything like that. I think I came out OK,” she said, acknowledging that she still would get exhausted. “Chemo was usually on Thursday, and then I would be down until about Tuesday … “And I did lose my hair, but you know, it came back,” she added, with a laugh.
Perhaps she can reflect back on going through hell with such a positive attitude because she was never in it alone. Jessica Andel was there for the whole ride, as Andel’s sister-in-law, Patricia, who was diagnosed with cancer the year prior. The duo was able to receive treatment together on several occasions.
“We would schedule our appointments together, and then go together,” Andel said. “… She told me a lot, she kept me informed with what was going to be going on, and kind of told me what all I was in for, and stuff like that. And it helped a lot. Between Patricia and Jessica, they really were my caregivers. I think they went through more than I did.”
Physically, no, but it was quite the trying time, Jessica admitted. Seeing Joanne in remission now is a really big deal for her daughter.
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“Oh yeah,” she said of it being a huge deal that her mom is currently cancer-free. “Because I watched her get her wigs, I watched the girl shave her head, I watched her get her wig trimmed up so it would match her. It was really hard.”
Although in remission, Andel's lifestyle will never be quite the same as it was all those years ago prior to her diagnosis. Although the six-month checkups and exams have come and gone, she still has yearly bloodwork and PET scans completed.
Every appointment, there’s a little of the sinking in the stomach. The disease has been dormant for quite a while now, but who really knows when it might decide to show its face again?
“I think the fear is always there,” she said. “It’s even there before you get it, I think, especially when (like me) it’s in the family. But, you just have to do what you can do, and when you wear out, you sit down and take a break and then just go again.”
She said she gained a lot of perspective from a man who was receiving treatment for pancreatic cancer at the same time she was undergoing her hardships. With pancreatic cancer survival rates after five years hovering around 7 percent, according to the Hirshberg Foundation for Pancreatic Cancer Research, this gentleman knew the deck was stacked against him.
But, he fought the disease on his own terms and brought joy to other cancer patients in the process.
“He says, ‘I am on borrowed time,’ he would come in dressed as a clown just to make everyone happy, or bring flowers or candy,” Andel said. “… “He was just really good, he had really good spirits. He lifted up the mood.”
If this man, now deceased, was able to take one day at a time and make the most of his remaining minutes and hours, it inevitably gave Andel and others receiving chemo and radiation some semblance of hope and peace, too, at bare minimum a smile on their faces during a time in their lives that was anything but happy.
So now Andel continues tackling her own life with positive spirits and a sense of optimism because that’s all she really can do.
“You just keep putting one foot in front of the next,” she said. “And you have so many friends who help you, prayers help a lot, and it (cancer) really brings people together, it seems like. I mean, it’s a sad way to do it, but it does.”
Sam Pimper is the news editor of The Banner-Press. Reach him via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.