Having breast cancer twice

October 15th, 2018

 

A photo of a family before a backdrop of jagged peaks in the Wind River Wilderness.
Ellen Hamilton, who has been diagnosed twice with breast cancer, backpacks through Wyoming’s Wind River Wilderness with her two children, Spencer and Lauren. (Photo courtesy of the Hamilton family.)

Ellen Hamilton, at age 52, is the picture of health. She eats well, takes long hikes up Mount Herman near Monument, Colorado, climbs the Pikes Peak Incline weekly and backpacks through Wyoming’s Wind River Wilderness.

She also has breast cancer – again.

At the age of 39, a couple of days after completing the Pikes Peak Ascent and the Boulder Backroad Marathon, Hamilton was diagnosed with Her 2 Positive breast cancer after noticing a discharge from her breast.

“It came from out of the blue,’’ Hamilton said. “I thought, ‘I don’t have breast cancer – I’m too healthy. I just ran a marathon.’ I was shocked.’’

The lessons she learned after battling cancer the first time have served her well this time, even though her experience has been entirely different, both in her approach to cancer and the care she’s received.

The first diagnosis was hard to take. Cancer, she knows, as do so many others raising awareness this October for Breast Cancer Awareness Month, is not discriminatory.

“I just didn’t understand that cancer can hit anyone. People would say, ‘Oh, my gosh, you are so healthy and I began to think, ‘who is not going to get it?’ It seemed like it was a roll of the dice. ’’

At the time, her children, Lauren and Spencer, were in elementary school, and they still needed their mother for all the things that mothers do. She was upset with God and wondered how this could happen to her.

“There was hurt and anger because I had done such a good job taking care of myself. It wasn’t like I could look back and say, ‘Oh, if only I had changed this,’’ because there was nothing to change. I had lived a very healthy life.’’

Prayer, although a refuge, was filled for months with the bottled-up angst over having cancer. She said she finally found peace when she began to listen more intently, and God was telling her, “It’s not your choice whether you go through this. It’s your choice whether you go through this with me.” She wiped her tears and walked boldly into the new path set before her, determined to live it with grace. She now understood that, “Cancer is not a choice that any of us can make, but our choice is how we choose to go through it.’’

She leaned on family and friends and her faith. “I just kept telling myself – ‘Eyes on him.’’’

A family backbacking in the Wind River Wilderness
Ellen Hamilton says having breast cancer is not discriminatory.

The approach helped her through chemo, radiation, losing her hair and a mastectomy. She continued working as an information technology consultant and mom to her children. Today, Lauren plans to become a nurse practitioner and Spencer pursues a degree in Political Science and International Affairs. Ellen and her husband, Dave, continue their active lifestyle – running, riding bikes and hiking.

Thirteen years later, Hamilton felt what she described as a “BB,’’ in the area where the mastectomy had been done. She asked her primary care doctor about it and he sent her to Dr. Laura Pomerenke, a beloved breast surgeon at UCHealth Memorial Hospital’s Mary Lou Beshears Breast Care Clinic.

Pomerenke had cared for Hamilton during her first round with breast cancer. When the two women reunited at the clinic, they had fun sharing updates about the kids, husbands and jobs and then Pomerenke did a biopsy on the “BB.’’

That Friday night, while Dave was in Chicago visiting a childhood friend with Stage IV Colon cancer, Hamilton was home alone. Dr. Pomerenke called and told Ellen that the Her 2 Positive breast cancer had returned. Hamilton was stunned, in shock, just as she was the first time she heard such news.

Dr. Laura Pomerenke
Dr. Laura Pomerenke

In the quiet, she remembered the lessons from the first round: “Cancer is not a choice that any of us can make, but our choice is how we go through it. Eyes on God.’’

From the outset, the journey was much different. This time, she had deeper understanding and acceptance.

“I don’t have a choice in the matter. I keep doing the things that rock my world and enliven me,’’ she said. “I can’t say I ever stop praying about it – It’s more of a continual prayer from the heart – but I pray that God’s will be done whatever that is because that’s where I want to be, and to not focus on cancer but on living life.’’

