Life matters more than breast cancer: survivor

Cory Hurley
Published on June 20, 2014
Joan Penney is photographed in her home in Corner Brook Thursday. Penney, who is a breast cancer survivor, was diagnosed with the disease in 2005.

Star photo by Geraldine Brophy

Women in western Newfoundland diagnosed with breast cancer definitely factor in the turmoils of travelling for radiation when considering types of treatment, says Joan Penney.

However, the ultimate decision pertaining to a mastectomy often comes down to it being the safest bet in being rid of the cancer, says the breast cancer survivor. If it is life versus a body part, life takes precedence.

The technology today is quite different than it was in 2005 when Penney was diagnosed. Whether the cancer was elsewhere in her system would not be determined until a pathology report was done. The decision for her was an easy one, if that could ever be the case.

“For peace of mind for myself, I had chosen a mastectomy because I wouldn’t just go for a lumpectomy,” she said.

Her decision was made with respect to her best option for eradicating the cancer.

A Canadian Medical Association Journal study revealed Newfoundland and Labrador has the highest mastectomy rates in the country — almost double the national average. The statistics used were from 2007-2008 and 2009-2010.

The study — conducted by the Canadian Institute for Health Information and the Canadian Partnership Against Cancer — concluded the rates may be tied to the distance patients live from a radiation treatment facility.

“It is quite true for a lot of us because of the travel to St. John’s for radiation,” Penney said. “The percentage is exactly the same (for each treatment) for reoccurrence of breast cancer.”

Penney is now a coordinator with Breast Friends cancer support group in Corner Brook. She said decisions on treatment and the mental, physical and financial impacts of travelling to St. John’s for radiation treatment are often discussed.

Unfortunately, people diagnosed with cancer — or undergoing treatments — are often too sick or emotionally distraught to attend support meetings, she said.

Her mastectomy eliminated the likelihood of radiation treatment by about 90 per cent, Penney says.

A five-week radiation therapy program in St. John’s, with a Monday-to-Friday regimen, is difficult and a financial burden for families who have to travel.

“It makes quite a difference to a lot of people,” she said.

Penney would have made the same decision, regardless of whether she was near radiation services or not. She was concerned about repeat surgeries or treatment if she underwent a lumpectomy.

That is often a worry for breast cancer patients, even though medical professionals estimate 75-80 per cent can be treated with breast conservation therapy with excellent results. Clinical studies have shown breast conservation therapy offers the same cure rate as mastectomy.

Meanwhile, Tarragh Shanahan, community resource co-ordinator with the Canadian Cancer Society, said she and her colleagues are aware of the high rate of mastectomies in Newfoundland and Labrador.

She said the correlation between travel for radiation and mastectomies makes sense, but that she would like to see more specific research before drawing that conclusion.

From a personal perspective, Shanahan said she believes she would also choose to have a mastectomy.

If women are deciding against breast conservation measures because of issues with respect to travel for radiation treatment, Shanahan said the decision to include such services in the new hospital in Corner Brook is that much more valuable.

“(The Canadian Cancer Society) supports a more thorough review of the radiation facility, just to ensure the proper steps are taken to achieve the best facility the west coast could have, with the best medical professionals” she said.

The society offers support for travel, and medical and cosmetic equipment and services for those suffering or recovering from cancer.