Sunday, November 2, 2014

Windham breast cancer survivor shares her experience - By Elizabeth Richards

As breast cancer awareness month comes to a close, Windham resident Heidi Hutchins has a story to share and a milestone to celebrate. Heidi is a breast cancer survivor, who has been cancer free for five years this month.     
Heidi’s journey started in late 2008, when she went for a regular physical. She had just turned 40, and her doctor recommended a baseline mammogram. The first showed some suspicious spots, so she had a second, and a biopsy. She was diagnosed with Stage 0 breast cancer, which is an extremely early detection, and in the world of cancer, a good diagnosis. 

At the beginning of 2009, Hutchins had a double mastectomy. “I figured I might as well get it all over with and not have to worry about it,” she said. But a week later, she realized it had only begun. Her diagnosis was very different than the initial one. “Overnight everything changed. It was quite devastating,” said Hutchins.

She was told then that her cancer was actually stage one, which is still early stage, but it was a very aggressive cancer, call HER2 positive. In this form of cancer, protein attaches itself to the cells, and they multiply very quickly. “Everything changed that day and I was facing something very different than I initially thought,” said Hutchins. 

Her journey took her through four rounds of chemotherapy, 37 radiation treatments, and a year of infusions of a drug called Herceptin which targets the HER2+ cancers. “That whole year, 2009, I spent battling breast cancer,” says Hutchins. And the rest of her life didn’t just stop. She had started a new job in Sept 2008, just before receiving her diagnosis, and she had two young boys, one in kindergarten and one in third grade that year. 

“It’s really hard on everybody. They had a lot of questions,” she said, adding that it became scary to the boys when they saw her lose her hair. “That’s when it becomes real because they see the physical changes in you. It was really difficult,” she said. At the same time, she said she felt like her children kept her normal. “You still have to maintain somewhat of a normal life for them, so it’s not too scary for them,” she said. She learned through it all that it was vital to lean on friends and family. She had great support from her parents, friends, and a church in town that brought meals and helped in any way they could.
Hutchins had a long road ahead, even after the treatments were over. She elected to have reconstructive surgeries, and also had an ovariectomy because the medication she was on wasn’t stopping the production of estrogen. Her breast cancer was fed by estrogen, and she feared it would return. Hutchins also has some lingering side effects from the chemotherapy treatments, including a severe ringing in her ear, called tinnitus, and some neuropathy that includes tingling or aching in her hands and feet. Still, she feels fortunate to be so far out from treatment. “It’s a small price to pay for my life,” she said. 

The effects of breast cancer last far beyond the treatments. “I want people to know that breast cancer is not just about removing your breast, having some treatments and then getting on with your life like nothing ever happened,” said Hutchins. “It truly affects your whole body,” she added. She has been on a journey of holistic healing since the ovariectomy, she said.

Hutchins said people need to know that early detection is key, and she urged women never to ignore a lump or put off a mammogram. “It definitely saved my life, there’s no doubt in my mind,” she said. 

On the other side of her journey, Hutchins is committed to helping others with cancer. That is what she spent the month of October doing, and she said it’s been wonderful. She has shared her story many times, and helped several close friends diagnosed after she went through her treatments. “It feels so good to be there for them, even though sometimes it means it’s another emotional journey for me to go through,” she said. “I feel like it’s important to be there for them.” 

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