A Breast Cancer Survivor Goes the Distance with Her SonSep 26, 2008
While on vacation in Prague in May 2005, Colleen Creamer accidentally found a lump in her breast while taking a shower. She was surprised because she had had a breast exam at her annual OB/GYN visit 5 months earlier. She wasn't aware of any family history of breast cancer and had had her annual mammogram the previous May, at age 40.
The first thing Creamer did upon returning home to Framingham, Mass. was call her doctor's office and schedule an appointment for the same day. Her doctor referred her for a mammogram, which was also scheduled quickly.
Creamer started to suspect something was wrong when the technician at the mammogram office asked her to take her films and drive immediately to the ultrasound office across town. That uneasy feeling continued to grow at the ultrasound office.
"They kept saying, 'We don't know what it is,'" she recalls. "The technician didn't say anything, but I could literally see the pity in her eyes. Even though I didn't know it was cancer, I knew it was cancer in my heart, you know. They weren't acting with such expediency and urgency if they really thought it was nothing."
On her way home, Creamer's primary care physician called her cell phone and told her, "You need to make an appointment with a breast surgeon. Do you need referrals for an oncologist?"
"It wasn't until I heard that word that I knew I had cancer," she says. By that time, she was at home standing in her driveway so that her son Warren wouldn't overhear the conversation.
"The whole thing was just very shocking," she says. "I thought I was very prepared. But when the doctor said, 'You have cancer,' it was still shocking to me. You can't ever really be prepared for someone to say those words to you."
On the Road to Recovery
Creamer met with a breast surgeon to review her treatment plan. She had triple negative breast cancer, an aggressive breast cancer whose cells lack estrogen receptors and progesterone receptors, and do not have excess numbers of the HER2 protein on their surfaces.
Breast cancers with these characteristics tend to occur more often in younger women and in African-American women, and they tend to grow and spread more quickly than most other types of breast cancer. Because the tumor cells lack these receptors, neither hormone therapy, like tamoxifen and aromatase inhibitors, nor drugs that target HER2, like trastuzumab (Herceptin) or lapatinib (Tykerb), are effective against these cancers (although chemotherapy may be useful).
By early July, Creamer had had 3 surgeries and had begun 4 months of chemotherapy. She finished her last chemo infusion at the end of October 2005, just shy of her 42nd birthday. After 7 weeks of radiation, she was finished with treatment.
"I was no longer a cancer patient," she notes, "but had started, very tenuously, the rest of my journey – that of a breast cancer survivor."
The Rest of Her Journey
It can be a rocky road, admits Creamer about dealing with the stress of monitoring her body for symptoms of a recurrence. At follow-up appointments, she waits anxiously to hear that she is still NED, which stands for "No Evidence of Disease."
That's the best you can hope for, she says.
Creamer is committed to educating others about breast cancer and the importance of following breast cancer screening guidelines. The American Cancer Society recommends yearly mammograms and clinical breast exams for women 40 and older, and recommends all women be familiar with how their breasts normally look and feel. Any changes or unusual symptoms should be reported to a doctor right away.
Creamer feels she was lucky to find the lump in her own breast because of the aggressive nature of her breast cancer.
"I had no idea there were different types of breast cancer," she says. "I thought breast cancer was breast cancer. Many breast cancers are caught early. You get your treatment and you can feel largely confident that you'll be fine. But I didn't have that kind of cancer."
A Heartfelt Show of Support
I'm just a regular person who got breast cancer. Everyone who has been affected by breast cancer is just a 'regular person.' Moms, daughters, sisters and best friends – this disease is non-discriminating.
In August of 2005, her friend Laurie asked her if she could form a team for the American Cancer Society's Making Strides Against Breast Cancer walk in Boston. She wanted to call it "Colleen's Dream Team."
Creamer responded that she would be honored, but wasn't sure she'd be able to help out or even walk with the team since she was still undergoing treatment.
The next morning she told her son Warren, 9 at the time, about the plans for the walk and he immediately said, "Great! I'll do it!"
Warren set a goal of raising $200 and sent emails to family and close friends. He and his mom were surprised and delighted by the outpouring of support from friends, family, neighbors, co-workers and complete strangers.
Warren ended up raising more than $3000, making him the youngest Pacesetter (a title given to those who raise more than $2000 individually or $15,000 as a team) in the history of the Boston Making Strides walk. The mom-and-son pair was invited to speak together at the kick-off breakfast and at a local high school assembly about what it's like to have a mom diagnosed with breast cancer.
On a cold and gray Sunday morning that October, 20 people walked as part of Colleen's Dream Team, helping to raise about $8000.
The following year, Creamer was able to join Colleen's Dream Team for the walk. It has become an annual tradition for the mother and son; Warren has recruited his friends to participate as well.
Warren, now 12, loves football, snowboarding and his scooter. He likes drama and played Linus in a school production of "You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown."
"I don't have words to express how proud I am of him," says Creamer. "I can't even put it into words how wonderful it's been, our association with the Making Strides walk. It's changed this cancer experience. Walk day is his second favorite day in the year after Christmas."
"I'm just a regular person who got breast cancer," she adds. "Everyone who has been affected by breast cancer is just a 'regular person.' Moms, daughters, sisters and best friends – this disease is non-discriminating."
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