Through the eyes of survivors

This year, more than 200,000 women will be diagnosed with breast cancer in the United States, according to Susan G. Komen for the Cure. While that’s a lot of women, they don’t experience cancer as a group. Each diagnosis, each treatment journey and each response to this life-threatening disease is personal. We talked to three health care professionals about how breast cancer changed their lives and their approach to working with patients. 

After fighting cancer, ‘you can’t help but reach out and help others'

Nyasha Bonner-Shakir worked in OB/GYN nursing while she earned her bachelor’s degree. It took nine years for the single mother of three children to do it.

When Bonner-Shakir learned she could deliver babies as a nurse midwife, she went on to earn a master’s degree from Emory University in 1996.

“I kind of fell into oncology, working with women for the Fulton County Health Department. But now that I’ve walked the walk, I have an advantage working with breast cancer patients, and I want to do everything I can to lighten their load,” said Bonner-Shakir, MSN, NP, CNM, a nurse for 27 years.

She was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2008 and underwent surgery, radiation and five-and-a-half months of chemotherapy. “I had always been a health food nut and exercised five to six days a week, so the diagnosis was a shock and the treatment was really tough on my body.”

During a typical treatment week, Bonner-Shakir would undergo chemotherapy on Friday, be sick on Saturday and Sunday, and come back to work on Monday.

“Yoga became my lifeline to help me deal with the anger and depression, to regain mobility and lessen my osteo-arthritis,” she said. “It gave me my life back, but a different kind of life.”

Bonner-Shakir has become a certified yoga instructor and is working toward a certification to teach recuperative yoga.

In February, she was named coordinator of the breast and cervical cancer program at Grady Health System’s Georgia Cancer Center for Excellence. The early-detection program, funded by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the state of Georgia, offers screenings to low-income and uninsured women at about 200 clinics around the state.

“I’m the entrance into the health care system for many of my patients. I give them a complete physical, which helps me address other health issues they have, and I schedule them for mammograms,” she said. “In the first two months, we found five women with breast cancer.”

Bonner-Shakir sits with patients, shares her experiences and ensures that they have continuity of care. “I tell them, 'You can beat this. I was where you were, and look at me now. Cancer is not a death sentence.’ ”

Bonner-Shakir said cancer has changed her life and her practice. “It’s fuller. I’ve added another dimension, and I’ve learned so much more about cancer by asking questions and listening to the doctors here.”

Women seek her counsel and support, and when she visits the infusion room, she talks to her patients and introduces them to each other.
“It’s a sisterhood,” she said. “Once you’ve come through your own cancer journey, you can’t help but reach out and help others.” 

After diagnosis, ‘I wasn’t going to have a pity party’

After a mammogram, a sonogram and a needle biopsy, Mary Gore received her breast cancer diagnosis on Feb. 23 this year. Gore, who was at work at Gwinnett Medical Center, dropped the phone.

“At that moment, your life totally changes,” said Gore, PCT, a patient care technician with the hospital’s surgical interview team.

When she was driving home, Gore realized that she needed to rally her faith and all her forces to fight the disease.

“I knew I didn’t have time to get down. I wasn’t going to have a pity party,” she said.

Without extended family living nearby, Gore’s co-workers supported her through a double mastectomy, breast reconstruction and recovery.  They drove her to doctors’ appointments, visited her in the hospital and brought food to her home.

“I would never have made it without them,” she said. “All the love, the support and prayers made me feel so special, so blessed. It made breast cancer so much easier to deal with.”

Now Gore passes on that concern and personal touch to her pre-surgery patients.

“I let them know that I care and understand what they are going through, because I’ve been there,” she said. “When it’s a breast cancer patient, I share my story and I tell them that the best medicine is to keep the faith and to meet it head on.

“I tell them that I had cancer, but it’s gone. Patients have told me that they know God put me in this place for a reason.”

Gore visits patients in the hospital, calls to check in on them and is always available to listen.

“My phone number is everywhere, because people will open up more one-on-one than they will in support groups,” she said. “And cancer shouldn’t be a secret; it should be something women share with each other, so that we can learn and grow stronger from it.”

Because Gore neglected getting regular mammograms prior to her diagnosis, she encourages every woman she meets to get tested. She’s taken friends to clinics and given talks at church.

“I’m on a one-woman crusade to make sure every woman I know gets a mammogram,” she said.

Her goal is to become a patient advocate and to work with newly diagnosed breast cancer patients, because she knows the first week is the scariest.

“It’s become my calling, and I love it when a co-worker says, 'I got a mammogram because of you.’ ”

Helping breast cancer patients ‘became my passion.’

Diagnosed with breast cancer when she was 42, Jill Binkley underwent surgery, radiation and chemotherapy in 2000. Afterward, she discovered residual physical issues with her shoulder and arm function.

A physical therapist, Binkley  researched the literature and found that she wasn’t alone.

“The issues were fairly common and well-documented but they weren’t being addressed,” said Binkley, PT. “Fewer than 20 percent of breast cancer patients are referred by their doctors for rehabilitation and exercise after care. It’s just not part of the treatment plan.”

Breast cancer treatment can cause  a number of issues, including pain under the armpit and in the chest wall, chemotherapy-induced peripheral neuropathy, lymphedema, range of motion and function issues, weight gain, bone health challenges and loss of abdominal core strength after reconstructive surgery.

“Women don’t tend to advocate for themselves for a variety of reasons,” Binkley said. “They’re tired of treatment, don’t want to put their families through more, and think that side effects are something they have to live with, yet physical therapy, exercise, nutrition and education can often help with those symptoms.

“Going through breast cancer myself, I realized that I had a unique opportunity to address those issues. It became my passion.”

In 2003, Binkley left her orthopedic/sports medicine and teaching practice to open TurningPoint Women’s Healthcare in Alpharetta, a nonprofit organization with a mission of meeting the emotional and physical needs of breast cancer survivors. The staff provides specialized and evidence-based rehabilitation, physical therapy, massage therapy, emotional and nutritional counseling, and education.

“By telling women that many of their problems are common and treatable, we can dispel myths and allay fears,” said Binkley, executive director of TurningPoint Women’s Healthcare.

Binkley created the clinic as a nonprofit to eliminate financial barriers for uninsured or underinsured patients. About half of her patients need some form of financial assistance. Funding comes through grants and private contributions, often from former patients.

Starting with 15 to 20 patients the first year, TurningPoint  now treats about 300 new patients a year. Many are referred by metro Atlanta physicians.

Binkley has served on an American Cancer Society’s roundtable for breast cancer rehabilitation and has published journal articles about the needs of survivors. She just completed a clinical rotation with a physical therapy student who wants to open a similar clinic in Louisiana.

Breast cancer rehab isn’t yet a physical therapy specialty, but it is taught in more PT programs .

“It’s very rewarding to spread know-ledge and help other women in this way,” Binkley said. “Most patients tell us how thankful they are to have found us.”

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