A Chance to Talk About It

Breast cancer retreat was the first of its kind in the state.

It was a small affair.

Just a handful of couples getting together for a weekend. But the reason for the gathering was hugely significant. Cancer.

Four Iowa women with metastatic breast cancer and their spouses joined one another for the Couples Celebrating Life Retreat Weekend in October at the Iowa House in Ames. Organized by Mary Greeley Medical Center, the retreat was the first of its kind in the state. It provided a place and an opportunity to share concerns and offer support to their partners and peers.

“These couples often feel isolated from others and don’t necessarily feel like others can understand the situation they are going through,” says Mary Ellen Carano, Cancer Resource Center coordinator. “The couples have to deal with their fears for their future and leaving loved ones behind. The retreat offers an opportunity for much-needed support.”

Several medical professionals were on hand over the course of the weekend to guide and encourage these couples. Dr. Larry Otteman, oncology/hematology, talked about various issues related to breast cancer, while Dr. Tim Leeds with the Doran Clinic for Women provided some laughs when he donned a wig and acted as host for “The Newlywed Game.” Other topics that were discussed included nutrition, palliative care, partner communication, spirituality, caregiver issues and preparation for the future. Becky Olson, a breast cancer survivor, spoke about the idea of leaving a legacy.

“I was so impressed with the retreat and the vision of the organizers to offer such a great program,” says Olson. “My goal in participating was to leave the couples with a sense of hope, and for them to realize that even the small things matter and they can make a difference every day. I encourage people, no matter where they are in their journey, to think about how they want to live the rest of their lives, how they want to be remembered, and to make plans to live that life as best they can.”

A Planner and Participant

The weekend was planned and put together by a small group of medical center staff and supporters, including Lynne and Bob Weldon. After serving on the steering committee for the weekend retreat, Lynne and Bob decided to go as guests.

Lynne has been under treatment for breast cancer at the William R. Bliss Cancer Center for the past three years. In July 2008 she was diagnosed with borderline stage 2 breast cancer. She went through chemotherapy and radiation therapy for a year and thought she had beat the disease. But before she cleared her two-year mark, Lynne was diagnosed with stage 4 metastatic breast cancer.

Metastatic cancer spreads from where it started to other parts of the body. When cancer cells break away from a tumor, they can travel to other areas of the body through the bloodstream or the lymph system (a collection of vessels that carry fluid and immune system cells). If a cancer does spread, it is still named for the part of the body where it originated.

In Lynne’s case, the cancer spread from her breast to the axiliary lymph nodes, leading to the diagnosis of metastatic breast cancer.

“This is incurable, but not untreatable,” says Lynne. “The hope is that we can prolong things enough so a cure can be found.” Lynne will have to undergo chemotherapy indefinitely, but is willing to as long as it keeps working.

Support System

The woman living with breast cancer and her spouse can experience extreme emotions that can impact the relationship. One goal of the retreat weekend was to open doors for communication and show these partners how to communicate, listen, engage, and support one another and their families.

For Lynne, it was invaluable to be able to make connections with other people dealing with the same issues as she and her family.

“I learned to not hesitate to speak your mind, and ask questions if in doubt,” says Lynne. “Apparently I didn’t express my doubts enough or push anything beyond what I was told was standard, despite my concerns.”

Her husband, Bob, appreciated the focus on the caregiver as well as the patient, Lynne says.

Carano hopes the retreat, which was fully funded by gifts to the Mary Greeley Medical Center Foundation, will become an annual event.

‘An Extraordinary Experience’

Participants in the Couples Celebrating Life Retreat Weekend shared some of their reactions to the experience.

“A special thanks to Mary Ellen Carano for seeing the need for a retreat and a program that allowed couples to share their concerns and hopes in a beautiful, homey place that gave us the feeling of family. Not only were the women able to share and encourage one another, but our husbands had their own special time of sharing.” –Barbara Scheuermann

“It has been an extraordinary experience—the opportunity to listen to others that are going through very similar experiences to the ones I’ve encountered in this journey and the ability to get all the information that will help me to try to live an improved life due to the knowledge brought to us this weekend.” –Christianne Anderson

“When you go through a tragedy, it is so comforting to be around other people experiencing the same feelings and events that you are experiencing.” –Lois Frette

“I came not knowing what to expect, mainly to support my wife, but I’m glad I came. It was a good experience.” –Wendell Frette