When Kathy Bressler felt a sharp pain in her right breast, she assumed she’d pulled a muscle during hot yoga. Her husband feared it was cancer—a notion that Bressler, a nurse and chief operating officer for a hospital, shrugged off because most cancers cause no pain at all in their earliest stages.
“We [in healthcare] know that cancer doesn’t hurt,” she recalls.
When her husband sent a text the following day that read, “Get your boob checked,” Bressler asked a colleague at the hospital to perform an ultrasound.
Although she’d had a clean mammogram eight months earlier, the ultrasound showed a 1.7 cm, oddly shaped tumor in her breast. After a biopsy and an MRI, Bressler was diagnosed with triple-negative breast cancer: That meant her tumor wasn’t fueled by the hormones estrogen and progesterone or by a protein called HER-2, a situation that renders most conventional treatments ineffective.
The surgeon recommended a lumpectomy but Bressler, who lost both her mother and grandmother to breast cancer, opted for a double mastectomy. “I watched my mom struggle with one breast and the fear the cancer would come back, and I didn’t want to go through that,” she says.
It was a good call. Biopsies after surgery showed three more tumors in her right breast that didn’t show up during any of the screening tests.
Bressler underwent 23 weeks of chemotherapy and five weeks of radiation following her 2015 surgery. During treatment, she went for acupuncture sessions to help her deal with chemo-induced neuropathy and took supplements recommended by her naturopath; she also continued spending time on her yoga mat.
“My chemo nurse changed my schedule so I could get to hot yoga,” she says. “I felt like I was detoxing all of the crap from chemo out of my body during classes. It helped me stay fit, strong and confident.”
More than two years after her diagnosis, Bressler is cancer-free. She volunteers with Susan G. Komen, a breast cancer support and advocacy group, talking to women newly diagnosed with triple-negative breast cancer. She also participates in Komen’s Race for the Cure and has volunteered for medical studies to help researchers develop new treatments for the disease—all while feeling grateful for her “survivor” status.
“I’m more passionate now [about breast cancer prevention] than I’ve ever been, and I want women to know that life doesn’t end with the diagnosis,” Bressler says. “I’ll do anything I can in the hopes that my baby girl never has to deal with breast cancer.”
As a veteran of the United States Marine Corps and a martial arts practitioner, Michael Veltri knows about facing tough opponents—but cancer proved to be his most difficult battle.
“There is no plan B. You’re fighting for your life,” he says.
In 2003, Veltri made an appointment with his urologist after finding a lump on his right testicle; it was testicular cancer. Even though a CAT scan showed it hadn’t spread, the aggressive nature of this type of cancer meant Veltri had to make quick decisions about treatment: He underwent surgery to remove the testicle just 24 hours after diagnosis.
The surgery was successful. However, during a routine followup scan a few months later, Veltri learned that the cancer spread to his left lung; treatment included surgery and three months of chemotherapy.
Throughout treatment, Veltri brought friends to all of his medical appointments, saying, “You have to bring someone to take notes. You’re so shell-shocked that you can’t process everything; it sounded like the urologist and the oncologist were speaking a foreign language.”
Daily chemotherapy was difficult: Veltri spent time meditating, praying and reading Harry Potter novels. The support of loved ones and the nurses—whom Veltri calls “oncology angels”—helped pull him through.
Though he was too exhausted to participate in martial arts, Veltri, a fifth-degree black belt in Aikido and founder of DC Aikido Martial Arts, went to the dojo to watch students on the mats. “I wanted to be around people with positive energy,” he explains.
Medical treatments and a positive attitude turned out to be the right combination: Veltri would be declared cancer-free. Since then, he’s launched an inspirational speaking business and written a best-selling book. He has also devoted countless hours to volunteering with the American Cancer Society’s Road to Recovery program, driving cancer patients to chemotherapy appointments and using his positive outlook to inspire others fighting their own cancer battles.
“Your outlook is so important,” he says. “I went into this with the visceral feeling that everything will be OK. I trusted the doctors, treatments and God. If you don’t go into it with a sense of hope, there is no point.”
Kawana Williams assumed she was pregnant or having a miscarriage when she started experiencing nausea, vomiting, abdominal pain, fever and a distended stomach. After three weeks of dealing with discomfort, she went to the doctor and learned she had ovarian cancer.
The 2006 diagnosis was a shock. Williams was 22, a college student focused on earning a degree, not battling a potentially fatal disease.
“I remember thinking, ‘People die from ovarian cancer,’” she recalls. “I never thought it could happen to me.”
Williams was pursuing her degree at Fisk University in Nashville almost 500 miles from her family in Chicago. Instead of traveling home for treatment, she opted to stay on campus, where she says, “My friends and then-boyfriend and the administration at Fisk took care of me like family.”
After surgery to remove a 19.5-centimeter tumor on her ovary—which Williams compares to the size of a mature pineapple—she underwent 3.5 months of chemotherapy.
The chemo drugs killed the cancer but also sapped her spirit. Williams battled depression and insomnia; even after treatment ended, she felt “shell-shocked” and angry about the diagnosis. She turned to alcohol and drugs to numb the pain.
“I wish I’d known how to deal with the emotional anguish of cancer,” she says.
Years after being declared cancer-free, Williams still felt the emotional toll. A professor in graduate school suggested she make an appointment at the campus counseling center, and she agreed. There, she learned positive coping skills, including meditation, to help deal with her anger.