She has embraced how different the cancer journey is now, compared to then.

“I’ve been shocked at how different the experience is now, verses 13 years ago. Then it was more of a confusing experience – you were part of it but you weren’t,’’ she said. “Now, it is an amazingly different experience.’’

The care is much more centered on the patient, and the communication with medical providers who explain procedures and set expectations is better. She’s taken a Chemo Teach course to understand how the chemo coursing through her body is designed to work. She has a nurse navigator – a mix of concierge and angel – who is there to talk to, answer questions, and guide her through a journey that no one wants to take twice.

In the olden days – about 20 years ago – Her 2 Positive cancer was considered “a really bad, very aggressive cancer. The recurrence rate was twice a non-Her 2 cancer. In the late 1990s, Herceptin, one of the first target antibody therapies to treat Her 2 Positive was developed, and now there are three additional therapies to treat the cancer.

“Even though this is tiny, we treat it aggressively,’’ she said. Doctors do not know why Hamilton’s cancer returned.

“We don’t know why. Here it hung around for 10-plus years, but we caught it early, and she is going to do well,’’ Dr. Pomerenke said.

She said that her oncologist, Dr. Ann Mellott, has done her best to tailor chemo therapy so she can “get through it.’’

“We looked at what her experience had been with chemotherapy in the past and what we could do to try to minimize the side effects,’’ Dr. Mellott said. “We took the time to go through her past history and what she went through to make sure that her current treatment was appropriate and we were not going to repeat the same issues.’’

Dr. Ann Mellott
Dr. Ann Mellott

Dr. Mellott said she appreciates Ellen’s energy and positive attitude.

“I feel like the process has improved so much, from the front end to the back end, it is just amazing. Just from the impression of what I’ve gone through this time, I have to give huge kudos,’’ Hamilton said.

Before Mother’s Day, her daughter, Lauren, who is studying to be a nurse practitioner, went to a pottery shop and made a coffee mug for her mom. It says: “You are stronger than you know.’’

Every morning, Hamilton uses the mug to sip on her morning java. And every morning, she reads those powerful words.

While receiving chemotherapy, Hamilton introduced herself to a woman who was seated in the next bay. The woman had just started chemo and the two chatted about their next appointments, etc.

At home, Hamilton talked to her daughter, “Wouldn’t it be nice to be there for her last round of chemo?’’

While Hamilton worked as an information technology consultant, Lauren went into their basement and made up a few greeting cards that said: “You are stronger than you know’’ and also included the Bible verse Zephaniah 3:17.

“Look what I made’’ Lauren said, emerging from the basement a little later.

A few days later, Hamilton and her daughter bought flowers and delivered them and the cards to all the patients receiving chemotherapy at UCHealth Memorial Hospital. Patients were touched by their humanity and kindness.

“When you’ve been through it twice, you’re not overwhelmed anymore. People going through it the first time are terrified,’’ Hamilton said.

Practicing random kindness, she said, is one of the things she does to “turn around the moment,’’ she said. “This life is not about me.’’

A family photographed in Wyoming's Wind River Wilderness
Ellen Hamilton hiking through Wyoming’s Wind River Wilderness.

Hamilton completed chemotherapy on a Tuesday and went backpacking with Dave and the adult children in the Wind River Wilderness on Wednesday. The three carried extra weight to help lighten Hamilton’s pack so she could accomplish the trek.

Along the way, Hamilton marveled at the snow-capped jagged peaks, lush green valleys and deep blue mountain lakes, grateful for the moment.

She will continue receiving chemo therapy through November. Each morning, she’ll drink from the coffee cup from Lauren, mindful that she is stronger than she knows.

 

About the author

Erin Emery is editor of UCHealth Today, a hub for medical news, inspiring patient stories and tips for healthy living. Erin spent years as a reporter for The Denver Post, Colorado Springs Gazette and Colorado Springs Sun. She was part of a team of Denver Post reporters who won the 2000 Pulitzer Prize for breaking news reporting.

Erin joined UCHealth in 2008, and she is awed by the strength of patients and their stories.