Lange-Fuhs employees share survival storiesOctober 4, 2019
BY LEANN BURKE
JASPER — If you gather a group of breast cancer survivors in one room, you’ll get a handful of different stories.
Breast cancer is tricky, Lange-Fuhs Cancer Center Nurse Practitioner Charlotte Stephenson said. There are many types, each with many treatment options. And, despite popular assumption, it doesn’t only affect older women. Women under 40 can get the disease. So can men. This month — Breast Cancer Awareness Month — medical, cancer and survivor communities across the country share their stories of battling the cancer that affects 1 in 8 people worldwide, making it the second most common cancer.
At the Lange-Fuhs Cancer Center, the statistic holds close to true. Of the roughly 40 people on the cancer center’s staff, a handful have had the cancer. Four of them shared their stories with The Herald.
Jane Flannagan, registered nurse
When Jane Flannagan, 70, of Jasper, was a child, her mother got breast cancer. To treat her cancer, Flannagan’s mother chose a treatment that didn’t include a mastectomy. Several years later, the cancer returned in her bones, and she died. After that experience, Flannagan decided that if she ever got breast cancer, she would have a double mastectomy. Just a couple of months ago, Flannagan’s resolve on that decision was put to the test.
In August, Flannagan was diagnosed with breast cancer two days before a trip with her sisters. Right up until she received the news, Flannagan said, she didn’t think she had cancer, despite an irregular mammogram that led to 3-D mammogram, ultrasound and finally a biopsy. She was so sure nothing was wrong, in fact, that she didn’t even tell her husband, Dwayne, about the biopsy.
“I really didn’t think there was anything wrong,” Flannagan said. “I’d never felt better.”
Once the diagnosis came, though, Flannagan made her treatment decisions quickly. On Sept. 16, she traveled to Evansville for a bilateral mastectomy and reconstruction, never wavering in the decision she made as a child.
“I’m 70 years old,” she said. “I don’t want to worry about the next one (tumor) in a couple of years.”
With four children — Jason, 42, Kevin, 34, and Heather Stidd, 31, all of Indianapolis, and Scott of Australia, 37 — and 10 grandchildren, Flannagan is determined to be around for many more years.
Although she is a cancer survivor, she doesn’t really consider herself one. Unlike so many others she sees in her work at the Lange-Fuhs Cancer Center, her treatment ended quickly without chemotherapy or radiation. One afternoon in October, Charlotte Stephenson, a nurse practitioner at Lange-Fuhs and a breast cancer survivor herself, is quick to tell Flannagan that she’s still a cancer warrior and survivor. Regardless of the treatment path, Stephenson told Flannagan, she still walked the path and survived the disease.
Flannagan and her husband are in the process of moving to Indianapolis to be closer to their children, but if something changes with her cancer and she ends up needing chemotherapy or radiation, Flannagan said she already knows where she wants to have her treatment — in Jasper at Lange-Fuhs.
Angela Hoagland, director of pharmacy and oncology services
When Angela Hoagland, 49, of Eckerty, recalls her experience with breast cancer in 2016, the periods of not knowing stand out most.
You get your diagnosis, she explained, then have to wait for more test results and another appointment to get your treatment options. Then you start treatment, and wait again to learn your prognosis. During those gaps, she said, you plan your funeral, and you figure out who’s going to raise your kids and take care of your family if you die. Even if your prognosis is hopeful and you fight to stay positive, she said, those thoughts still come.
Hoagland received her diagnosis in October 2016 after abnormal mammogram results. She remembers that day clearly. She and her husband, Greg, closed on their home in the morning, and she received her diagnosis in the afternoon. She got the call at work at Memorial Hospital and Health Care Center. When she hung up, she remembers, she cried in the hallway. At the time, Hoagland had two daughters, Jessie, 22, and Josie, 14 (she’s adopted three children since: Addy, 8, Kaison, 6, and Emmy Jo, 4) and she worried about their futures if something happened to her. Telling her children about her diagnosis was the hardest part of the experience, she said.
Looking back, Hoagland considers herself lucky. Her treatment included 33 rounds of radiation, but no chemotherapy, and she was able to have a lumpectomy, which is the removal of the tumor rather than the entire breast.
“I was very lucky it was caught early,” she said.
Three years later, Hogaland considers herself cured. There is no trace of cancer in her body, though she does still have to take an estrogen blocker because her cancer was estrogen receptor positive, which means it fed off estrogen.
She also believes the experience gave her a new sensitivity for when she works with cancer patients at Memorial.
“I think it gives us all a patient’s perspective,” Hoagland said in a conversation with three other hospital employees who are breast cancer survivors — Flannagan, Dena Kamman-Rasche and Charlotte Stephenson.
The three other women agreed.
