A sabbatical, an athletic milestone and a momentary health scare. Our breast cancer round table returns to talk about what’s been happening in their lives in 2016.
For the last two years ago, Eureka has marked the “Pink Ribbon” month of October by gathering together a round table of remarkable women from Charles River Labs who are battling cancer. The discussions have circled around health insurance, treatment options, family support, the ever-present fear of relapse, learning to laugh again, and many other topics.
The roundtable is a bit smaller this year. Just three breast cancer survivors—Rachel Kiserow, Susan Desmond and Pat Seyffert—sat down with Eureka Editor Regina McEnery for a follow-up interview. (Roundtable regular Pat Mirley could not make the session because her mother was ill, but sent an update on what has occurred in her life in the past year. Mirley, who is a Business Support Manager in the North American Research Models Division in Wilmington, was diagnosed with ductal carcinoma in situ (DCIS) of the right breast in 2003. She has, thankfully, seen no recurrence of the breast cancer in the past year, but is facing a whole different set of health problems now—possible replacements of both knees. Her parents are also ailing. “Right now, I just can’t bring myself to have any more surgeries. Taking care of my elderly folks is my priority right now,” says Mirley.
Cancer has not slowed down our roundtable. Pat Seyffert stepped up her pace this year and joined a team that placed second among 73 teams from the company’s Wilmington campus in the 100-day Global Challenge event. The competition measures teams by the number of steps they take every day. Rachel Kiserow, another roundtable member, spent a month volunteering at a children’s cancer foundation in Nevada. Susan Desmond saw her oldest daughter off to college. Here are brief bio sketches of the women and an edited version of the Oct. 4 interview
Susan Desmond (SD), Associate Director, Events Management at Charles River in Wilmington, was diagnosed with breast cancer over 3 ½ years ago. She underwent chemotherapy, a mastectomy, radiation and breast reconstruction. Her tumor was estrogen receptor positive, so she also takes hormonal therapy every day. Because her cancer was stage IV, meaning that it had spread to another part of my body, namely her bones, she also had aggressive estrogen “shut down” via full hysterectomy. Susan is shown at right with husband and two daughters.
Rachel Kiserow (RK), a Human Resources Representative at Charles River’s Safety Assessment site in Reno, was 35 when she was diagnosed with breast cancer. Surgeons initially performed a lumpectomy but when the tumor turned out to be larger and seemingly more aggressive than expected, Rachel had seen enough. “I told them to take them both,” she said and underwent a double mastectomy in 2012 followed by chemotherapy and radiation. Then, in 2014 she underwent a full hysterectomy and oophorectomy since she was at risk for uterine, ovarian, and cervical cancer. She is currently taking the hormonal drug tamoxifen. Rachel is shown at right with her husband, Shawn and son, Nathan.
Pat Seyffert (PS) is an executive assistant and 10-year veteran of Research Model Client Services in Wilmington. Doctors discovered her cancer 10 years ago during a routine screening. Pat underwent a lumpectomy and had 18 lymph nodes removed, three showing evidence of breast cancer. She also received chemotherapy and radiation treatments. She recovered and is doing fine. She is shown, third from right, with her Charles River Global Challenge team, The River Machine.
EUREKA: What has the last year been like for everyone?
SD: One thing I would like to bring up occurred in April at the [American Association for Cancer Research] meeting. For the past 17 years, I have been attending these meetings for work, and I often walk the floor to see what the other visitors are doing. In the perimeter of the hall there are advocacy groups. At one particular booth I ended up sharing my story and the first thing they said was, ‘You know you don’t have to work. You could be on leave.’ I was shocked. Why would I stop working? As the conversation continued, I started talking about the drugs that I take and their response was ‘Oh, so you still have some options.’ I was not interpreting their comments in a positive way. I think their intentions were good but I walked away not in a good place. Has anyone had a similar experience?
RK: I haven’t dealt much with advocacy groups but I have encountered a few people that were insensitive to my situation. I remember one person, whose family member had been battling cancer, said in a certain tone, ‘Well, you should be lucky. You survived your cancer.’ I realize the pain they must have been feeling but to discount anything that anyone else has gone through, to me that was just cruel.
