After the Shock . . . Breast Cancer Battle Begins with Courage, Hope and Support

By Sharon Napolitano

October Is Breast Cancer Awareness Month . . .The American Cancer Society estimates that about 231,840 new cases of invasive breast cancer will be diagnosed in women in the United States in 2015. Sharon Napolitano, a Connecticut Children’s employee, is one of those women. As a new breast cancer survivor, Sharon shares her personal journey with breast cancer and the courage, hope and support she has found along the way.

Photo 1 Pre-Diagnosis (February 2015)

THE CALM BEFORE THE STORM: In early February 2015, I had no idea that my world was about to turn upside down.

A cancer diagnosis is a life-changer. Whether it affects someone you love or it affects you personally, it can change your life in an instant. Like a sucker-punch to the gut, a cancer diagnosis can take your breath away and set in motion some of the worst fears imaginable.

It can also redirect and redefine your life and help you realize what is most important.

When I was diagnosed with Stage II breast cancer in March of this year, the news couldn’t have been more unexpected or more frightening. As a former health magazine editor, I had written about breast cancer and other forms of cancer for years, interviewing medical professionals, patients and survivors.

As Communications Manager at Connecticut Children’s Medical Center Foundation since 2012, I have gone on to meet and write about many other courageous patients and families touched by cancer. I just never expected that I would one day be among those with a story to tell.

Poster Child for Mammograms
Like a “Poster Child” for mammograms, I had been undergoing annual screening mammograms with follow-up ultrasounds for years. I was never thrilled with the two-step process that always required two separate appointments, but I went to both without fail. As someone who had “dense breasts,” my mammogram films were harder to read, necessitating the more aggressive screening plan.

For years, I left these appointments without trepidation, but all of that changed in February 2015. This time, something was different – and it needed to be confirmed by biopsy. On March 5th, my worst fears were realized when I was told that I had a cancerous tumor in my left breast with lymph node involvement. This meant that the cancer had spread to a lymph node.

About one in eight women in the United States (approximately 12 percent) have a risk of developing invasive breast cancer in their lifetimes, and I was now a member of this club.

Photo 5 Post-Surgery (Aug  2015)

POST-SURGERY: I underwent a double-mastectomy and reconstruction surgery Aug. 18th. After a 10-hour surgery and five days in the hospital, I returned home to continue my recovery.

A Journey of Many Miles
In the days that followed, my brain would remind me of my new cancer status each morning when I awoke. (Was it all just a bad dream? No, it was a nightmare and it was real.). But as I embarked further upon my new journey, I replaced fear with determination. If I allowed myself to be perpetually afraid, how could I take the steps necessary to rid myself of this cancer? If I let fear consume me, how could I go to work or even get out of bed in the morning? Fear was something that had to be cast to the side.

It was time to gather my courage and fight this thing.

On April 9th, I began chemotherapy, which involved eight infusions over a 16-week period. This left me without hair, eyebrows and eyelashes, and caused continual numbness and tingling in my hands and feet.

While I escaped the nausea and vomiting that often occurs with chemo, my nemesis was the shooting, stabbing pains in my legs that would creep up on me days after my final four infusions.

On July 16th, I completed chemo with much ado and began mentally preparing for the next step of the journey: a double-mastectomy and reconstruction surgery on Aug. 18th. Through it all, my colleagues at the Foundation cheered me on, encouraging me every step of the way. I was able to continue working and found comfort and normalcy in doing so.

Photo 6 So Happy to Return to Work (Oct  2015)

RETURN TO WORK: On Oct. 2, I happily returned to the Foundation, where I work with some of the greatest people in the world!

Finally, following a 10-hour surgery, 12 hours of anesthesia, five days of hospitalization and six weeks of recovery time, I happily returned to the Foundation Oct. 2nd – sans wig – eager to begin working again with some of the greatest people in the world!

