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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Thursday, September 27, 2001

Women find positive spirit in breast-cancer treatment

Suspicious red spots may be sign of deadly disease
Health Calendar

By Katherine Nichols
Advertiser Staff Writer

Jackie Shishido shows the wig she wore during her chemotherapy treatment while she was fighting breast cancer. The registered nurse takes a positive approach to her battle with cancer, saying she refuses to wallow in self-pity.

Cory Lum • The Honolulu Advertiser

Breast cancer realities

One in nine women will be diagnosed with breast cancer.

80 percent of all breast cancers occur in women with no known risk factors.

Early detection, when the disease is confined to the breast, results in a five-year survival rate of 95 percent.

75 percent of proceeds from event will pay for Hawai'i breast cancer programs; 25 percent will go to the Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation to finance national grant programs.

Race for the Cure registration costs $22; applications will be accepted during packet pick-up from 10 a.m.-3 p.m. Saturday at Neiman Marcus, Ala Moana Center.

Information: 973-5967, raceforthecure.org

Many words can describe Jackie Shishido. But "victim" is not one of them.

She vividly remembers when she received the news that her mammogram was abnormal — on her 36th birthday. "Great present, huh?" said the Kaka'ako resident.

That was two years ago. And though she has been through a personal battle since then, she only reluctantly labels herself a "survivor."

"I want to survive until I'm 70 or 80 years old," said the registered nurse and consultant, who knows her cancer could recur. "To think that it's not possible ... that's denial."

Jennifer Wada agrees. The 50 year-old budget analyst for Kaiser Permanente has been cancer-free for five years and avoids the "survivor" label.

"I feel I'm beyond that," Wada said. "I don't have that sword over my head any more." The term, she says, emphasizes the struggle, not strength.

Instead of survivors, said Iolani School art teacher Cheri Keefer, "We're more of a sorority. We're sisters. We're a group of women who have had the challenge and beaten it. And we know we're lucky."

Like Shishido, she added, "I know I will constantly have to keep fighting this battle."

These "sisters" will be among those who celebrate life Sunday at Hawai'i's version of the Susan G. Komen Race for the Cure (named for a young woman who died of the disease in 1982).

To many, the event is a symbol of power and resolve. "I hope that (the race) brings awareness," said Shishido, who plans to walk on Sunday. "And I hope people remember that it happens to young women, too (Komen, like Shishido, was in her 30s when she was diagnosed). It's not an old woman's disease."

Everyone's coping mechanisms are different. Shishido was depressed by support groups, which focused more on staying in the victim mentality than moving beyond it. "There's more to life than just dwelling," she said.

Keefer, who underwent a bilateral mastectomy in May (and a total hip replacement because of osteoarthritis in August) agreed. "Don't just sit back on the couch and cry because it happened to you," she said in the Iolani art studio, dressed in a colorful ensemble and surrounded by a roomful of equally vibrant student creations. "You can be positive or you can be negative. It's a choice."

Before she was diagnosed with breast cancer, the 53-year-old rose every morning at 3:50 a.m. to run on a treadmill and participate in a Spinning (aerobic bicycling) class at the Honolulu Club before work. Now, after six major surgeries in one year, she is walking and doing water aerobics. Still unable to run, she is determined to walk on Sunday.

Shishido, who was a former nurse at the Queen's Medical Center, cared for many patients who lost the battle. She knows the horrors of the disease and is the first to admit that "chemo was ... yuck." But her approach involves no pity. "I cannot be so 'boo-hoo' and 'Why me?'" she said.

Shishido, who underwent a lumpectomy, in which the malignant lump is removed rather than the entire breast, ran her hand over the top of her breast and joked, "I look like I have a Ziploc bag."

When her doctor told her how nice the wound was healing, she looked him in the eye and quipped, "Well, if that's the look you're going for!"

After a hearty laugh, Shishido shrugged and said, "It's OK. I fit better in my bra and swimsuit. My right side was always bigger than the left."

Another laugh. Humor is a significant part of her "new" life.

"There's my pre-cancer life and my post-cancer life," she explained. "And my post-cancer life is a lot more fun because things just don't bother me as much. I think I listen more. I don't feel like I need to solve people's problems. I also think I laugh more; I laugh more at myself."

Shishido isn't the only one who relies on jocularity for perspective.

"The worst thing about these triathlons," Wada admitted after the Na Wahine Sprint Triathlon in early September, "is figuring out the logistics of where your boobs are going to go."

The toned athlete squeezed the foam inserts that have replaced her breasts and laughed. "You have to make sure they don't fall out."

Another common thread among these women is gratitude.

Keefer acknowledged her new attitude toward life as she begins a series of breast reconstruction surgeries: "I'm going to live it even better. I thought I was appreciating life, but now I appreciate it even more. It's so precious; anything can happen."

To stay focused on getting and staying well, Shishido, like Keefer, advises finding a personal equilibrium. During chemotherapy treatments, she saw people who were grieving. Some were angry. Others were in denial. And repeatedly, she said, "I heard people say, 'You have to take control of this.' And I thought, 'No you don't. You have to learn to find a balance.'"

One of her methods involved treating herself often. "Every time somebody poked me or cut me, I would go to Tiffany's," she said, laughing.

Many women say breast cancer treatment is a time that can stabilize or end a relationship. Shishido met her boyfriend, Ron Anhalt, when she was diagnosed. When she started chemotherapy, he told her, "I'm going with you."

"I can do this by myself," she responded. "This is your way out. I'm going to get sick. I'm going to go bald. And I don't want to put the effort into consoling you because I have less hair than you."

But Anhalt wouldn't budge. Two years later they are living together in a committed relationship.

In preventing breast cancer, said Keefer — who had no family history of cancer — self-exam is paramount. Only two weeks after a clear mammogram, she detected a lump. She is convinced her own examinations saved her life.

Shishido also advised women who might be facing this formidable opponent: "It's hard not to be afraid. But you're not alone. You have to be active and not live in denial. Participate in your care. Bug your doctor. If there are unanswered questions, get them answered. Write down your questions. Take a friend who has a bigger mouth than you."

She shakes her head, recalling a friend who stopped chemotherapy treatments because she was losing her hair. "Get over it," Shishido scolded the friend, "and take care of yourself.

"It's your body," she said. "It's your life."