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Meet Links for Life Cancer Survivor Elana Stafford

Health is a Gift We Give to Ourselves

I’ve always known the Elana Stafford who battled breast cancer and won. I’ve never given any thought to who she was as a woman before her recovery. But what I thought of today as we sat together and talked about her journey was that her cancer, now 13 years in her rearview mirror, made a remarkable dent on her life.  I can tell because she remembers the date of her mastectomy – March 17. I can tell because she remembers the names of all her doctors. I can tell because she remembers telling her daughters about her prognosis and remembers exactly what they said and did afterward. I may have known Elana for a decade, but I’ve only known the Elana who wears the emotional and physical scars of breast cancer. Fortunately for me, that’s also the Elana who wears the joy, resilience, and power of kicking cancer’s butt. Here’s her story.

Elana’s cancer was discovered in 2010. As a woman in her early 40’s she normally wouldn’t have been asked to complete annual mammograms. (The widely accepted age to begin mammograms was 50.) Fortunately, Elana had a wise doctor who chose to have her begin mammograms in her 30s to establish a baseline after her elective breast augmentation. She hadn’t felt a lump or had any indication that her mammogram would come back abnormal – but it did.  Elana followed the usual path after a questionable mammogram. She had an ultrasound, then an MRI, and eventually two biopsies.

Everything seemed to move quickly. In fact, Elana recalls that while she was on the phone with her primary care physician the doctor barely got the words out that a breast surgeon was going to be calling her, when the other line rang with the surgeon’s call. After she finished talking to the surgeon, she immediately went in to meet her face to face. She had left-breast ductal carcinoma in situ (DCIS), an early form of breast cancer, and was presented with two options. Option one: she could choose a lumpectomy followed by radiation and several years of tamoxifen. Option two: she could choose to undergo a mastectomy with or without surgical reconstruction of her breast.

Elana did her own research before deciding – something that, as a registered nurse, she highly recommends to anyone making medical decisions. She decided on option two, even though it was a more severe option and not favored by one of her surgeons. There were several reasons that Elana felt this was the right decision for her, mostly because of her fear of recurrence which can be higher if one only undergoes a lumpectomy treatment. The choice of option two allowed her to live with less worry in the future.

There is both physical and emotional recovery after cancer, Elana shared. On the physical side, Elana healed. She had her mastectomy on March 17 and attended her daughter’s wedding, drain-free on April 11. However, she confessed that the hardest part of having breast cancer wasn’t the physical challenges but was the emotional ones. She was candid in talking about her perception of her own beauty and femininity, remarking that she was used to looking a certain way. Because of that, the shock of suddenly having underwent a double mastectomy was emotionally very difficult. As a single, young woman, she sought counseling to help her recover from the psychological impact of the surgery.  She underwent surgical reconstruction to minimize the physical impact of the cancer, but took longer to overcome the emotional impact.

Fortunately, Elana recalls that she had great support from her friends and family during the tough time of recovery. One friend in particular stayed by her side in the hospital and at home, changing her drains and bandages and providing emotional comfort. She had three daughters at the time, one who was an adult, one in her teens, and a toddler. All three of them provided their own kind of encouragement.

When asked what advice she would give to newly diagnosed men or women, Elana had several things to say. Elana recommends always getting multiple professional opinions while determining options for any medical intervention. In addition, she encourages each person to do their own research and reach out to other breast cancer survivors for their stories and their opinions. This helps to accelerate their knowledge and understanding of options, while also provides support and encouragement to know that there will be life after breast cancer. However, the most important thing that Elana wants people to know is that despite all these opinions, the patient’s is the one that really counts when choosing what is right for them.

“It’s ok to do what you must do for yourself,” Elana said. “Don’t let a doctor, family member, or friend pressure you into doing something that isn’t right for you.”

Even though Elana had all her breast tissue removed, she still has a small chance of recurrence and continues with regular prevention check-ups. She recommends to women that we give a mammogram to ourselves as an annual gift, such as on our birthday or around the holidays, which is a great way to remember the date.  Afterall, we must each remember that health is a well-deserved gift that we give to ourselves.