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Sharon Henifin survived Estrogen Positive Breast Cancer, Lumpectomy, Chemotherapy, BreastFriends.org



Sharon Henifin tells us about her estrogen positive breast cancer journey with a lumpectomy and chemotherapy on today’s Cancer Interviews podcast hosted by Bruce Morton. Sharon also shares about cofounding BreastFriends.org, a breast cancer support group.

 

Sharon Henifin has been free of breast cancer since 1993, but her path to cancer survivorship was not an easy one.  She had to undergo chemotherapy treatment and a six-surgery regimen at a time when both were not as advanced as they are today. 

 

Her journey began when self-examination revealed a lump on one of her breasts, then a lumpectomy, followed by a diagnosis of estrogen positive breast cancer.  After achieving cancer survivorship, Sharon went on to become a certified life coach, and in the year 2000, she co-founded the Oregon-based support group, Breast Friends.  She has also shared her journey in detail in her book, “Thriving Beyond Cancer.”

 

Sharon makes her home in Tualitan, Oregon, just outside Portland.  She loves photography, and when at home watching television, she likes to crochet and knit.  When she gets out of the house, she and her husband enjoy traveling in their RV.

 

She thought she was in good health when one day, performing a self-examination of her breasts, she felt this sharp pain and detected a lump.  She called her doctor, and her doctor called a plastic surgeon.  Seven days later, Sharon had a lumpectomy.  It did not have clean margins, so seven days after that she a mastectomy with reconstruction.

 

However, Sharon’s procedure included a chemotherapy regimen, and in 1993, all things chemotherapy were less advanced than they are today.  She had an infusion every two weeks, a drip of chemotherapy.  She also had to take a pill every day.  The first few days were difficult, a problem eased by anti-nausea drugs.  Sharon said she wasn’t physically ill, but for six months, she had a “yucky” feeling every day. 

 

Her chemotherapy experience involved an emotional toll.  Sharon was able to get short- and long-term disability from her job and stay home while she recovered; but when her husband was at work and her kids at school and being away from her co-workers made her very lonely.

 

Sharon also experienced many of the cognitive issues experienced by those on chemotherapy.  This really manifested itself post-procedure when she returned to work.  She didn’t confide in supervisors or co-workers but said doing her job required an effort she never encountered pre-diagnosis because her brain just wasn’t functioning the way it had in the past.

 

Despite all she went through, Sharon says she understands why she had to get chemotherapy treatment, as it is designed to kill any cancer from head to toe.  She was relieved she did not have lymph node involvement but knows how fortunate she was.  A girlfriend was diagnosed with breast cancer, and her diagnosis spread to three lymph nodes.  Sharon said she cried more for her friend’s diagnosis than she did for her own. 

 

Not long after her final surgery, because it had gone so well, her surgeon asked Sharon if she would speak with some of his patients at a restaurant or coffee shop to talk about the treatment of breast cancer.

 

This led to her becoming certified as a life coach, then co-founding the support group, Breast Friends.  The whole point of Breast Friends is to teach family and friends how to care for the woman going through a breast cancer journey.  From there it grew into many programs specifically designed for the patient, family and friends, and from there grew a website, https://www.breastfriends.org, extending the organization’s reach worldwide.

 

Sharon Henifin has learned there are many women who want to hear her story.  The fact she has been free of breast cancer sine 1993 all by itself is an inspiration of gigantic proportions.

 

 

Additional Resources:

 

Support Group:

 

Book by Sharon Henifin:

Thriving Beyond Cancer, available on Amazon

 

Transcription:

 

Bruce Morton: Greetings, and welcome to the Cancer Interviews podcast.  I’m your host, Bruce Morton.  Our guest on this segment is Sharon Henifin of Tualitan, Oregon.  We hope you will find her story to be powerful, as she has been free of breast cancer since 1993.  Her journey has inspired her to part of a support group, and it has inspired her to become an author.  So, prepare yourself for a heartwarming story, and Sharon, welcome to Cancer Interviews.

 

Sharon Henifin: Thank you, Bruce.  I appreciate you having me.

