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Patients — and their families — finding ways, resources to cope with a breast cancer diagnosis

Often times families and friends of breast cancer patients can feel isolated, frustrated and helpless. There is help available.

Soon after Leanna Blanchard and Brad Klein were married, the newlyweds were faced with Blanchard’s breast cancer diagnosis.
Soon after Leanna Blanchard and Brad Klein were married, the newlyweds were faced with Blanchard’s breast cancer diagnosis.
Victor Hilitski/For the Sun-Times

Just six months after Uptown residents Leanna Blanchard and Brad Klein were married, the newlyweds faced an unfathomable heartbreak — Blanchard’s breast cancer diagnosis.

The news hit especially hard because the newlyweds were 28 years old, Blanchard had no family breast-cancer history, and the disease had already spread to lymph nodes in her armpit.

“I have no significant family history or had any reason to suspect [that she would have cancer,” Blanchard said.

“We’d just had six months of marriage before we got the diagnosis,” Klein said. “We’d been dating a couple years before that. To try to comprehend that the honeymoon portion of your marriage can be cut short like that … it doesn’t sound right to hear those words when you’re that young. It sounded so foreign to hear she had cancer.”

The couple’s story is similar to so many others’: Patients and their families need ways and resources to cope with a breast cancer diagnosis.

Yet resources are scattered, sometimes too general to address specific needs, and often seeking them out is difficult to fit into a busy schedule.

Klein, director of paid social media for a Chicago digital marketing agency, soon discovered that few support groups existed for men — the husbands or significant others of women or men facing breast cancer — even though he’s adept at networking and working online.

“You’re expected to keep everything in order — while the biggest part of you is going through unknown territory,” he said.

Though Klein said he felt fortunate to be able to work from home, he also felt isolated, frustrated and helpless.

“It’s so difficult to watch the person you love go through this, and there’s absolutely nothing you can do but rub their back, rub their head and kind of be there,” he said. “You want to be able to physically fix it, to solve the problem.”

It started in February 2018, when Blanchard, a physical therapist, felt a hard lump near her armpit the size of a ping-pong ball while she was soaping up in the shower.

Blanchard had no primary doctor, so by the time she was able to get a mammogram two months later, she found out she had early-stage breast cancer that had spread to one of her lymph nodes.

Leanna Blanchard discovered a lump the size of a ping-pong ball in her ampit while taking a shower. A mammogram would later reveal early-stage breast cancer, which had spread to one of her lymph nodes.
Leanna Blanchard discovered a lump the size of a ping-pong ball in her ampit while taking a shower. A mammogram would later reveal early-stage breast cancer, which had spread to one of her lymph nodes.
Victor Hilitski/For the Sun-Times

The two medical opinions she sought — one from the University of Illinois at Chicago and the other at Rush University Medical Center — reached the same conclusion: Blanchard required chemotherapy and some type of surgery.

The couple, now 30, decided that Blanchard should have both breasts removed.

At the same time, they faced another challenge: They chose to freeze Blanchard’s eggs within a two-week time frame, just prior to her chemo treatments, so that they might one day have children. She had six rounds of chemotherapy every three weeks from May through August 2018. She took hormone injections for 10 days, which resulted in five eggs mature enough to freeze.

“Five eggs might not [be enough to] work,” Klein said. “That’s emotionally draining, too. As much as the physical stuff goes in waves, the emotional hurdles are always there.”

The couple remains optimistic they can have children of their own. But they must cope with the fact that Blanchard will take hormone-blocking drugs for the next five to 10 years because her cancer is the type fed by estrogen and progesterone.

“Some doctors say you can go off the hormone blockers after a few years; others say, no, you should continue for at least five years, if not longer, before you even think about stopping,” Klein said.

Blanchard found comfort in a group of young women affected by breast and gynecological cancers called The Breasties and a Chicago-based rowing team called Recovery on Water .

”It takes a village to get through cancer.” Blanchard said. “In the first six months of our marriage, Brad was proving true to every vow he made. I never questioned that he would be there. He was completely incredible.”

The couple urges women to get regular breast exams, and experts say Latinas, African Americans and others who live in underserved neighborhoods should go to healthcare sites that can provide comprehensive care — mammograms, exam diagnoses and any follow-up services required.

