In 2011, I was diagnosed with Stage 4 inflammatory breast cancer. I was 40 years old.
My initial reaction was profound sadness. My mom died of breast cancer when she was just 36 years old. Not only was I scared, I hated that I was going to put my family through the pain we had all gone through when she was diagnosed. I have never been one to dwell on the negative, so I immediately focused on my next steps.
My initial diagnosis was at a large university hospital in Chicago. Simply put, it was a terrible experience. The oncologist’s bedside manner was well … there was none, unless “cold and clinical” counts as a bedside manner. Not only that, there was no conversation about how I might overcome cancer; instead, it was strictly about quality of life. I wanted to fight this disease, and I knew I needed a team behind me to make that happen. I was already familiar with the Block Center because a family member had been treated there years earlier. What stuck with me is that long after she was in remission, she continued to follow their diet, supplement program and other recommended protocols. She did so well and felt good for so long that I knew there had to be something special about their approach to care.
After my first appointment at the Block Center, I was 100% sure I wanted to be their patient. I vividly recall Dr. Block saying to me “I don’t think I can cure you, but I can turn this into a chronic condition.” That was exactly what I wanted to hear. Even though I knew I wanted the “integrative” part of their program, I wondered if I wouldn’t be better off having chemotherapy and any other necessary treatments at one of the other large university hospitals. I suppose my thinking was that they could offer options the Block Center didn’t have. I quickly found out that I was wrong; if anything, the Block Center could offer me far more than any of the university hospitals I’d visited I had two additional consults at the largest university hospitals in the Chicago area. Once again, the message from the university hospitals was “it’s no longer about quantity of life, but quality of life.” When I brought up the other aspects of care that the Block Center included in their treatment protocols, and why I believed them to be important, I was immediately dismissed with “Do not go there.” That made me even more determined to listen to my gut and go to the Block Center. I also liked the idea of getting all my care under one roof.
My first treatment was in December 2010. Since this initial treatment lasted 18 months, I was so grateful I chose the Block Center. I particularly enjoyed the cooking demonstrations. They were extremely helpful as I transitioned to a healthier way of eating. They exposed me to a lot of new recipes and many other healthy ideas. I met with a dietitian weekly, and I don’t know how I would have made the transition without her support and knowledge. To this day, I don’t eat anything with sugar and I don’t eat processed foods. My diet isn’t perfect but I continually work to do better. I also take the recommended supplements, which sometimes change as I get tested and Dr. Block reevaluates the latest research.
In 2015, I came upon a non-profit organization, Recovery On Water (ROW). It’s a rowing group for survivors of breast cancer! This organization has not only encouraged me to be more active, it has served as a support group of sorts. The founders started it to empower breast cancer patients and survivors to become active in their recovery while gaining support from fellow survivors. While exercise is helpful to patients fighting cancer as well as reducing the risk of recurrence, research has found this to be especially true for people with breast cancer. Though we’ve had to modify our group outings due to COVID, we have practice on the water twice a week, and virtual or in-person classes 10 times a week. I love rowing and all the people ROW has brought into my life. I encourage others battling cancer to find physical activities they enjoy and support in whatever form works for them. It can really make a difference!
For a long time, I didn’t have any disease inside my body. The inflammatory part of the disease would come back when we stopped more significant treatment. I’m currently on two chemotherapies and immunotherapy, but I feel great and have been able to work throughout my treatment. A couple of scans ago, they found a small growth on my ureter. At the moment, I have evidence of cancer, and know that we may soon have to change my treatment protocol. I’m hopeful that we will come up with the next cocktail of meds that will get me back to “no evidence of disease.”
This leads me to the other thing that is so impressive about the Block Center, they never say “oh, ok, you’re in trouble, there’s nothing else we can do.” When I have side effects from the current treatment, they always try new things. They never give up. I know if I had gone to a different hospital, they would have given up by now. At the Block Center, I know we are in this together. When they say “we are your partners in care,” they mean it. Throughout my time here, my quality of life has been paramount to them.
What I tell cancer patients now is to advocate for themselves. If I hadn’t done that, I probably would have died 10 years ago. To someone newly diagnosed, the most important thing I would say is, “don’t look at the survival statistics.” I wasn’t remotely interested in them, but when I looked – some 3-4 years after I was first diagnosed – I saw that my diagnosis had an expected 22 months life expectancy. I’m glad I didn’t see that when I was first diagnosed and I would encourage anyone with a new diagnosis to not pay attention to those statistics. Truly, they are not relevant. I am living proof of that.
By: Brigid Reilly, an inspirational Block Center patient