 

BM: Sharon, it is our custom to start from the same place, and have our guests personalize themselves by telling us a little about their lives outside of cancer and before their diagnosis, where they are from, where they do for work and what they like to do when they are not working, stuff like that.

 

SH: I was a woman who was working fulltime, raising three kids, I was…busy.  No time for cancer, that’s for sure.  I loved taking photographs, I have always loved photography, I croche, I knit, I do a lot of those domestic kind of things when I am sitting around watching television, and I am just a busy gal, and always have been.

 

BM: You are from Tualitan now, which is near Portland.  Are you a native of Oregon, or did you move there from somewhere else, like a lot of people?

 

SH: I actually lived in Oregon all my life.  Other than that, I was adopted, I was born in Aberdeen, Washington, but at ten days old I moved to Portland and have lived there 65 years of my life, so only recently did I wander away from that area.

 

BM: It sounds like prior to your diagnosis, you were in good health.  Is that fair to say?

 

SH: Oh yeah.  I had no health issues I knew of.  Then all of a sudden, one day, I got a weird little pain, and went, “Ow!”  I started pokin’ around, and there was a little lump there that I hadn’t noticed before.  I poked at it for a couple of days, and I figured it is not supposed to be there.  So, I called my doctor, a plastic surgeon.  I had earlier undergone augmentation when I was 24, and I went in to see him.  I remember laying on the exam table and he looked into my eyes and said, “It’s probably nothing, but let’s get rid of it just to make sure,” and I am looking into his eyes, thinking I am in deep trouble.  I could tell just from his eyes.  Seven days later, I had a lumpectomy.  I did not have clean margins.  For those who don’t know what that means, it means the cancer had already started walkin’ around other places outside of the little tumor.  So, seven days after that I had a mastectomy with reconstruction.  It was very fast, and because the cancer was very fast growing, he told me that it had literally grown from the first time he had felt it when he had taken it out, so it was on the move, so I feel very fortunate.

 

BM: Sharon, it was in jeopardy of perhaps metastasizing, where?

 

SH: Well, to the lymph nodes is the first place it goes, and then of course it can then go all over your body.  Breast cancer is one of those diseases if it is caught in the breast in the early stages, it is not deadly.  It is when it moves past that it can be very deadly.  I was very fortunate.  It had not gone into my lymph nodes yet, even though it was heading in that direction, but by having the complete mastectomy, and then I also did chemotherapy for insurance purposes because I was only 40 when I was diagnosed.  So, it was a very fast-growing, estrogen-positive kind of cancer.

 

BM: What was the toughest part about the chemotherapy, because of course, chemo is never fun.

 

SH: It’s not fun, and remember, this was back in 1993, then ’94 when I was actually doing the chemo, so it was an older regimen than they have today, of course.  So, my cocktail, if you will, was I had an infusion every two weeks.  I would go into the hospital and actually have the drip of chemo, but then I also had pills every single day.  The first couple of days after chemo I didn’t too well, but because of anti-nausea drugs, it wasn’t real bad.  It wasn’t like I was physically sick, but at the same time those pills kept me kind of at a yucky feeling the whole, entire time, and I was doing that for six months, so it was long haul.

 

BM: Sharon, when I talk to other guests, whether it is breast cancer or lymphoma or something like that, people who undergo chemotherapy, as unpleasant as it is, once that course has run, they are glad that they underwent chemotherapy and they understood why they did it.  Would you put yourself in that same category?

 

SH: Oh, yeah.  The thing that is important to understand about chemotherapy is that it is for the entire body.  Even though I felt comfortable with what my doctor had said as far as removing the cancer and it hadn’t gone into my lymph nodes, it only takes one little cell to sneak around and get somewhere it’s not supposed to be and it can build a home there, and that’s when you have metastases in other areas which is what can be deadly, so yes, chemotherapy is definitely an important component of that process, yes.

 

BM: Once you began the process were you optimistic that you would have a good outcome?