SD: I’m on the fence. Assuming our paths cross again, do I tell this advocacy group how I felt just so someone else doesn’t have to go through it?
PS: What they are doing is counterproductive. The idea is to get well and return to normal, not wallow. If you don’t help them know the right thing to say, they might do it again. And there is no question about it. I think the healthier your attitude the healthier you are.
EUREKA: Rachel, what’s the last been like for you?
RK: I turned 40 last year and it has been a very good year. Our family was able to travel quite a bit for fun. But there were also some low points. I lost a dear friend to colon cancer and a leader in my department died after a long illness.
EUREKA: Pat, it’s been quite a year for you, too?
PS: I participated in the Global Challenge. I was on a very competitive team that came in second in Wilmington. It was a very high averaging team and I was doing better than 20,000 steps a day. Not bad for an old girl?
EUREKA: How does everyone respond to family members and co-workers who are dealing with cancer?
SD: To be honest, before being diagnosed I would be hesitant or I might feel awkward about approaching someone with cancer, but now it’s automatic. I offer whatever support I can whether it’s riding with them to treatment or buying them a box of Cheerios.
PS: I agree with that. When I first got diagnosed, there were some people who definitely didn’t know how to approach me. They would almost go out of their way not to. You learn not to do that. And every time I see something online about things people with cancer don’t want to hear I read and learn from it.
EUREKA: What are words cancer patients don’t want to hear?
RK: Everything happens for a reason. I just got done working with the Northern Nevada Children’s Cancer Foundation [as part of the Charles River sabbatical program], and I can tell you no parent wants to hear that. The best conversations are when you leave feeling loved and supported. It’s easy to say call me if you need anything but the tangible stuff, like giving someone a ride to treatment is what people hone in on. I also think that laughter is a huge part of recovery. Whatever you can do to keep that person’s spirit up is huge.
EUREKA: Rachel, tell us about your sabbatical at the children’s cancer foundation?
RK: The foundation has been around for 15 years. It got started after a child passed away from cancer and the family wanted to honor his memory. They give emotional and financial support to families of children affected by cancer. Being a mother, it was unimaginable to me to think what these families were going through and I wanted to do something lasting and impactful. It was definitely more meaningful but it was also harder. For me, every time I heard that a child had died it hit me hard because I know what cancer looks like and I also had to imagine what it would look like if it was one of my kids.
EUREKA: How’s everyone’s health?
SD: Well, at a routine appointment in July, my [oncologist] decided that I should go in for a biopsy. It was fortunate that they were able to do it in a lab-like setting where you pretty much know right away what the results are. The doctors thought it looked OK, but the following Monday I got a call—they didn’t get enough of a sample—so I had to come back in for a punch biopsy. You know, they really have to get better names for these procedures. I waited three days for the results and it ended up being benign. But it was another dose of reality. Do you ever not think about it? I try not to but it’s always there.
PS: One thing that happened to me that was positive—I went for my last mammogram at my oncologist’s [office.] She said I didn’t need to see her anymore, that for my next mammogram I could go to the regular clinic. I never liked the word clinic until that day.
SD: How many years out are you, Pat?
PS: Ten. So I guess I was demoted—no promoted—to the clinic.
RK: I think the last time we met I was coughing a lot. I always tell my oncologist first about any weird symptom, and he sent me to all kinds of specialists. I went through a battery of tests and procedures and everything looked good. So I came back to my oncologist and asked him, what’s wrong with me? He looked at his iPad and noticed that anastrazole [a hormonal drug], which I had been taking for about a year and a half, causes a chronic cough in 1% of patients. He put me on tamoxifen and two weeks later the cough went away.
EUREKA: Lastly, it’s Breast Cancer Awareness Month. How important is it for women to get mammograms?
RK: I take every opportunity to tell women that they need to do breast self-exams, and I think mammograms should start at 30 not 40. We are seeing more and more women being diagnosed at an early age. This is a survivable disease if it is caught early on.
PS: Before I was diagnosed I didn’t get mammograms because I didn’t want the radiation in my body. I kept putting it off. The only reason I finally got one was because my doctor kept saying I had to get one. And it turned out to be cancer. At that point, the radiation becomes secondary because after you have breast cancer they give you much more radiation than you get in a mammogram.