Group for younger breast cancer patients offers refuge

It’s not the emotion you expect to hear as you walk down a hall and into a meeting of a young women’s breast cancer support group.

Not just a chuckle, but full-bellied, knowing, empathetic laughter.

The group of about 12 women laughed at remembering some of the questions they have been asked: “Do you lose all your hair during chemotherapy?”

They laughed as one member recalled her first glimpse of the wigs available for women to wear during their treatments.

“We made fun of them; they look like Justin Bieber wigs,” said Jen Uhler, 42, of Marysville, who helped found the group in June. She was 40 when she found the lump during a self-exam that led to her diagnosis in 2011.

Tracy Larsen, 43, of Lake Stevens, said she tried counseling before coming to the group. “I felt like I was just sitting there talking,” she said.

“To another person who didn’t get it?” interjected Mikki Premel, 44, of Lake Stevens, triggering another wave of laughter from group members who have experienced similar frustrations.

Yes, they do laugh a lot, group members said, but they also know they can depend on each other.

“One thing about this disease and being diagnosed young is you have this instinctual need to help someone else,” said Libby Hagen, of Snohomish, who was diagnosed with breast cancer two years ago when she was 39.

“All of us know it’s not a joke,” Hagen said. It’s important for women to see other women who have been through treatment have a sense of humor, but “can talk about the fact that we’ve gotten hysterical and broken down and survived,” she said. “It does get better.”

Uhler, who works at the Providence’s Comprehensive Breast Center in Everett, saw the need for a support group specifically for younger breast cancer patients.

“I would tell them I knew what they were going through,” Uhler said. Sometimes she would meet them for coffee.

No support groups for breast cancer patients in their 30s and 40s existed in Snohomish County. This meant Jeanna Petzoldt, 42, of Marysville, was traveling with women from Snohomish and Arlington to a group in Seattle until June, when one in Everett was launched.

“You realize how many younger women there are going through the same thing you’re going through,” Petzoldt said.

The group discusses just about everything a woman can face as she is treated for breast cancer: mastectomies and reconstructive surgery, the side effects of chemotherapy, handling relationships with kids and spouses, and the fear of a recurrence.

“You get the fear every time you get a headache or pain,” Hagen said. “Nobody understands that fear, that terror, except someone who’s gone through cancer.”

Larsen was diagnosed in July 2011 with cancer in her left breast. She struggled with whether to have surgery to remove both breasts or only her left breast, before opting for a double mastectomy.

She was treated with chemotherapy and radiation. She felt strong enough to participate in the Susan G. Komen 3-Day walk for breast cancer in September 2012. But during the walk she was plagued with back pain.

In January, she was sent to the hospital for a medical scan that showed her breast cancer had metastasized. A tumor was wedged between two vertebrae in her spine.

“They weren’t sure if they could get it out, if I would be paralyzed by the surgery, or if I would come out of the surgery at all,” she said.

Now, 10 months after her surgery, Larsen said she has progressed well beyond what her surgeons had predicted. “I am walking and active,” she said.

The group has offered her an emotional release that she said she couldn’t get elsewhere. “It’s comfortable,” Larsen said. “We can laugh about the experiences because we’ve all been through it.

“Our hair falls out. We get sick. There’s things we can’t eat. None of us are sitting there saying, ‘I don’t understand what she’s talking about.’

“It’s an interesting dynamic how someone can walk into the group, even on that first night, and just feel like I can tell these guys whatever is going through my mind. Someone in this room will understand what I’m feeling, because they’ve felt it, too.”

Sharon Salyer: 425-339-3486; salyer@heraldnet.com.

Find support

A support group for young breast cancer patients and survivors meets from 5:30 to 7 p.m. on the second and fourth Tuesday of each month at the Providence Regional Cancer Partnership, 1717 13th St. in Everett. For information, call Dawn Dixon at 425-297-5521.

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