 

SH: Yes.  Because I didn’t have lymph node involvement, I pretty much put a line in the sand, and said, “Okay, I’m ‘over here,’ I didn’t have lymph node involvement, I am young and healthy and able to deal with this,” so I didn’t really consider the death and dying piece of this puzzle.  That was until a girlfriend of mine three years later was diagnosed.  She had two or three lymph nodes that were involved and all of a sudden that dying potential, that fear of dying came flooding back like crazy, and I think I cried more for her diagnosis than I had for mine.  Ultimately, I was crying for me, too, but it’s the trigger that set me off, for sure. 

 

BM: When you were going through chemo, were there any things that you normally could do that you couldn’t, maybe because of fatigue or hair loss?  In what way you’re your life physically altered, physically, mentally or emotionally?

 

SH: Chemo definitely affects your immune system.  It really reduces your immune system.  The chemo breaks it down in the two weeks between your infusions and you’re just starting to feel a little bit better, then boom, it’s time for another infusion, it’s time to do it again.  But the thing that I found, I worked for a large corporation back then, and I had accumulated a lot of short-term and long-term disability, and so I was able to stay off work.  This was very, very helpful in one way, but not in another, because that was my social outlet.  That was my friends, most of them work friends, and so I found myself home, taking care of myself, but then your husband goes to work, and your kids go to school, and you are there with your thoughts.  That can be detrimental.  So, it was kind of a double-edged sword, being able to stay home at that time to take care of myself, but I also found it to be very isolating.  It was hard.

 

BM: Obviously this was a very difficult time you were going through.  You had mentioned your husband, so I am going to ask, what level of support was he?

 

SH: Well.  He’s not my husband any longer, so that kinda gives you some kind of clue, but what I found interesting about the way he viewed support is that he actually did go to everyone of my chemo’s, so he gets a star for that; but what I found was that he entertained the nurses.  He was kind of there for himself than for me.  But, you know, everybody deals with these emotions differently, and unfortunately, I didn’t feel very supported in that, but it was what it was.

 

BM: Okay, how about your work friends?  What I have learned from other interviews is that some of our guests will freely share information about their cancer journey, while others are quite secretive.  So, whether it is work friends or friends away from work to what degree were they supportive?

 

SH: This was a long time ago.  It was 1993, when I was diagnosed.  I wasn’t necessarily secretive about it.  I told people I was going through it, but to perfectly honest, for many, it was a case of out of sight, out of mind.  I wasn’t at work all the time and I would get an occasional call checking in on me, I would tell the caller I was doing fine.  I wasn’t one to go down the pity trail, so I think I minimized what I was going through and unfortunately that really didn’t help me because I never asked for help.  As for today, there is a lot more conversation about how important it is for support and what people can do to help you when you are going through it and I find women in general are really bad about asking for help.  In that situation, I was not unusual.  So, even though people may have asked, I kinda poo-pooed it and told people I was fine.  Unfortunately, I think that was not the way to handle it.  Hence, several years after, I went through cancer, my friend, Becky, was much better from her bout with cancer, we started the support group, Breast Friends, that’s kinda how all that happened because that was part of the problem.  Becky has got her husband at home and her kids at home, you know, I don’t want to bother her, she’s probably resting, you know, that kind of thing.  Bottom line is, yes, all of that was true, but you need your friends, and you need that support system, that emotional support system that not everybody understands.

 

BM: The support group Breast Friends is the one we referenced at the very beginning of the segment and we’re going to get to that a little bit later, but Sharon, would you say if you knew then what you know now, you might have gone through your journey a little bit differently?

 

SH: Yes, definitely.  I would be a little more outspoken about what you really need during this time and it’s really important for friends and family to be more proactive and to be able to say, bring over some food.  So, someone in a cancer journey can make it very simple.  Most of the time, those of us in the journey do want to see people.

 

BM: I am guessing somewhere along the way there was a juncture in which you felt you were getting the upper hand on this.  If there was such a juncture, described what you experienced and how it felt emotionally.

