Georgene Rice of KPDQ-FM interviews Yvonne Ortega, author of “Finding Hope for your Journey Through Breast Cancer”, a survivor herself, she offers helpful and practical advice.
Georgene: First, let’s discuss how you learned you had breast cancer, how did you find out and what that was like?
Yvonne: I was changing in front a mirror and I felt a lump, hard as a rock and let me tell you, I trembled from head to foot. I called the doctor immediately and I was in the next day. The doctor ordered a mammogram, an ultrasound, and an appointment with the surgeon….It was the ultrasound that showed it.
Georgene: Did you discover the lump visibly or by feeling it?
Yvonne: I saw it…I cannot explain it, all I can say is that I thank God that I saw it. I felt it and I immediately called the doctor.
Georgene: Many women may detect that there is something wrong, but they are reluctant to contact the doctor. What do you say to the woman who knows there is a problem but is too fearful to call the doctor and address it.
Yvonne: The fear is far greater than the actual thing. It’s better to know exactly where you stand and get going to do something. The sooner you face the problem, the sooner you can solve it.
Georgene: You write about your personal journey through cancer. You were in fact diagnosed with breast cancer. You felt a feeling of powerlessness, of helplessness and fear through the diagnosis. Describe how you felt in the days following the diagnosis.
Yvonne: I rode an emotional roller coaster. Initially, it was extreme fear: Will I die? Then it was anger: Why is this happening to me? Then it was acceptance, and then I could move forward. That fear almost swallowed me up initially.
Georgene: You found what was necessary to move forward. Talk about why you feel it’s important to share your story and to provide some practical help for other women who discover that they too have something disconcerting that needs to be followed up with.
Yvonne: Sometimes as Christians, we have false thinking that we must be perfect. We cannot express fear or depression and if we do, we will ruin our testimony and God won’t love us. That’s simply not true. I felt strongly about writing a book that address that emotional roller coaster from a Christian perspective. Yes, it’s a life-threatening disease, but it’s not a death sentence.
Georgene: You write about being overwhelmed with the flood of information that comes with the diagnosis. How did you handle absorbing all of the information that you were given throughout your treatment?
Yvonne: So I was going home with this huge stack of material and I looked my friend, Nancy and said, “This is ridiculous”. Then I got home and I decided that I will take one thing at a time. Since chemotherapy comes before radiation, I will start with that and I will read a little each day based on where I am in that journey.
Georgene: Small bites over a long period of time, right?
Yvonne: If you try and take much more that, then we’re overwhelmed and we’re scared too.
Georgene: You also talk about feeling the freedom to cry in the midst of your circumstances. Was that crying you did around others or alone?
Yvonne: I knew that were certain people who I could cry in front of, same people. And there were others I wouldn’t even think of shedding a tear. And then there were many times I did cry by myself. God made us with tearducts. And Jesus wept when Lazarus died. When the people were saying goodbye to Paul, they cried….It’s all over scripture for us to say, it is ok, God will still love me.
Georgene: You went from diagnosis to surgery in a very short period of time. Talk about that journey. How was that for you and what do you recommend?
Yvonne: I knew that I wanted that cancer out of me as soon as possible. It was Christmas time so two days before Christmas, I had the surgical biopsy…Once I received the results in the new year, I moved forward…Looking back, I’m so glad I did it that way. I didn’t want it to worry me.
Georgene: Did you ever have trouble accepting help from others during your recovery?
Yvonne: Cancer is not a journey we can do alone and I learned that. I realized that it was far more than I could handle on my own. The doctor told me you will have someone with you around the clock the first week. I looked at him and said, “I’m an adult, I don’t need a babysitter.” And he said, “You will have help or you will stay in the hospital”.
Georgene: Why did he think that was important for you? For physical care? For moral support?
Yvonne: For everything. There is a lot of mobility that is lost in that surgery. I really did need the help. I could not dress or undress by myself.
Georgene: Did you have any difficulty accepting that help?
Yvonne: Once I realized how bad it was, I had no trouble saying that I needed help.
Georgene: Did you feeling hopeless or discouraged in the surgery or the treatment that followed?
Yvonne: After the second chemotherapy I felt that I was doing so well that didn’t need the seven days of the neupogen shots and I turned neutropenic, which means my blood counts were way down, almost to the death point. I was hospitalized for a week. Normal is between 4,000 and 11,000 and my counts were at 500…The next day they dropped and the day after that they dropped again. I got really discouraged and I called my parents and said, “I think you need to come here”. And I started crying and my mom told me to fight. I said, “I have nothing left to fight”. I stopped and thought that God would fight for me. In scripture it says, “the battle belongs to the Lord”. And that’s what I took hope in.
Georgene: Your book is designed to be inspirational as people walk through their journey. Describe to our listeners the outline and how it’s designed to be that kind of encouragement and support.
Yvonne: I divided the book into four sections. Diagnosis, Surgery, Treatment and Recovery. Each of the chapters is extremely short and I did that deliberately because of when people are going through surgery and treatment, they want a nugget of hope. They don’t have the time or the desire to read long chapters or something as big as an encyclopedia. Each chapter starts with a hope builder, it’s the scripture reading for that chapter. There’s an application for the reader in each of those chapters.
Georgene: You write about how some people considered it their duty to tell you why you had cancer. Talk a little about people who were helpful or unhelpful.
Yvonne: The helpful people prayed with me, brought meals over, cleaned my house for me, worked in my yard, call me from the grocery store, the post office, asking what I needed. The ones who were not helpful mentioned a Grandmother who had cancer and I asked, “How is she doing?”, and they, “Oh, she died.” How do they think they are blessing me by telling me about all these people who died? And there were others who told it was my fault because I had stress in my life. It was my fault because there was unforgiveness and sin…Those things were not helpful.
Georgene: What do you suggest that someone do if a friend approaches them with that kind of unhelpful advice?
Yvonne: The only thing I could think is that in their own way, they are trying to help. So say thank you and walk away.
Georgene: You write about the four responses you have when you discover cancer. What are those four responses?
Yvonne: One is denial, if I don’t talk about it, then maybe it’ll go away. The other is the fear of the negativity. Another one is anger, we’re angry at God. The last one is hope, and we realize that this has been filtered through God’s fingers of love and he is our hope.
Georgene: What part of your experience of cancer was the hardest to deal with?
Yvonne: Losing my hair, eyebrows and eyelashes and I wore a wig and I wanted to continue to work so I had a wear a surgical mask and gloves to work. I felt a freak of a side show the first day I went. But I did it. I knew that if I stayed home, then I would just worry and if the cancer wouldn’t kill, then my fear of depression would.
Georgene: You write about the five things that help you cope with the reality. What are those five things?
Yvonne: The first one is to avoid isolation, join a cancer support group…Nurture your spirit, listen to music…Keep a gratitude journal and see what God does for us each day.
Georgene: What did you look forward to most after you final treatment?
Yvonne: I had two things planned and the first was to go to Maine to teach a workshop for writers and I would be people who I knew and loved. And the second, that I finish my residency and take the exams to become a licensed professional counselor and then have a big party. I planned the invitations, the cake…and I even hired a professional photo journalist. And I marked the day.
Georgene: How important do you think the planning ahead is during the chemotherapy, the radiation?
Yvonne: It’s crucial. I just remember this is only for a season, this isn’t for the rest of our lives. Let’s plan something wonderful. Then we can get through it a lot easier.
Georgene: What is the one piece of advice you would give someone?
Yvonne: I would never ever give up hope and hang on as tightly as you can to God.
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