The surge of emotion is unleashed with the words breast cancer.
Some women break down in agonized sobbing. Others react with denial. Sometimes it’s a mix.
As a nurse navigator for Community Health Network, Sharon Bronnenberg can only watch, hold their hands and pull them close to cry. She remembers receiving the same diagnosis.
As both a nurse navigator and breast cancer survivor, Bronnenberg offers a unique perspective on the disease and how to beat it. She provides hope. After undergoing a mastectomy and six months of chemotherapy, she has been cancer-free for 14 years.
Bronnenberg helps guide patients through the frightening process of breast cancer. She’s with them as soon as they’re diagnosed, cries with them when they’re scared and celebrates with them when they complete treatment.
“I can identify with these patients. I’ve had their thoughts and their fears,” she said. “I’ve been in their shoes, and I understand. That almost gives them a relief that someone they know is living and been through it.”
Nurse navigators help provide some continuity in the process. Patients are assigned to a different doctor every time they come to the hospital, from physician to oncologist to surgeon.
Name: Sharon Bronnenberg
Type of cancer: Stage 3 invasive ductal carcinoma
Treatment: Chemotherapy and mastectomy
What cancer taught me: Cancer has taught me that none of us have control over our bodies, it is an insidious disease and it most of the time comes as an unexpected diagnosis.
How cancer changed me: I think cancer has changed me into being a more compassionate, empathetic person. I feel like I have a better appreciation of others who have suffered with this disease. There are many social, physical, financial and emotional implications after diagnosis.
What I would tell someone diagnosed with cancer: If someone were just diagnosed with cancer, I would tell them that there is much to learn. Listen to the experts. Be positive and hopeful. I would also tell them cancer is not an overnight fix. A patient must truly take one day and one step at a time. Too many more is overwhelming for anyone. Survivors number in the millions. They are never far away to lend a hand, an ear or a shoulder to help make the journey easier.
Navigators stay with the patients, helping provide emotional and physical support to manage the confusing treatment process. The specialized nurses serve as links between the medical process and the patient’s family.
“Patients are scared, lost and overwhelmed. We offer them a source of strength and hope. We are their friend who will listen and understand them,” she said.
What makes Bronnenberg so effective is her own experience with breast cancer, said Dr. Erin Zusan, a surgeon with Community Breast Care.
Bronnenberg’s diagnosis is an illustration of how quickly breast cancer can move. She was 48 and had a mammogram seven months prior, which was clear and didn’t show any abnormalities.
She had been put on a hormone patch to help counter some of the effects of menopause. Her doctors surmise that the estrogen in the patch triggered the cancer.
While taking a shower, Bronnenberg felt a lump in her right breast. As a cancer nurse for Community Hospital East in Indianapolis, Bronnenberg was familiar with the characteristics of a tumor, and this had the feel of something bad.
“I said out loud, ‘Uh oh, I think I’m in trouble,’” she said. “I remember that exactly, even 14 years ago.”
The next day, Bronnenberg went to see Dr. Chace Lottich, a breast surgeon with Community Hospital South. Scans indicated a 5.5-centimeter invasive ductile carcinoma that already had spread to her lymph nodes.
Because of the size of the tumor, she would have to start chemotherapy right away.
Bronnenberg also would need a mastectomy, since the cancer had spread. But because she had the breast removed entirely, she didn’t need radiation therapy.
Suddenly, she found herself on the other side of the treatments she had given for most of her career.
“My friends and co-workers were giving me the same drugs that we had given to so many women. I remember them crying, and I was sobbing,” she said.
Over the next six months, Bronnenberg went through an intense and fatiguing chemotherapy regimen. The first portion was given every three weeks, giving her body time to recover.
To finish it off, she was given weekly doses of taxotere, a harsh chemotherapy drug. The medication was given intravenously and caused horrible nausea and vomiting.
But while Bronnenberg felt her worst, she thought of the hundreds of patients she had seen go through the same thing.
“Because of those women who had gone through treatments before me, I got the strength to endure and go forward,” she said. “Every day I said, ‘If they can do it, so can I.’”
Bronnenberg emerged from her treatment cancer-free and has remained that way since. She resumed her job as an oncology nurse with Community before being offered a spot as a liaison for Community Breast Care as a navigator.
Before she meets a new patient, the nurses at the Community Breast Center always tell the women that Bronnenberg is a breast cancer survivor. That helps to put them at ease right away, Zusan said.
Taking advantage of her personal experience, Bronnenberg’s patients are curious about what she had done. They want to know about the process of getting a mastectomy, of how the chemotherapy reacted to her body, and how she recovered.
Bronnenberg shares it all with them, never holding back on an experience that likely will be unpleasant.
“They really love the fact that they’re at the same physician that I went to. They feel like they’re going to be taken care of,” she said.
During her time as a nurse navigator, Bronnenberg also has spearheaded a support group for women who have gone through or are currently fighting breast cancer.
The women meet monthly to talk, learn relaxation techniques through yoga and share how to deal with nausea from chemotherapy. Some of the sessions are light-hearted and fun; others deal with the serious emotional and mental toll that comes from dealing with cancer.
“We’re all in the same situation, with the same circumstances to talk openly to others. We hug, laugh, cry, help, encourage and educate,” she said. “That’s where my experience comes in.”