 

SH: It’s funny because once you are actually done with treatment, and all of the surgeries, six in all for me, in addition to six months of chemo, so it was an eleven-month journey until I actually went back to work.  I remember going back to work, and ‘chemo brain’ is real.  If anyone has any question about that, chemo brain is real.  I remember going back to my job, and I’d been doing this job for a long time, so it’s not like it was a brand new job and I forgot the training, and I wondered if I could actually do that job again.  That’s because my brain just wasn’t functioning the way it had in the past.  Of course, I wasn’t going to say anything to my boss, I wasn’t going to say anything to co-workers, you just put your head down and try to do the best you can.  Honestly, I think when I made that turnaround, was when my plastic surgeon called me one day and said that I had had such a wonderful result on my surgery, then asked if I would be interested in speaking of his patients so they can understand the procedure is not as scary as it might first appear.  I told her I would be happy to do that.  So, I would meet with some of his patients at a coffee shop or restaurant or something like that and we would chat all around the subject.  Then pretty soon I would say to them, “Do you want to just see what it looks like?”  We would go into the bathroom, and I would do a little ‘show and tell’.  They would never have asked me if they could see what it looked like, but that’s really what they were asking with all these questions.  Ultimately, being able to tell my story and how I found my lump and going through chemo and how lonely it can be, all of those things, I actually start to heal myself, and I think that was my turning point.

 

BM: Our story is moving in a good direction here, Sharon, as we are getting to the point in which some of this journey is getting into your personal rearview mirror.  It sounds like that talk, you had with your doctor’s patients was therapeutic for you, but beyond that, is there anything that you did or still do, to this day, to celebrate your cancer journey and getting past it?

 

SH: Good question.  During that whole diagnosis piece, and think you could die, really allows you to think about what’s really important in your life.  One of the things I did later on was become a life coach because the work that I was doing, life coaching was already what I was doing, anyway.  So, I became a certified professional life coach and was able to help many, many other women because of that as well.  I think understanding your own values and what’s important, what makes you happy and doing as many of those things as you possibly can, makes you a better person, makes you who were designed to be.  I think that is a really important message for all of us.

 

BM: That sounds like a message that finds its way into your coaching.  Now I want to talk about something of the things I had mentioned at the very top, and that’s the support group. Breast Friends.  After that, we want to get into your book.  But first off, Breast Friends.  If you would, describe the genesis of the group, and what is your involvement at this point?

 

SH: Breast Friends was born, basically, at a hospital cafeteria.  That’s when Becky and I were having lunch, we were waiting for the results of a biopsy she had.  She had another scare.  Over that lunch, we had a conversation about why we have retained our friendship over all these years, what’s missing in the breast cancer world and what we could offer.  In that, Breast Friends was born.  The whole point of Breast Friends was to teach family and friends how to best support the woman who is going through breast cancer.  That’s the bottom line, but what it morphed into is, many programs that were designed specifically for the woman who was going through it, as well as the family and friends.  I think the one thing that is the most important element when you are going through a cancer diagnosis yourself is to be able to talk to another woman who has been there, done that, and is on the other side of her cancer journey.  When I would tell somebody I am this many years out, they would immediately want to know more.  They just wanted to hear how I got to that place.  So, being able to share that with another woman, whether it was one-one-one, in a group setting like a support group, a workshop or even retreats, which are some of the many things that Breast Friends offers.

 

BM: And Breast Friends was born in what year?

 

SH: The year 2000.

 

BM: I have no doubt Breast Friends has grown in size, in terms of members or followers, but I am guessing that Breast Friends has also grown in scope.  I suspect you are doing things now that you weren’t doing in the year 2000.  What are some of the ways in which Breast Friends has grown?

 

SH: Personally, because I was sort of the program person for many years, becoming a certified life coach allowed to create the materials necessary to do the workshops and the retreats I loved so much.  Again, taking say, eight women out of their normal environment, for instance we rented a house many times on the Oregon Coast, to a beautiful environment like that and be able to talk about things that some of them had never even talked to their spouse about.  Some of the problems that arise, your identity and your sexuality and your sensuality and all of the things that go along with a breast cancer diagnosis and treatment, it was magical, really, to be able to do that, and to be able to share my story and to be able to hear everyone else’s story and all of a sudden these people who didn’t talk about this even to family or friends, all of a sudden had a platform, they had a group of women who heard the exact same emotions that they all had gone through in their cancer journey.  It is very helpful for women to go through these workshops or retreats, or even support groups.  I am known for making people cry because I will introduce topics they haven’t discussed with anyone in the past, but if I get in there in a real gentle way, they can feel those emotions they haven’t been able to feel.

