Breast cancer survivor tells her story, recovery at Bliss Center

Kyle Miller

When Judith Albright, 67, of Ames, was diagnosed with an aggressive form of breast cancer in its second stage in late September 2005, she reacted like anyone else would have.

“It was a kind of disbelief. I cried once, you know, but that was just a moment of pain,” Albright said. “But I just guess that I had faith that it would work out.”

Albright had been adamant about getting mammograms checkups yearly and had only had an aunt on her maternal side contract breast cancer. She had friends who had contracted cancer as well, and all but two of them had succumbed to the disease. In fact, a co-worker of hers developed breast cancer at the same time.

“It was really odd [to have a situation like that],” Albright said. “All my friends that have had cancer, besides two, have died.”

Albright had a pre-cancerous lump removed in 2002, and it wasn’t until late 2005 when another lump grew rapidly.

Two weeks later, Albright went through a mastectomy of her left breast, removing a sample of the tumor. The cancer had invaded two lymph nodes; the doctors removed a total of three. The treatments started with the implanting of a “port” into the area around her left breast, which allowed for a much smoother delivery of the chemotherapy.

She said that having a light-hearted attitude was the best way to deal with the news.

“It’s life, you know. I believe if you can’t laugh, you’re lost,” Albright said.

Albright had endured 16 weeks and eight treatments of chemotherapy when doctors started her on a fairly new drug treatment called Herception. Albright then took 17 treatments of Herception.

“I got really sick and was nauseous all the time. It was just like being pregnant again,” Albright said with a laugh. “You know, they can tell you when your hair will fall and, sure enough, three days after my first treatment it started falling out. Luckily, it was in the shower. I called my husband and he shaved my head.”

Albright said she felt sick all the time, which was the complete opposite of her co-worker, who had a less aggressive type of breast cancer and received the same cocktail of drugs for treatment. Albright said that while she lost 30 pounds, her friend gained 30 pounds.

“Everybody reacts to the drugs differently,” she said.

After taking four shots of a drug called Taxol, Albright developed neuropathy, which she said has left her fingers permanently numb.

“It felt like a burning sense in my fingers but my feet are blocks of ice,” Albright said.

Albright said that one of the most unfortunate side effects of the cancer was the fact that her husband couldn’t help her during her sickness.

“I think it’s harder for the spouses. It’s like a helpless feeling, and he would say, ‘What can I do to make it better?’ and [of] course, he can’t,” Albright said.

Albright said she felt sick constantly for 10 straight weeks.

After the fourth treatment of Herception, her cancer went into remission, which left Albright in what is called the “survivorship phase.”

That is where Mary Greeley Medical Center’s William R. Bliss Cancer Center comes in – that sometimes awkward transition phase from cancer sufferer to cancer survivor.

The Bliss Center, 1111 Duff Ave., which was developed by Cancer Resource Center Coordinator Marry Ellen Carano and Dr. Larry Otteman, opened more than four years ago. It specializes in giving information and counseling to cancer survivors who found themselves lost after treatment.

“The Bliss Center gives services that puts control back to the patients so they know what to expect in the future,” Carano said.

William R. Bliss, a former surgeon and oncologist, died of cancer.

The program starts after the patient completes a three-month after-remission follow-up with Otteman, wherein patients are given a detailed report of all their symptoms, exact amount of treatments, possible late effects and any concerns the patient might have are addressed. This is followed by an interview with Carano, where she addresses patients’ social, emotional, genetic, sexual and supportive issues. The center then disseminates information from Livestrong and a 10 CD-ROM set that helps survivors with everyday issues, such as diet and exercise.

“Survivorship is a big issue for patients. We have a 50 percent cancer survival rate [in America],” Carano said. “The Bliss Center is the first in Iowa to provide this type of program.”

Albright reiterated what a great feeling it is to “not be alone” as a cancer survivor and that her life has returned to “normal.”

“It’s wonderful to have people to support you. I think we are so lucky to have the Bliss Center here in Ames,” Albright said. “I’m feeling pretty confident now.”