A Blip on the Screen of Life
“Most of the time, things seen on mammos and ultrasounds are not bad,” Laurie Gaughan said.
But in her case, being an ultrasonographer at PinnacleHealth, she had more expertise than most of us when viewing her diagnostic results and, therefore, when she saw her ultrasound images on the monitor, she was almost certain that she had breast cancer.
This married mother of three teenage daughters considers herself very knowledgeable about the importance of maintaining good breast health and early detection, but she never felt any lumps or had any symptoms.
“My breast cancer was seen on a mammogram,” she said. “The radiologist saw something on my mammogram so he suggested I have an ultrasound next.”
She recalls that even after viewing her own images and drawing the likely conclusion, the staff still had to go through the proper procedures to prove and then inform her of the diagnosis, which was difficult for her caregivers and also for her. She received the confirmation call on April Fool’s Day in 1998.
“It was invasive ductal carcinoma, stage I,” Gaughan said. “And even though I knew the ultrasound looked bad and this was the news I was expecting, I still curled up in a ball on my bed and cried. My kids were only 7 and 8 years old. How was I going to tell them … how long was I going to live?”
She and her husband didn’t tell their young daughters right away. Gaughan’s mother came to be with the family when they broke the news because “Grandma can always make things better,” she said. “The girls had never really experienced cancer before.”
Gaughan praises the way her surgeon handled her case, being willing to spend as much time as was needed to explain things and to present her options.
“I had my surgery on May 22, 1998,” she said. “For my peace of mind, I decided to have a bilateral mastectomy with reconstructive surgery at the same time … I didn’t want to be constantly worrying that I was feeling something or something was growing in the other breast that I couldn’t feel.”
In her line of work, she said that she’s seen women suffer great emotional distress caused by those exact anxieties, and it turned out to be the right decision because there was some lobular cancer in her other breast. She also praises her husband for supporting her decision.
Although she was in a great deal of pain after the surgery, as soon as she was permitted to do so, Gaughan started swimming and moving her muscles as much as possible.
“I went back to work in the beginning of July,” she said. “I also started chemotherapy in July, but fortunately, I only had four chemo treatments … My type of breast cancer was fueled by estrogen, so I had my ovaries taken out in November of 1998.”
Gaughan feels that the thing she struggled with most during her recovery was the medications she needed to take.
“I was told that I’d have to take medications for 5-10 years after my chemo. In my case it was Arimidex. I felt absolutely horrible taking it … My bones and joints ached constantly.”
She had no energy and was in a lot of pain, making it difficult to do much of anything.
“Then I felt guilty because I had three young kids who needed me to do things for them,” she said. “Finally, after a year, I spoke up and told my doctor I just couldn’t take it anymore.”
Her medications were changed and she felt much better, wishing she had advocated for herself sooner, but as she put it, “I guess I was just afraid to ‘complain’ about the meds … very silly.”
When she was diagnosed with breast cancer, Gaughan said she didn’t feel the need to join a support group, but felt that her husband Brian would have benefitted from one. The problem was that they couldn’t find one that welcomed men.
“So Brian came up with the idea of having a store that could help those going through breast cancer … by giving them clothes, wigs, prosthetics, or just talking to them if that’s what they need,” said Gaughan. “Brian needed to talk to others, and this was a means to do so … It’s surprising how many men need someone to talk to and may not even realize it until they start talking.”
That store, named Pink Hands of Hope, is a nonprofit thrift store relying on donations, both monetary and those of quality furniture and clothing.
“We have a room set up specifically for breast cancer patients that’s filled with wigs, prosthetics, bras, chemo caps and shawls, port pillows, lap and prayer blankets, and a resource center with various information—all free to patients undergoing breast cancer treatment, regardless of their ability to pay,” she said. “Many of these items are handmade by caring people—and we have wonderful volunteers who help us at PHOH.”
In addition to the thrift store, PHOH has several other programs geared toward helping those who are touched by breast cancer to cope. One of those, the “adopt a patient” program, helps patients who may be struggling to pay their bills by using both donated funds and profits from the thrift store.
In addition, there is the makeover program, which was created to “make a patient feel special for a day,” Gaughan said. “We treat them to ‘new’ clothes provided by PHOH, a hairdo provided by a local salon, and we take them to lunch with a friend, provided by a local restaurant, in our PHOH limousine.”
As she celebrates her continued cancer-free status, Gaughan knows that feeling good about yourself and having a positive attitude is a big part of a successful recovery.
“Laughter helps,” she said. “Sometimes laughter kept us from crying. And if someone offers to help you—clean your house, cook you a meal, watch your kids—let them! It’s OK to accept help.”
It’s also OK to admit that there are times when she experiences an ache or pain that lasts for a while and the thought of the cancer returning pops into her head.
“I think that’s only natural … but I don’t dwell on it,” she said. “All in all, Brian likes to say that it’s just a blip on the screen of life, and he’s right!” BW
If you would like to donate money or clothing or you would like to volunteer at Pink Hands of Hope, please visit www.pinkhandsofhope.org.