 

BM: By the way, Sharon, before we go any farther, the Becky that you referenced is Becky Olson, a guest on a previous interview and one who has survived breast cancer no less than five times, and it is you and Becky who are driving forces behind this support group in Tigard, Oregon, Best Friends.  And before we get to your book, Sharon, if there is somebody watching right now who would like to connect with Breast Friends, can you give us information as to how that connection can be made?

 

SH: Absolutely.  It’s breastfriends.org, the website, and our telephone number is 503-598-8048, and that is in the Portland metro area.  There are people you can talk to who will want to find out what you are going through and be able to follow you on your journey and keep up with what’s going on.  The interaction is not just a one-shot thing.  If you are not in the Portland metro area, they are also doing a lot of webinars now, and doing a lot of wonderful other things that don’t require living nearby.  They also have in-person support groups as well as webinars and retreats.

 

BM: Now I want to talk to you about your literary career.  What inspired you to write a book and what was your literary journey like?

 

SH: Number one, I didn’t consider myself an author, but at the same time, I did have a story to tell, not only my story, but the story of other women.  I wanted to keep it positive because of my life coaching principles and my general belief that that’s how you can get through this life a lot easier.  What I did was, I started putting some ideas down and at one of my retreats, I said I want to write a book about thriving beyond cancer, which was the title of the retreat, using some of those exercises and stories and things like that.  Anyway, there was this woman at one retreat who said she’d help me with the book.  Again, I am a woman who is terrible about asking for help, so this woman’s stepping forward was sort of a miracle.  Then later, we took some time and were walking on the beach, and she was telling me about she had written a couple of technical type of books, that she had done this before.  She’s a brilliant woman.  I told her I am not a writer, but she responded by saying every book starts out with a crappy first draft.  And I thought, “I can do that.  I can write a crappy first draft,” and that’s how she was able to make it real for me, that I could do this.  She then gave me ideas of what I could do next, and she would help edit a few things and I mean it was amazing, and pretty soon, I had a book!”

 

BM: And the name of the book is “Thriving Beyond Cancer”?

 

SH: It is.

 

BM: And if somebody wanted to purchase that book, could they get it through Amazon?  How would they get it?

 

SH: Yes.  Go to amazon.com, and just type in Thriving Beyond Cancer or type in my name, Sharon Henifin, either would work just fine.

 

BM: Wonderful.  Now we want to bring this to a conclusion, and while we always start our interviews from the same place, we try to end each one in a similar fashion.  So, if you had a private audience with someone who has just been diagnosed with breast cancer or has learned they are a candidate for breast cancer, if there is one thing you would want to say to them, what would you say?

 

SH: I would say that breast cancer is not a fun thing to go through, but you will find that you will meet the most incredible women through this journey and if you will allow yourself to open up and talk about journey and share it with others, you will find it very cathartic, very healing, and it will make this journey so much easier for you.  And when people ask you what they can do for you, have a list, tell them what they can do for you, or if they say they can do, “X,Y.Z,” say ‘yes.’  Allow people to help you because you are actually helping them by letting them help you.  And I would say, looking back on my diagnosis and treatment and the way it changed my life, it has been a blessing in my life, and I wouldn’t have changed it for the world.

 

BM: Outstanding.  Sharon, thank you so much for sharing your time with us.  I have absolutely no doubt that this is going to resonate with a lot of people, and I hope it can also drive them to Breast Friends or reasonable facsimile thereof to get the very sort of support that you have talked about, so Sharon, thanks so much for being with us. 

 

SH: Thank you for having me.

 

BM: And that’s going to do it for this segment of Cancer Interviews.  We hope you found the story of Sharon’s cancer journey to be powerful and uplifting, so think about that when perhaps you have a chance to share it with a friend or loved one. So, until next time, we’ll see you on down the road.

 

Support Group:

 

Breast Friends

503-598-8048

 

Book:

 

Thriving Beyond Cancer





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