Dealing with the past also helped Williams chart a path for her future. She is back in Chicago pursuing a PhD in counseling, and plans to complete a dissertation on the mental health impacts of a cancer diagnosis.
Williams also volunteers with the National Ovarian Cancer Coalition and the nonprofit cancer support group, Gilda’s Club Chicago, educating others about the symptoms of ovarian cancer. It was important to Williams, who is African-American, to be visible in the community.
“There aren’t a lot of black women with ovarian cancer,” she says. “I felt really alone because no one I met while I was going through it looked like me. I want to do my part to make sure that no one feels like I did when I had ovarian cancer.”
Miguel Arellano tried antacids and Epsom salt baths in the hopes of easing rectal pain and pressure, but neither helped. The blood in his stool, which he assumed was from hemorrhoids, also persisted.
In 2015, Arellano went to a gastroenterologist who recommended a colonoscopy. The procedure uncovered a tumor causing a 75% blockage in his colon. The diagnosis: Stage 4 colorectal cancer.
“Cancer was not even on my radar,” he says.
A second scan showed the cancer had spread; there were several two-centimeter tumors in Arellano’s right and left lungs. The risk of the cancer cells spreading further made surgery too risky, so Arellano received radiation to help shrink the tumors.
Currently, Arellano is receiving a combination of chemotherapy infusions and oral chemotherapy drugs in the hopes of keeping the cancer from progressing. He hopes to get the cancer under control so surgery is eventually a possibility.
“We’re in maintenance mode. It might not sound like awesome news but I have a positive attitude,” he says. “Cancer is not a sprint, it’s a marathon. You have to pace yourself.”
Arellano wanted to work with a care team that took a holistic approach to battling cancer rather than piecing together care from an oncologist, naturopath, massage therapist and nutritionist in multiple practices. At Cancer Treatment Centers of America in Phoenix, Arizona, he explains, “Everybody talks to everybody to understand how all of the treatments work together and how I’m responding.”
In addition to treatments such as chemotherapy and radiation, Arellano also takes multiple supplements. Probiotics, vitamin D and charcoal caps help ease the side effects of treatments and ensure that underlying health issues, including persistent stomach issues not related to his disease, don’t prevent Arellano from focusing on beating cancer. The care team also includes a psychologist, who helped Arellano deal with mild depression triggered by the cancer diagnosis.
“Everybody is different and my fight is an individual fight,” Arellano says. “The strength I have to fight cancer comes from the God I believe in, my family and my treatment team. They will fight alongside me for as long as I’m willing to fight this awful disease, and that means so much to me.”
Oral Care During Cancer Treatment
Side effects can be caused by chemotherapy, radiation, pain medications and other treatments can cause pain, dryness and other oral symptoms. The following advice comes from United Concordia Dental (unitedconcordia.com):
Watch Your Diet
Try to eat foods that are soft, moist and high in protein, and take small bites, chewing slowly and sipping liquids with meals. Serve food warm, not hot, to avoid burning your mouth and avoid sharp, crunchy foods, like chips, that could cause scrapes or cuts your mouth. If you experience tooth sensitivity or mouth sores, avoid such extremes spicy, hot, cold, dry or salty. Rinse your mouth with water as soon as possible after eating or drinking.
Be especially aware of sugary and acidic foods and drinks, which can cause numerous oral health problems. You may be advised to suck on hard candies or popsicles during treatment to prevent some side effects; try sugar-free, low-acidity options when possible. Keep in mind that many beverages contain added sugar, and even sugar-free and all-natural varieties may be high in acid.
Limit your intake of milk, as it may produce thick saliva. But do look for foods that are rich in vitamin D and calcium, which can help your jaw and teeth stay strong. If you need to avoid dairy products, try fortified beverages and cereals, and ask your doctor if supplements are good options for you.
Keep Your Mouth—and the Rest of You—Hydrated
Drinking water throughout the day can help with dry mouth and other complications. Apply lip balm/moisturizer as needed. Suck on sugar-free tart, hard candies. Use a cool-mist humidifier at night. Ask your doctor or dentist about products like moisturizing gels and saliva substitutes if problems persist.
For overall hydration, drink plenty of fluids throughout the day – between 8 and 12 glasses – and limit alcohol. If you drink beverages other than water, rinse your mouth with water afterwards. Check with your doctor to see if you need to limit caffeine intake as well.
Practice Optimal Oral Hygiene
Brush your teeth two or three times a day, including after meals and before long periods of sleep. Use an extra-soft bristle toothbrush and fluoride toothpaste, and gently brush your gums and tongue along with your teeth. Carefully floss at least once a day, as long as your platelet count is satisfactory.
Avoid alcohol-based mouthwash. Instead, use a homemade mouth rinse: Combine 1 teaspoon baking soda and 1/4 teaspoon salt with 1 cup of warm water. Omit salt when experiencing mucositis (inflammation and ulcers of the gums, tongue or other mouth tissues). Rinse your mouth with this solution several times each day, followed by a plain water rinse. Talk to your dentist about supplemental fluoride options.
If brushing hurts, soften toothbrush bristles in warm water or consider buying a children’s toothbrush, which has the softest bristles. If your gums bleed and hurt, avoid those particular areas, but continue brushing and flossing everywhere else.
If you experience nausea or taste aversions, try using unwaxed floss, as this type usually doesn’t have added flavor. Many toothpaste flavors can also trigger nausea, so you may want to explore unflavored or mild options like mango.