Cancer: one of the most dreaded words you can hear from a doctor.
And even for those who have made it through the rough patch of countless treatments and surgeries, it’s a lifelong battle.
Survivor Janet Nitschke shares, even seven years later, she’s still not in the clear.
Nitschke is a North Dakota native and 22-year veteran from Underwood.
“I lost both of my parents from cancer when I was in my 20s and I have battled breast cancer two times now in my 30s,” she explained.
She actually discovered a lump in 2013 while stationed across the country with the North Dakota National Guard.
“After surgery, chemotherapy, reconstruction surgery, and hormone therapy, I felt a second lump,” Nitschke said.
I asked her: “How did that feel?” …Feeling like you made it through the worst part of it, and then realizing, ‘I might have to go through it all over again’.
“Oh, it was actually… it was devastating,” Nitschke responded.
Four years later, Nitschke still isn’t in remission. She’s under surveillance, getting checkups every six months.
“I’ve been fortunate to beat breast cancer twice, but I have a lot of pink sisters who have passed, and they have, you know, young families. So I think the hardest part for me is just survivor’s guilt, you know,” she shared.
“Pretty much the minute you’re diagnosed with cancer, you’re a survivor,” explained Dr. John Watkins, a Radiation Oncologist at the Bismarck Cancer Center.
On the upside, he says the medical field has come a long way in better understanding and treating cancer.
“20 years ago, a lot of the focus was on new treatments or new ways of giving treatments we had before. And now, I think there’s been a shift toward earlier diagnosis, as well treatments that are not only as effective but a lot less toxic. So that way patients can not only have a good survival but also continue to do well without the side effects we used to see 20-30 years ago,” Dr. Watkins added.
He says a two to three-fold improvement in the science surrounding cancer would not be an understatement.
“Too much emphasis in the past has been on the diagnosis and the fight, and less on how patients feel or deal with the psychology of having been diagnosed with cancer. And so over the last 5-10 years, there’s been a shift to helping patients accept and thrive despite their diagnosis; to not let it define them, but let it be something that’s empowering,” Dr. Watkins shared.
June is Cancer Survivor Month, and Nitschke says now is the time to reach out to your loved ones that have battled cancer, no matter how long ago it was.
“Even though they’ve moved past it, it would probably mean a lot to them to ask about it. It will just help them realize how strong they are and how far they’ve come,” she said.
Nitschke says she’s hopeful for the future, but she’s also prepared for a third battle if it comes around.