We Learn From Eachother
By Pat Battaglia
The gently smiling face of Barbara O’Connell is a frequent and welcome sight at our Common Ground table. It was an honor to sit down with her and listen as she spoke of the joys and challenges of her life; a life well lived…with metastatic breast cancer.
A diagnosis of breast cancer is always unwelcome. But Barbara O’Connell’s original diagnosis came at an especially bad time: in the immediate aftermath of her mother’s death in 2005. “I actually was in Syracuse for her service when I got a phone call to come back in [to the imaging center] for additional scans after my mammogram. That was definitely out of the blue,” she recalled. “The tumor was not palpable, so it wasn’t anything I was aware of.”
As soon as she could, Barbara underwent additional testing and biopsies that revealed early-stage breast cancer. She underwent a lumpectomy and qualified to receive a specialized, targeted form of radiation therapy called MammoSite*, which was brand-new at the time. When her radiation therapy ended, Barbara’s treatment was finished. However, after reading a magazine article about lymphedema and realizing she might be at risk for the condition, she approached her surgeon for a referral to a physical therapist/lymphedema specialist. In an effort to gather as much information as she could, Barbara also attended an evening seminar at the Coalition at which her physical therapist spoke; this was her introduction to our organization. But it would be a long time before she walked through our doors again.
Life went on for Barbara and her family and good times returned. But there were exquisitely painful times as well. “We went through a lot of profound sadness because of the death of my eighteen-year-old granddaughter in 2013, followed in 2015 by the death of my daughter – my granddaughter’s mother – from gynecologic cancer,” she shared. The family coped as best they could, forging deep bonds through their shared loss.
In 2017, Barbara consulted her doctor about abdominal pain she was experiencing. Cancer was the furthest thing from her mind. But imaging showed masses in her liver that, when biopsied, proved to be metastatic breast cancer. Revealing this news to her loved ones was particularly difficult. “Having to tell my family that I had a diagnosis of metastatic cancer was not something I wanted for them. I didn’t want my family to have to go through cancer again.”
But Barbara and her family rallied as best they could as she prepared for her first chemotherapy treatment. When an uncommon reaction to her chemo drugs meant hospitalization for Barbara, she and her doctors worked together to adjust her medications and the dosages of those medications so her treatment could continue without further incident. This has proved to be an ongoing challenge, as Barbara’s body reacts strongly to many chemo drugs. Still, her chemotherapy has continued, although with occasional delays.
She takes it all in stride. Her family ties help. “I have two little great-grandchildren. They keep me laughing,” she beamed. “It helps that I’m feeling okay. I’m tolerating the side effects of my treatment well. Those side effects don’t keep me from being able to do anything.”
In the spring of 2018, Barbara attended her first Common Ground lunch. “I still keep coming!” she exclaimed. “It’s a wonderful group of women. We learn from each other through sharing and listening. Everyone’s story is different, and you might learn something you didn’t know. It helps each of us to cope with the anxiety and fear and stress that come with this diagnosis. A lot of that has an opportunity to be relieved through sharing it with a group of people who know what you’re going through.”
“We’re living with uncertainty, but living,” Barbara continued. “As daunting as that seems, you can figure out how to live with metastatic breast cancer. Each of us does it a little differently. The reality may be what it is but you can feel happiness at the same time. You can wake up every morning with a smile on your face and go to bed at night saying ‘Thank you, thank you.’”
Ever grateful, ever living life to the fullest, Barbara deftly navigates the uncertain waters of metastatic breast cancer. Although no one chooses to live with this diagnosis, she reminds us that the choice of HOW to live with it is within our grasp.
* A targeted form of partial breast radiation.