A Strong Support System
Throughout my cancer journey, I have been fortunate to have an excellent care team and a strong support system. Without the encouragement and support of my family, friends, church family, and colleagues at Connecticut Children’s, I don’t know how I would have been able to take the first step, let alone come this far.

As I undergo physical therapy and prepare for radiation – the next step of my journey – I would like to express my gratitude to all who have “walked” alongside me. It has been a long road with many twists and turns, but I am grateful for the support I have received and the courage and hope I have found along the way.

To all breast cancer patients and survivors everywhere, battle on!

Post-Partum Depression (Yes, it is real!)

With the recent news of ‘Nashville’ actress Hayden Panettiere entering treatment for Post-Partum Depression, Andrea Smith, mother of two, joins Connecticut Children’s blog to discuss her very own struggle with the disorder and why she hopes others suffering seek professional help.

ppd_blog photo

When Connecticut Children’s asked me to write a blog about my experience with Post-Partum Depression (PPD), I felt fortunate to have an outlet to tell my story in hopes of helping other women who have experienced, are experiencing, or will experience PPD.

First, some statistics about PPD from the American Psychological Association:
“An estimated 9-16 percent of postpartum women will experience PPD”.  Doesn’t sound like much until I read, “among women who have already experienced PPD following a previous pregnancy, some prevalence estimates increase to 41 percent”.  Now that is a statistic to take notice of.

When I was pregnant, I had people telling me the “warm and fuzzy” stories about pregnancy, childbirth and child-rearing.  Let’s face it: most people are well-meaning, not intentionally trying to hurt you.  Having a child is great, IF you never experience PPD.  Having a child while you have PPD can be extremely difficult.  If you are one of the moms’ who never had to worry about PPD, you are lucky.

A little background on me: Got engaged in 1997 at the age of 31, purchased a house, and got a dog together.  Married in 1998 at the age of 32.  At age 36, I had my son.  At 40, I had my daughter. (Can you say tick-tock, there goes my biological clock?)  Pregnancy was not easy for me.  I suffered a miscarriage (early on) before I got pregnant with my son.  In between my son and trying to have my second baby, I suffered two miscarriages; one at 3-months gestation.  At that point my husband and I decided to see a fertility specialist.  I was scheduled to have a Salpingogram (an infertility test that shows whether both fallopian tubes are open and whether the shape of the uterine cavity is normal).  I scheduled the test.  Luck was on my side; I got pregnant before before having the test.

My pregnancies I have to say were uneventful.  No vomiting, gestational diabetes, or any major complications, except for my dislike of coffee for the first trimester (and I LOVE coffee!)  I loved being pregnant; the way I glowed, the maternity clothes, the attention from my husband.  The only thing I didn’t like was the Braxton-Hicks contractions that plagued me the last month of my pregnancy.  Looking back though, I would have taken the Braxton-Hicks contractions over PPD any day.  At least they came to an end with birth.

Both my kids never made their due dates.  Born 3-1/2 weeks early, Jacob arrived on April 1, 2002.  He was due at the end of April.  At 5 lbs. 5 oz. he was declared a healthy baby.  He never had to spend a day in the NICU.  Megan arrived on February 12, 2006 and arrived two weeks early.  Her due date was end of February.  She too was a healthy 7 lbs.  And, please don’t hate me ladies; I had both kids within in 9 hours of my first contraction, and only had to push a couple of times and they were born.  (What can I say, I have determined kids!)

Jacob was so beautiful!  I was so happy to welcome my first child into the world!  The nurses were great; taking the baby at night so I could sleep.  The visitors and the gifts.  It was all so hunky dory!….…..until it was time to take baby home and care for him on my own. Then reality set in….

That first month of having a newborn at home due to PPD was hard.  Not having experienced motherhood before, I was not prepared for the reality of motherhood.  Jacob seemed to cry all the time.  I made several calls to his pediatrician.  She suggested he might be sensitive to the formula I was feeding him.  I was to try a different type of formula and see if that helped.  After trying several different types of formulas and no results, I was ready for an emotional breakdown.

