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Swan faces cancer gracefully

WL woman uses her experience with breast cancer to help others
by: Vern Uyetake, A decade ago, Dianne Swan of West Linn underwent treatment for breast cancer. Now, she shares her story at the Providence St. Vincernt campus with new breast cancer patients.

We're the ones. You know us. … We've been branded with breast cancer. When you see us the branding is invisible - to you. You and I are the same, except now I'm different. I've stepped across the line and can't go back.'- Wrote Dianne Swan in a 1999 poem.

Dianne Swan of West Linn says she is not a cancer survivor but a survivor of cancer treatments.

Cancer can revisit individuals at any time. She said the term 'survivor' indicates someone who has lived through a one-time event and is now 'back to normal.'

Swan was diagnosed with breast cancer a decade ago and said her treatments were a series of lessons on life, finding new passion and learning the importance of simple greeting cards.

'The experience creates a shift, and it's not a bad shift,' said Swan, 68. 'You look at things differently than before. Everything is now a 'no biggie.' Now, I try to only worry about the big stuff.'

The American Cancer Society dedicated the month of October as National Breast Cancer Awareness Month - a time for early detection, recovery and reflection.

Swan says she remembers her cancer experience 10 years ago like it was yesterday.

Camouflaged cancer

While working full-time as a unit assistant on the maternity floor at Providence Portland Medical Center, Swan became familiar with staff in the hospital. She also spent time on various other floors, including the oncology floor. So when she noticed a difference in the appearance of one of her breasts, she had a familiar team of professionals to consult.

Yet, when the results of her biopsy proved positive for cancer she said she felt very alone.

'Before they even said anything I just knew,' Swan said. 'And when you do find out, you're on the other side of the fence immediately.'

Swan had stage-three invasive lobular breast cancer, and it was spreading quickly; It had advanced to a few of her lymph nodes. This type of cancer grows in cells that line the lobules of the breast and is not always detected as a firm lump. Cancer was not detected on Swan's mammogram just months earlier.

When found in more than one area of the breast - such as with Swan - it may not be possible to remove just the area of the cancer. A mastectomy surgery removes the breast, or as much of the breast tissue as possible. This was Swan's chosen procedure, followed by chemotherapy, reconstructive surgery and radiation.

Although Swan wanted to start treatments immediately, her doctor suggested she waited a couple weeks to make arrangements.

'That was the best advice. … I needed to talk to my boss, talk to my kids and come to terms with it,' she said. 'You have to acknowledge it so you can let go of it - so it doesn't sit in the back of your mind.'

When she was ready to let go of her cancer, one of Swan's breasts was removed and she underwent 12 high-dosage chemotherapy treatments - starting in April and finishing before thanksgiving of 1997.

'I remember being so tired from the chemo. I'd be in the grocery store and be (exhausted),' Swan said. 'I could hardly get the groceries up the stairs at home.'

To keep occupied, Swan worked part time at the Providence maternity ward during her healing. She even snuck in a Hawaiian vacation with her husband before she began radiation appointments.

While she said her family and co-workers stood by her throughout her treatments, one woman in particular was an inspiration: A nurse from the maternity ward gave her a blank notebook to keep track of appointments.

'We've all gone to see our doctor and on the way home thought, 'oh, I was going to ask them something,'' Swan said. 'I wrote down all my questions in the notebook. … I still use it.'

Swan said that her relationship with this nurse grew stronger as her cancer treatments continued.

'She continued to send (greeting) cards,' Swan said, 'not just of encouragement, but something to laugh at. That was such a simple act that meant so much to me - the idea that (someone) thought enough to get a card, put a stamp on it, and mail it to you. It's a very simple act that has so much power behind it.'

Everyone deserves a special note sometime, Swan said. She now continues this greeting card tradition by sending a little note randomly to someone she loves.

Through her cancer experience, Swan said she not only learned about herself but also of the nature of some women - trying to be everything to everyone all the time. She learned it's okay to skip a soccer game, order take-out for dinner or cancel on a coffee outing.

'I actually became quiet good at saying 'no' to things that people asked me to do. I've heard this from another women too; we think we can do (everything),' Swan said. 'That was such an empowering feeling to say, 'no, I can't do it.' And not have to go into a big, long explanation. I still do that. … It's really easy to do.'

But one item she couldn't easily refuse was helping others.

Volunteers for a cure

Swan said she uses her cancer experience to help other women battling the disease. She became a trained volunteer at the Breast Cancer Outreach Program through Providence Health System, where breast cancer survivors mentor patients. She works at the Providence St. Vincent campus.

'The doctors have given them the official information, we talk to them about how to deal with everyday processes - how do you tell your kids, how do you tell your husband? It's the little every day dealing,' she said, 'that we can help them with.'

Volunteers visit with patients through personal visits, group meetings, phone discussions or email. They share up-to-date information and photos of breast disease, treatments and reconstruction, according to the Breast Cancer Outreach Program Web site.

'It brings back a lot of emotions. Some people walk in teary-eyed - we are with the patient at that moment. It's important they know they are not alone,' said Chris Mulder, Breast Cancer Outreach Program volunteer coordinator who initiated the program more than 18 years ago. '(Dianne) always gives wonderful support and guidance to the patients that she comes in contact with and within the community - her own family, friends and church.'

Whether they are delivering hand-sewn pillows, visiting a patient before surgery, or suggesting a book from the hospital's library, the volunteers are at the program because many of them wish someone was there for them when they were undergoing treatment.

When Swan talks with new breast cancer patients she says she understands their fears and frustrations. In a poem she wrote Swan refers to those who have or had breast cancer as lifetime members to an exclusive sorority.

But most importantly, Swan calls them friends.

'I think the most important part of the counseling is for (new breast cancer patients) to see someone who has been through it, is functioning and is enjoying life,' Swan said. 'It's more than being an example, it's just being there.'

For more information about the Breast Cancer Outreach Program, visit the Providence Web site at www.providence.org. To learn more about National Breast Cancer Awareness Month visit www.caner.org.