Dena Kamman-Rasche, nurse practitioner
As Dena Kamman-Rasche, 36, of Jasper, underwent breast cancer treatment at Deaconess Health System in Evansville, Exodus 14:14 ran on repeat in her thoughts. The Bible verse states, “The Lord will fight for you; you need only to be still.”
Kamman-Rasche’s case was a bit unusual. As a woman in her 30s, breast cancer was unlikely — only 1 in 227 women under 40 get breast cancer, versus 1 in 68 for women ages 40 through 50 and 1 in 28 for ages 60 to 70, according to Healthline — and Kamman-Rasche should have still been six years away from her first mammogram. That changed when her obstetrician/gynecologist found a lump during a manual breast exam.
“I was lying there trying to make small talk,” Kamman-Rasche recalled. “I said something I thought was funny, and he didn’t even smile. Then I realized he’d been palpating the same place for a while.”
The next week she had an ultrasound, and shortly after, she had her first and last mammogram. She got her diagnosis in June 2018: breast cancer.
“I tell people all the time, none of us make it through this life unscathed,” she said. “I remember telling my husband (Eddie) at some point after being diagnosed, ‘I wish I could just go back to feeling like I used to,’ which was basically assuming I have a long life in front of me. But immediately, I realized that assumption was false anyway. And, it didn’t become false when I was diagnosed with cancer. It was false all along.”
To treat her cancer, Kamman-Rasche chose a double mastectomy. Despite working at Memorial, she had to have her treatment at Deaconess. That’s where Eddie worked and where her insurance would cover her. She was also finishing up nurse practitioner training, and remembers sitting for her board exam with a peripherally inserted central catheter — PICC — line in her arm due to an infection following surgery.
She was still undergoing treatment when she interviewed for her current job as a nurse practitioner in the Lange-Fuhs Cancer Center. Fellow nurse practitioner Charlotte Stephenson, also a breast cancer survivor, sat in on her interview.
“I remember in the interview she said, ‘Please don’t let my diagnosis of breast cancer be the reason you don’t hire me,” Stephenson recalled, tearing up along with Kamman-Rasche.
She got the job. Kamman-Rasche started at Lange-Fuhs on Nov. 5, 2018, one week before her last chemotherapy treatment.
Now, as an oncology nurse practitioner, Kamman-Rasche calls upon her experience with breast cancer frequently to help comfort her patients.
“Being diagnosed with breast cancer was one of my life’s challenges,” she said. “It is my hope to inspire others. Not because I have survived, but because I have lived.”
Charlotte Stephenson, nurse practitioner
Charlotte Stephenson, 48, of Dubois, considers herself one of the lucky ones — she lost her hair during chemotherapy.
“People knew I was having treatment,” Stephenson said. “I think when people don’t lose their hair, [the general public] either don’t know about the treatment, or they assume it must not be as bad.”
Stephenson was diagnosed with triple negative breast cancer in 2016 after a mammogram turned up an abnormality. The diagnosis meant automatic chemotherapy treatments and surgery. Stephenson opted for a lumpectomy, and made sure all of her treatment happened at Lange-Fuhs Cancer Center where she works.
“I feel very blessed to be working here,” she said. “I feel like I am surrounded by powerful women.”
To fellow Memorial Hospital employee and breast cancer survivor Angela Hoagland, Stephenson is one of those powerful women. During her treatment, Hoagland recalled, Stephenson remained extremely positive — so positive, in fact, that her patients often wondered if she was receiving a different treatment than they were. She wasn’t.
Three things kept her positivity up: Jesus, her kids — Mallory Crays, 25, of Jasper, Emma Vanderpan, 23, of Indianapolis, and Maggie, 17 — and her family.
“When you have kids, you have to stay positive for them,” Stephenson said.
Despite her positivity, the treatment was challenging. When Stephenson began to lose her hair, she recalled, Maggie and her husband, Doug, helped her shave her head. That was rough. So was going through treatment while building a new house.
“I wouldn’t even go in it because I felt like I wouldn’t live in it,” Stephenson said.
Logically, Stephenson knew her chances of survival were good. As long as you follow treatment guidelines, she said, survival rates are high for breast cancer.
But that didn’t stop her moments of doubt, and she still tears up remembering the experience three years later.
“You block these memories out,” she said.
Now, Stephenson considers herself cured. There’s no cancer left in her body, and her hair has grown back. She looks like she’s back to normal. But she isn’t. The chemotherapy left her with neuropathy that will never leave.
“It’s not getting any better,” Stephenson said. “I’m going to assume it won’t.”
The neuropathy is an example of what Stephenson wishes more people realized about cancer survivors. The treatment might end and the cancer may be gone, but you’re not the same. Treatment often comes with side effects that will last the rest of your life, and even if you escape physical side effects, mentally, you’re not the same.
“I don’t know if you’re ever really cured,” Stephenson said. “You just go into survivor mode.”
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