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Survivors mark milestones in journeys with cancer

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The day seemed like it would never arrive.

Carin Henderson was diagnosed with breast cancer on Feb. 8, 2011. She went through a double mastectomy and weeks of chemotherapy before her doctors told her that the cancer was gone in August. Scans throughout the year had proved that she remained in remission.

But that milestone of one year as a cancer survivor required a celebration.

“Coming up on February 8 this year was really emotional for me. I wanted to do something just to recognize that I had gotten through it,” Henderson said.

To recognize their fight against cancer, she and a growing segment of breast cancer survivors have started marking their “cancerversaries,” or the important yearly dates associated with their ordeals. Some organize parties or drinks on the town with friends. Others, like Henderson, have a more subdued dinner with family.

One local woman will bike 220 miles as a way to recognize five years cancer-free.

“It’s an interesting journey to go through. You need some way to mark it,” Henderson said.

In the community of breast cancer survivors, certain dates tend to stick out. The day they were diagnosed, for example, is one they will never forget. Likewise, for those who have had mastectomies or lumpectomies, their surgery is a date to remember.

But only in the past decade has the trend of celebrating cancerversaries become more popular.

American Cancer Society forums have emerged where women share their stories and talk about how they recognize the day. Jewelry companies sell bracelets, necklaces and rings engraved with inspirational messages specifically for survivors.

The National Coalition for Cancer Survivorship, an advocacy group for patients, launched a special website specifically for cancerversaries. The program connected survivors, family members and others affected by cancer and allowed them to share the special dates of their treatment and recovery.

Donna Hacker plans to celebrate March 12, the date she had a lump removed from her breast. The Franklin resident was diagnosed with invasive ductal carcinoma in late 2011 and had a lumpectomy and radiation to kill the tumor.

When that time comes around next year, she wants to have a special dinner with her husband, Doug, and her daughters Alison and Rachel Fitch.

“Then, in five years, if I am still cancer-free from taking the anticancer medicine I am on till then, I will celebrate the first day I no longer have to take it,” she said.

Henderson, 40, was diagnosed with Stage 2 invasive ductal carcinoma last year. Surgeons performed a double mastectomy, and she received chemotherapy treatments every two weeks throughout the summer.

Each significant date — her diagnosis, her surgery, her last chemotherapy — stirred up a well of feelings. She felt relief and joy to be done, undercut by the fear that she’d have to go through the ordeal again.

She remembered the apprehension of having to go for her chemotherapy treatments and the sickness. But she also recalled how good it felt to be done.

“People have different milestones, and this being my first year, I wanted to do something,” Henderson said. “I don’t know if I’ll do it in the future, but this was the first year.”

Henderson took the day simply to spend time with her sons, 14-year-old Conner and 12-year-old Alex and go out to eat together. They didn’t talk about cancer, instead taking the chance to joke and laugh about the past year.

“We didn’t have any big plans. It was the three of us together,” she said.

But while women want to recognize overcoming the disease, many feel uncomfortable going all out to celebrate.

Sharon Bronnenberg, the nurse navigator at Community Breast Care in Greenwood, runs a support group for breast cancer patients and survivors. She said a large number of women will recognize the dates silently and talk about it during a support group meeting.

As a breast cancer survivor herself, she understands the fear that the cancer could come back.

“Most breast cancer survivors don’t ever feel like they’ve totally beat it. So they’re less likely to get cocky. The feeling is that it could always come back,” Bronnenberg said.

Franklin resident Erin Sutton can relate to that apprehension.

She was diagnosed with invasive ductal carcinoma in 2002 when she was 29. After treatment, she didn’t want to think about it. She tried to so something fun to take her mind off of it. The one benchmark she remembered was her five-year anniversary of being cancer-free.

But just months before that date, Sutton was diagnosed with the same cancer again.

“I was 29 and thought this fluke would only happen once. That is what made the second time so hard, I couldn’t trust my body anymore,” she said.

Now, Sutton is again coming up on five years of being cancer-free. Though nervous, considering her experience, she has chosen to celebrate the milestone by trying to help other cancer survivors.

She will ride in the annual Tour de Pink in southern California this month. The 220-mile trek over three days will raise money to support young breast cancer survivors, like herself.

“I’m hoping this ride helps me with that process, taking my power back instead of always looking over my shoulder waiting for it to come back,” she said.

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