Leanna Blanchard and Brad Klein play with their dog Daisy at their apartment in Chicago’s Uptown neighborhood.
Leanna Blanchard and Brad Klein play with their dog Daisy at their apartment in Chicago’s Uptown neighborhood.
Victor Hilitski/For the Sun-Times

“Time is of the essence, particularly for young women of color who are at greater risk for aggressive breast cancer when compared with white women,” said Richard Warnecke, senior research associate at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

“Patients’ delays in diagnosis and treatment often result when the referral hospitals are not properly equipped to assist them and they may have to be referred several times.”

Delays are even more dire for women unable to get child care and/or days off without pay to even go to healthcare appointments, Warneke said.

Klein, who grew up using sign language with his parents, who happen to be deaf, found one coping outlet in his hobby — performing stand-up comedy routines and honing his improv comedy skills. He completed a year’s-long course at The iO Theater (formerly ImprovOlympic) and he’s now a student in Second City’s writing program.

“With my job and cancer, I have to think so far ahead,” Klein said. “With improv, you can’t plan more than one sentence ahead. … It helps you take a step back. You have to be in the ‘here and now’ and make a difference.”

“We tried to find the happy moments and to make a few well-timed jokes and bring positivity when we can,” he said.

The couple hopes to show others that they, too, can persevere in the face of a cancer diagnosis when they run in a fund-raising race that’s new to Chicago and aimed at boosting international research to fight metastatic breast cancer — the kind of cancer that spreads to other parts of the body. The kickoff of the Great Pink Run, comprising both a 5k and a 10k, will take place Oct. 5 at Diversey Harbor. The 10k will start at 8:30 a.m.; the 5k at 9:15 a.m.

Former Chicago Bears football player Desmond Clark will lead the 5k fun walk/run, and Irish Olympian and holder of the 5,000-meter World Champion title Sonia O’Sullivan will lead the 10k.

The goal is to attract 1,500 people and raise more than $100,000 for research that’s being conducted locally by Geoffrey Greene, Ph.D., co-director of the Ludwig Center for Metastasis Research at the University of Chicago.

Greene is working with Leonie Young, Ph.D., a professor at the Royal College of Surgeons in Dublin, Ireland, to conduct tests on laboratory mice to try to find a drug that could target metastatic tumors that have so far resisted therapy. The goal is to stop the cancer from spreading.

The research stems from an international symposium on the topic last year in Dublin.

“We thought it would be great to go [to Chicago] where there’s a running culture, a highly recognized breast cancer research center and a significant Irish-American population,” said Aisling Hurley, president of Research A Cure, which started the Great Pink Runs in Ireland.

The Great Pink Run focuses on a formidable disease, but promises to keep the atmosphere uplifting. As Aisling said, “We go pink-tastic for the day.”

NOTE: Women who are uninsured or underinsured can schedule a mammogram by filling out a form at www.chicagobreastcancer.org/free-mammogram or calling (312) 942-5599.

Sandra Guy is a local freelance writer.

Resources

A new Illinois nonprofit, Research A Cure aims to raise money for collaboration in breast cancer research between U.S. and Irish centers of excellence. Research A Cure is the nonprofit bringing the Great Pink Run to Chicago.

The Chicago Great Pink Run, comprising a 10k and a 5k, takes place Oct. 5 at Diversey Harbor to raise money for research into metastatic breast cancer. It is the first Great Pink Run outside of Ireland, where the run started. Thirty percent of breast-cancer cases diagnosed in Ireland are women 20 to 50 years old, according to Breast Cancer Ireland.

The Breasties: A nonprofit support group of young women affected by breast and gynecological cancers

Redefined Courage: Nonprofit group that provides free post-op shirts made specifically for women fighting breast cancer and who’ve had breasts removed.

Courage for the Soul: Chicago-based foundation that provides a free “Scarf of Courage” to women experiencing hair loss from chemotherapy.

Recovery on Water: A Chicago-based rowing team for breast-cancer survivors

State-by-state report on critical issues facing cancer patients and survivors;

Chicago Cancer Health Equity Collaborative (ChicagoCHEC): Partnership among Northwestern University, Northeastern Illinois and the University of Illinois at Chicago to make healthcare more equitable through education, training, scientific discovery and community engagement.

Equal Hope/Metropolitan Chicago Breast Cancer Task Force: Addressing women’s health holistically with the goal of eliminating inequities in prevention, screening, diagnosis, treatment, and survivorship for all women.

Gilda’s Club: Programs for men, women, children, and their families and friends whose lives have been impacted by any kind of cancer.

University of Chicago Medicine’s list of resources: Support programs for patients and caregivers

Imerman Angels: Chicago-based one-on-one support for patients and caregivers

National Breast Cancer Foundation, Inc.: Resource center for cancer awareness, treatment, support