By CARL SMITH
Almost one year ago, Ward 2 Alderman Sandra Sistrunk received news she never expected to hear.
She was diagnosed with breast cancer in November.
Sistrunk, who had no family history of breast cancer prior to her diagnosis, discovered a lump in between her scheduled mammograms. She was 60 at the time and a little more than one year removed from her previous exam.
“It’s a pretty startling moment when you hear the news,” Sistrunk said. “It was really hard to even process it an emotional or intellectual level. Every woman’s situation is different, but I was detached. I remember leaving the doctor’s office thinking ‘I have breast cancer?’ How do you go from not feeling anything to boom, there’s a lump. It’s not like it got a little bigger each day — It was just there.”
As Sistrunk left the hospital, she began thinking not only about her treatment, but also about how to tell her family, friends and coworkers.
“You get a scatter-shot reaction from people. You’ve got the ‘It’s treatable’ crowd and you’ve got the ‘Oh, I’m so sorry crowd.’ Telling everyone about your condition is a difficult thing for most women. It’s yours to tell when you decide to and how you decide to,” Sistrunk said. “After the third time or so, it gets progressively easier. You then have the Reader’s Digest version. The thing that’s been most surprising was to find out how many women I know had breast cancer that I wasn’t aware of. It included people I work with, go to church with and live on my street. I never knew.”
Sistrunk’s diagnosis was immediately followed with lumpectomy surgery that same month. Doctors then performed an oncotyping test, which is used to forecast the likelihood of a tumor’s return and make post-surgery treatment decisions. Further tests showed the cancer had not spread to Sistrunk’s lymph nodes.
“Once you beat your way through the surgery, you begin making so many decisions about the next step,” Sistrunk said. “My decision was to do everything I could do. I learned more about this disease than I would have ever dreamed of.”
Radiation and chemotherapy treatments followed for months after her surgery. Sistrunk said she was lucky because she did not suffer the debilitating side effects she feared, but the process still drained her of energy. Sistrunk continued on with her work and life as it was before cancer.
“Although the diagnosis sucked the air out of the room and forever changed who I am, I didn’t want it to define me (or) to be all that I am. Continuing to work and to be involved in volunteer work and the church was important.”
Besides the lack of energy, the treatments also caused hair loss.
“I was geared for thinking there would be hair loss. I got to the point I thought I was the lucky one who wouldn’t lose any. Then it just came out,” Sistrunk said. “I opted not to do the wig, but instead went with a cap. (Hair loss) for women is a big deal. I’d find myself going to the grocery store and think ‘Oh no, I forgot my hat,’ but then you get to that point where you don’t worry about it. Instead of vanity and inconvenience, I think the hair loss’ importance is that it is such an outward and visible symbol of the disease.”
Sistrunk finished her treatments in April, and all of her follow-up exams indicate she is still cancer free.
“My oncologist tells me to consider myself cured and let her worry about it,” Sistrunk said.
As Sistrunk moves on from the date of her diagnosis, she still has a tangible representation of her battle: a quarter-sized port on the left side of her chest used to deliver medicine directly to her body during treatments. The port will be removed by the end of the year.
“I find myself touching it constantly and I find that the seat belt bangs into it. It’s a constant reminder,” Sistrunk said. “I’m looking forward to having it removed and looking forward to the day I don’t think about it. I had someone tell me about the day where she didn’t think about having breast cancer. I’m looking forward to that point.”
Although her battle with cancer took its toll, Sistrunk said the situation enriched her life in a variety of ways.
“I encourage everybody to take time for themselves. It’s important to take care of yourself and have these regular tests. Had mine been discovered earlier, I might not have needed the chemo or radiation,” she said. “Thirty to 40 years ago, a diagnosis like this carried a much different weight, but now it’s even more treatable. I encourage women to stay on top of their health and get their routine tests taken care of.
“Every woman’s experience is her own. There’s no right or wrong way to handle the disease. Obviously, I’m still at the point where the disease is never far from the surface. Its importance is changing — I’m able to see the good it brought, too.” Sistrunk said. “I was very, very fortunate, and I remember all breast cancer patients and survivors in my prayers.”