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A breast cancer journey: From surviving to thriving

 

Dianne Hand poses for a portrait.

Dianne Hand poses for a portrait. Photo by: Luisa Porter/Dispatch Staff

 

Carmen K. Sisson

 

The silver bracelet is relatively new. But the philosophy behind its inscribed words has been a tenet of Dianne Hand's life for most of her 51 years: Live well. Love much. Laugh often.  

 

She did these things long before she began wearing the pink-jeweled ribbon, long before she was diagnosed with breast cancer. Now, they have taken on an added dimension of sweetness -- the realization that the simple joys are what she treasures most.  

 

The National Cancer Institute predicts one in eight women will develop breast cancer, but excluding cancers of the skin, it is their greatest cancer threat, accounting for nearly one in three diagnoses.  

 

Before September 2007, when Hand was showering and felt the lump in her left breast, she had only met one person with breast cancer. Before long, she would learn of another -- her aunt.  

 

She postponed scheduling a doctor's appointment. The holidays were coming up, and as manager of Rook's Wine Cellar in Columbus, she was entering her busiest season. She promised her husband, Mike, that she would go to the doctor after New Year's, but in her heart, she already knew what the diagnosis would be. 

 

 

 

Embracing the light 

 

Five months later, in February 2008, she was diagnosed with stage three breast cancer. Fed by estrogen, a female hormone, the cancer was spreading rapidly, already invading her lymph nodes.  

 

If time seemed to stop when the doctor delivered the news, it sped up from that moment forward. Though she was going into it blindly, Hand knew one thing for sure: She had to keep moving.  

 

She and her husband read everything they could about each step, from the mastectomy, six months of chemotherapy and six weeks of radiation, to the decision to undergo a TRAM (transverse rectus abdominus muscle) flap reconstruction, which uses muscle, fat and skin from the abdomen to create a new breast. 

 

Throughout it all, Hand was determined to live as normal a life as possible. She continued to work part-time. She enjoyed being with her family, including her husband, four daughters and seven grandchildren.  

 

She had always had a positive attitude, but she became even more thankful and appreciative, drinking in every moment of life with the understanding that while the future held no guarantees, the present was now and time was precious.  

 

Even housework became a blessing, because if she felt like doing it, she was having a pretty good day. Often, the drugs that were killing her cancer depleted her reserves and left her sapped.  

 

She still is required to take one pill a day to keep the estrogen at bay, and she's looking forward to the day that it, too, is a thing of the past. She refuses to allow thoughts of recurrence.  

 

She credits that grit and determination for her ability to cope, never giving in to self-pity.  

 

"It's difficult," she says of the diagnosis and treatment. "You're not the same person. But it depends on how you let it change you." 

 

 

 

Life after cancer 

 

One immediate change she made was to her diet.  

 

Estrogen is a normal part of a woman's endocrine system, responsible for sexual development and proper functioning of the reproductive system. It regulates menstrual cycles and stimulates breast growth at puberty.  

 

But doctors now believe there is a causal relationship between high levels of estrogen and the development of breast cancer. And for women like Hand, whose tumor was estrogen receptor positive, the hormone can help the tumor grow. The National Cancer Institute indicates between 60 and 70 percent of all breast cancers fit into this category.  

 

Besides being produced by the body, hormones are increasingly being pumped into the foods we eat. Besides fattening animals and helping them grow faster, hormones can increase milk production and be used for other purposes to increase profit margins.  

 

Synthetic estrogen, xenoestrogen, can be found in a myriad of household products, from lotions and shampoos to cleaning solutions.  

 

Natural estrogen, phytoestrogen, occurs naturally in many foods, including some nuts, seeds, soy products, legumes, apples, carrots, rice, alfalfa, coffee, barley and beer.  

 

It is a divided camp when it comes to researchers' opinions about the effects of estrogen-laced food. Some say the effect is minimal, others believe it is to blame for girls beginning their menstrual cycles at younger ages and more incidences of breast cancer over the past few decades.  

 

Hand eats a mostly "clean" diet these days. She steers clear of nitrates, soy and heavily-processed, artificial food. She limits red meat and sugar. Her main diet consists of salads, seafood and fiber-rich foods.  

 

Just as she refuses to accept the possibility of a breast cancer recurrence, she also refuses to live in fear.  

 

"It's kind of like, it happened, it's behind me, so leave it there," she says.  

 

Everywhere she goes, she tries to spread her message of hope: There is life after breast cancer. 

 

"I think that's the one thing you lose -- the big picture -- when you're in the middle of the battle," Hand says. "Everyone has at least one hurdle, some larger than others. It's what you do with it that gets you through."

 

Carmen K. Sisson is the former news editor at The Dispatch.

 

 

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