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Living Fully Despite Breast Cancer

  • Kim Lewis

October is Breast Cancer Awareness month in the United States. The disease occurs when abnormal cells grow and invade healthy tissue, causing a lump or tumor. It usually strikes older women, but young women can also be at risk.

Jane Schwartzberg was a 31-year old newlywed when she was first diagnosed with breast cancer. With treatment and a determined and positive attitude she beat the disease and went on to have two children. Eleven years later at age 42, Schwartzberg found that the disease had returned as stage four metastatic cancer, meaning there is no cure. The cancer is now terminal. She recalled how she felt when she was first diagnosed with breast cancer.

“At the time that I was diagnosed, ironically, I felt great. I thought I was in the best health of my life, working out and taking care of myself, and eating healthy. But, I found a lump, and went to the doctor to have it checked out. And what I would tell someone who is newly diagnosed – I would tell someone that it’s not a death sentence. That being diagnosed -- there can be a very full wonderful life after being diagnosed,” recollected Schwartzberg.

She described symptoms which told her that something was wrong with her body.

“I started not feeling well, coughing a lot, being exhausted. I was having trouble getting up the stairs -- just really physically not feeling well at all. I started losing my voice. And I went through a lot of medical tests which diagnosed the cancer having returned,” said Schwartzberg.

Schwartzberg is now being treated for stage four metastatic cancer, but she said the treatment is different now than what it was when she was diagnosed over a decade ago.

“The first time I was diagnosed I went through what I would call the more traditional treatments -- chemotherapy. I lost my hair. I had a bilateral, which means on both sides, mastectomy. Right now, because now I have stage four, incurable breast cancer, I’m treated with simply an oral medication every day,” explained Schwartzberg.

She also pointed out cancer not only affects the person with the disease, it also affects friends and family. In a sense your loved ones too are also living with cancer.

“I would say for everyone it’s different. But, what I have found very helpful is that people not be insistent on taking me out, or driving me to the doctor, but rather quietly showing up, sometimes dropping off food, or maybe offering to come to doctors’ appointments. And I would say for the person who loves someone who is sick, to be sure to take really good care of themselves as well, because the medical challenges take a real toll on them as well,” emphasized Schwartzberg.

Schwartzberg is now at a point in her life where she said she lives her best life every single day. She said she wants to be an example to others of someone who is living a good life with cancer.

“What I mean is that I understand at the deepest, deepest level that we’re here just for a very short time. Because of that, I try very hard every day to find some real pleasure in my day. Even if it’s something very simple like taking a nice walk, watching my kids play, or having a good conversation with a friend. I really find pleasure and joy every single day, and I try to show up in my life as best I can, for work, for my family, for those I care about, because I’m hoping to be here for the next 50 years. And as long as the treatment keeps working, I have optimism and lots of hope. But I want to make the most of everyday,” she highlighted.

In addition, Schwartzberg advised all women should get to know their bodies, so they can detect any abnormalities.

“The best way to do that is a self- exam. It shouldn’t be in fact something done every day or every week. But every woman can become familiar with what her breasts feel like. Take three minutes in the shower, and just sort of monitor with her hands if there are any changes, if there are any lumps, if anything feels strange, or that shouldn’t be there. And if there is something, rather than have so much fear that it keeps you from acting on it, go to a clinic. Go see a doctor. Take care of it so that you have the best chance possible of being around for your loved ones,” said Schwartzberg.

While Schwartzberg’s disease is stabilized for now, she said she is fully aware that her condition can change at any moment. But she emphasized that having a positive attitude and a great support network of people allows her to make the best of every day.