To make matters even worse, while at Jacob’s two month well visit, the doctor discovered that Jacob had a double hernia.  We were sent to a surgeon at Connecticut Children’s Medical Center who told my husband and me that he needed surgery to repair the hernias.  So that’s why he cried so much!  It would be a week until Jacob could have the surgery.  In all my depression, a week seemed like a year to me.  Not to mention all that crying until then (mine and Jacob’s)!  I trudged through the next week.  On the day of Jacob’s surgery, my husband drove and I sat in the back seat with Jacob; both of us crying our eyes out.  I knew Jacob was from lack of food (he couldn’t eat after midnight), but for me, I wasn’t sure if I was crying because this would be the end of his misery and in turn, the end of mine.

Jake came out of surgery fine and came home a day later.  He still cried and I realized it wasn’t the formula or the hernias; it was just Jake being a baby.  This knowledge did nothing to allay my PPD. My poor husband suffered right along with me; not knowing quite what to do or say to make it better.  Finally after two months of this, he told me point blank I needed to see a doctor.  I gave in because I had had enough.  I wanted to enjoy being a mother to Jacob; I truly did.

The doctor had me fill out a depression questionnaire and sure enough, I had depression.  The doctor started me on Zoloft that day.  I didn’t notice a difference right away, but at about the two week mark, I started feeling so much better.  No more weeping when my husband left the house to go to work every morning.  No more weeping at Jacob’s crying.  Don’t get me wrong: motherhood was still not easy, but I could handle life normally and in turn, be more at ease with Jacob’s needs.

Raising a baby and having PPD is not fun.  It is even more of a challenge when you are sleep-deprived with endless feedings and diaper changes.  You see, PPD is a robber of your happiness and ability to see the beauty in front of you.  It makes you lonely, weepy, distraught, sad, feeling hopeless and helpless and any other negative emotion you can think of.  Only after I was diagnosed with PPD and went on medication did I start to enjoy motherhood.

There is no need to suffer with PPD.  There is help out there.  Talk to your primary care doctor, obstetrician/gynecologist, and even your child’s pediatrician if you suspect you have PPD.  The sooner you start on medication, the better your life will be.  Right after I gave birth to my daughter in 2006, I started back on anti-depression medication the next day.  I was a much happier mommy the second time around.  I am still on anti-depression medication today.  I feel I am a much better wife and mother for it.

Pillows With A Purpose

11-year-old Annika joins our blog to share why she loves sewing pillows for patients at Connecticut Children’s.

annika lemonade stand

I’m Annika and I am 11–years-old.   I made a pillow for a family friend, Luke Dunn, after he was diagnosed with cancer a little after his first birthday. I wanted to help everyone in the family at this upsetting time by making a pillow for him. I believed it was the best gift I could give because it  was from my heart. On the pillow, I sewed “Love for Luke” with 2 small hearts on the side and one big heart in the center. I spoke with Luke’s Mom and Aunt and they told me that the pillow I had made for Luke always comforted him.

After I made that pillow, I realized how many sick children there were at Connecticut Children’s and wanted to help them all. So, I kept making pillows I thought would comfort them and gave them to other patients. I didn’t know these children but that didn’t matter to me, I just knew I was doing a nice thing and I am very proud of myself for the time and thought that I put in. It encouraged me to think about how happy I would make the kids who got my pillows.

annika sewing

I donated about 27 pillows to Connecticut Children’s this summer!  I would have loved to meet each patient who received my pillows, but I know that even if it didn’t light up their day, my family and friends are proud of me either way.

I love sewing so much I decided to keep making pillows because I don’t want to use my sewing talents (I think) to just make pillows for people who are healthy and not sick. I will try and keep sewing for as long as I can and give my best of support to the kids!