October 26, 2016
After 10 years remission, Shantell Cox-Hutchinson was declared cancer free after her initial stage four breast cancer diagnosis. Last year, the mother of five year-old son underwent a double mastectomy as a preventative measure after a test showed some calcification. As breast cancer awareness month is observed, the member of Sister, Sister (Breast) Cancer Support Group says one of the things the group advocates is that early detection and education save lives.
Mothers look forward to their children's milestones -- their progression from birth to the toddler stage, then onto adulthood, and eventually the children becoming parents themselves, and the cycle taking place all over again. Shantell Cox-Hutchinson is one of those mothers. She's looking forward to the day her son Ethan Hutchinson makes her a grandmother. And while it may sound simplistic in itself, Cox-Hutchinson's life is certainly not.
She was diagnosed with stage-four breast cancer at age 34 in 2005, and went through 10 years without relapsing. She was declared cancer free. Now that she has been living 11 years cancer free, she has set her sights on living out what she was promised in the Bible -- three score and 10, and seeing her grandchildren.
"I never doubted that I would still be around, because after five years [in remission] there was nothing. And in the last five years I've felt good -- I haven't had any issues or concerns, other than a little calcification," said Cox-Hutchinson.
When that area of concern presented itself on a test, Cox-Hutchinson made a preventative measure decision last year and underwent a double mastectomy with reconstruction surgery.
The cancer survivor said getting to the 10-year mark meant that she was truly a survivor.
"It significantly says that cancer is not a death sentence, regardless of the statistics and regardless of what they say. At stage four, they will tell you you're going to die. I'm living proof that with the right partnerships, the right support system and enough interest in your own welfare, that you can survive cancer. You can live long enough to be a testament," she said.
In her battle to remain cancer free, Cox-Hutchinson had to alter her lifestyle in a number of ways to improve her chances of beating the disease. A cancer diagnosis, she said, means that a person has to make a conscious decision to change the way they live -- not only physically, but mentally as well.
"You have to now begin to know when enough is enough with the stress factor. You have to know about better eating choices... You have to know when to take a break from all the stressors in life."
For her a significant change was that family became more important. Cox-Hutchinson said they helped her to focus on what was truly important.
"You will change your eating habits, change your exercise plan and do all the things that you need to do to survive for them.
In making the necessary adjustments to her life, she said food was the hardest thing to give up.
"I had to make a conscious decision to eat fruits and vegetables over eating peas and rice, macaroni and potato salad every day. You have a treat day, of course, and my eating habits are still not the best, but it has improved. They say that some foods contribute to cancer... you're not sure, but you still try to avoid them, and you try to cut back on all of those things. But the hardest thing for me was the food."
Studies suggest that food choices may affect the risk for recurrence and survival among survivors. The best protection comes from a diet that is high in fruits, vegetables and whole grains and includes more fish and poultry, while cutting back on red and processed meats. Non or low-fat dairy products and nuts and healthy oils are also encouraged.
Cox-Hutchinson said taking time to de-stress and time for herself has improved her life tremendously.
"I was always an advocate of, if your mind is good, you can beat anything, and if your mind is not and you're stressing and worried it brings on so many different illnesses. For me, I take more time out now to do me. I go to the spa. I take time to read. I take time out for it to be just me in the house by myself sleeping."
Her son Ethan, who Cox-Hutchinson said is five going on 95, also helps her to de-stress, so she spends a lot of time with him.
"I don't know how to play baseball, but I spend a lot of time in the backyard playing baseball. I don't know how to swim, but he's learning how to swim, so I stand in the little pool and say 'Swim to mommy'... so those are things that help me put a different perspective on it. He's been a tremendous help."
With a new milestone set to see her grandchildren, she said that means she plans on being around for a long time.
"One of my milestones when I was first diagnosed was to see my nieces and nephew graduate high school. This year, the last two graduated high school and have gone on to college. My next milestone is to see grandkids."
But she does not expect to see those grandchildren before her son is at least 30, if is she has anything to say about it. Or, as she put it, "If I let him loose by then."
In the meantime she has plans to celebrate her 46th birthday in grand style in December.
As breast cancer awareness month is recognized during October, Cox-Hutchinson, a member of Sister Sister (Breast) Cancer Support Group, says the group advocates that early detection and education save lives.
As the awareness month comes to a close, she said for breast cancer survivors, breast cancer is everyday.
"Every day you have to make a conscious decision about what to do to improve the longevity of your life. It's not just about recognition and awareness in October. Every day for a survivor is a day to celebrate and a day to make sure that you make decisions that will increase your lifespan. So if you know a survivor, don't just think about cherishing them or talking to them in October -- try to make a conscious decision to talk to them every day, because every day is a battle. Once you've gone through this, there's not a day that you don't wake up without having that cancer thing in the forefront of your mind."
As she looks to assist people who are newly diagnosed and battling for their lives, through Sister Sister, Cox-Hutchinson said it's alarming for her and her fellow "sisters" to see new faces at every meeting.
Sister Sister is the brainchild of Dr. Locksley Munroe and Dr. Charles Diggiss. It was formed in 2000 as a non-profit charitable group for women diagnosed with breast chancer. In addition to assisting with mental and spiritual needs of the membership, financial assistance is also offered to those in need through the purchase of port-a-caths -- a medical device used by the oncologist to administer chemotherapy -- and is seen as the first step in helping women fight breast cancer. Monetary donations are also made to assist members with the cost of medication, medical exams and some day-to-day necessities. Each newly diagnosed patient receives a gift bag containing information on patient care, a squeeze ball for exercise, information on prostheses and contact information for members of the group.
Cox-Hutchinson said every year in the last five years Sister Sister has seen an increase in the number of ports they have had to give out. To date, she said they have given out 98 ports - a significant number. She said they have also seen an increase in the age bracket of women they have given ports to. The eldest was 75; the youngest port recipient this year was 18.
The results of a years-long breast cancer research released in 2011 showed The Bahamas with a high incidence of early onset breast cancer with six distinct BRCA 1 mutations found in patients from cancer families in the country.
The study was of 214 Bahamian women with invasive cancer, unselected for age or family history of cancer. They were screened for six mutations in the BRCA 1 gene that had previously been reported in cancer patients from The Bahamas.
The team -- Talia Donenberg and Judith Hurley (Sylvester Comprehensive Cancer Center, University of Miami); John Lunn (Doctors Hospital); DuVaughn Curling and Theodore Turnquest (Princess Margaret Hospital); Elisa Krill-Jackson (Mount Sinai Comprehensive Cancer Center, Miami); and Robert Royer and Steven A. Narod (Women's College Research Institute, Toronto, Canada) --found that a mutation was identified in 49 of the breast cancer patients (23 percent). They found the mutation frequency was particularly high in women diagnosed before age 50 (33 percent) in women with a first-degree relative with breast or ovarian cancer (41 percent) and in women with bilateral breast cancer (58 percent).
The study showed approximately 23 percent of unselected cases of breast cancer in the Bahamian population attributable to a founder mutation in the BRCA1 gene -- the highest reported mutation prevalence for any country studied to date. The result of the study was that genetic testing for the mutations was advised for all women diagnosed with breast cancer in The Bahamas.
Shavaughn Moss, Guardian Lifestyles Editor
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