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Local Breast Cancer Survivor Shares Her Transformative Experience

Imagine being diagnosed with breast cancer during National Breast Cancer Awareness Month. The irony was not lost on survivor Marianne Kramer, who shares her story in a Patch Q&A.

A Grayslake Patch profile of breast cancer survivor Marianne Kramer, 43, of Round Lake.

When and how were you diagnosed with breast cancer?

I was officially diagnosed on Oct. 5, 2011, at 42. It’s not exactly easy being diagnosed during Breast Cancer Awareness Month, since not only is on your mind constantly, it is then everywhere you turn as well! A year later, it is much easier to take.

I actually found the lump in my right breast during a self-exam. At the time, I was actually in the best physical shape I had been in, in about 15 years. I was eating well, working out regularly through cardio-kickboxing and strength training, and had recently lost some weight, including in my breasts, and I believe because of the weight loss, the lump was that much more apparent. 

Did you have a family history?

My maternal grandmother had breast cancer probably 30 years or so ago. She is now in her nineties. Because of that, I did have the BRCA genetic testing done, which turnout out negative, thankfully. That was a huge relief for my mom, and for my daughter’s sake. She’s 9. 

Did you get regular mammograms?

Yes, because of my grandmother, I had my first baseline mammogram at 35.  My most recent mammogram, which was reported as clean, was in March 2011. I had another right at the time of the biopsy, and that was negative too. I then learned that up to 15 percent of mammograms do not detect cancer, so PLEASE, get in touch with your girls and find out what normal feels like for you. 

I had periodically done self exams, but it wasn’t until I had lost a cup size or two that the lump became more prominent. Additionally, just prior to my diagnosis, I had started taking a supplement called Protandim, which is an all natural NrF2 synergizer, clinically proven to reduce oxidative stress in our bodies. Because of this, I was feeling amazing physically, and I believe this helped to quiet down the rest of my body enough to let me notice that something wasn’t quite right in my breast.

There was a certain sensation that came along with the lump, not pain necessarily, but a gnawing feeling emanating from that side, which drew my attention to it, saying 'Hey pay attention over here!' Then when I did the self exam, I could tell that something was there that shouldn’t be. 

How did you, your family and friends react to your diagnosis?

I suppose in a way I wasn’t surprised. It was obvious something was there. My gynecologist tried to aspirate it to see if it was a cyst, and that didn’t work. So when I went for the ultrasound and biopsy I was already prepared. By the time I got the call confirming the diagnosis, I had already mentally processed it, as had my husband, Chuck. 

As for the reaction of my family and friends, the most difficult thing about all of this was telling my mother and my two kids, Charlie (then 10) and Grace (then 8). I told my mom the evening I found out, but waited to tell my kids until I really knew what I was going to do and could give them details about treatment. But they were horrified by my news.

We had just lost my dear step-father, George, to pancreatic cancer just nine months prior, and my mom especially was still grieving. The fear of possibly losing her daughter, too, was unbearable for her. Same for my children. When we finally did tell them, my daughter screamed and ran off, and my son clung to me and cried. They were so scared because they were far too familiar with cancer at such a tender age. But we united as a family and my kids asked me a lot of very excellent, detailed questions which helped them process it. 

My friends were certainly shocked as well, and initially when I broke the news, I found myself in the position of consoling them. But after the shock wore off, I couldn’t ask for more love, support and kindness that was shown to me. The outpouring of support and generosity was far beyond what I ever could have imagined. I never really knew how special or loved or important I was to some of these people until this happened. 

What course of action did you take? Where did you go for treatment?

My initial reaction was to go about this as naturally as possible. I am a firm believer that the body is made to heal itself and that a strong immune system is critical to that healing.

My cancer was triple-negative (ER-, PR-, HER2-), which is apparently a very aggressive form, with a higher recurrence rate. Even with that information, I was still very reluctant to pursue the conventional treatment of chemo and radiation.

I had decided to do a bi-lateral mastectomy to further reduce my risk or at least perception of it, and give me piece of mind. But I struggled with the concept of chemo and radiation because it is so harsh on the immune system. After a physician that I work with referred me to Dr. Kevin Bethke at Northwestern Memorial Hospital for a second opinion, I knew immediately that he would be my breast surgeon. Dr. Neil Fine, also at Northwestern, performed my reconstruction.

Dr. Bethke really understood my concerns with chemo and radiation and my desire for a more integrated approach, and asked me to think critically about moving forward with chemo/radiation because of the nature of this type of cancer and its responsiveness to it. He suggested that I look into the Block Center in Skokie, which is an integrated cancer treatment center. I did, and as such, felt very comfortable that if I had to do this to increase my survival odds, then it would be the Block Center who would help me through this.

Their approach includes exercise, dietary changes and nutritional consultation (I became a vegan), supplementation (to boost my immune system and ensure any vitamin deficiencies are addressed), mind/spirit strategies for relaxation and stress management (including Qi Gong and massage).

They truly treated me like a rock star! They were extremely efficient, caring, and supportive. Every step along the way, they knew what to predict and how to mitigate any reactions. In addition, I maintained my supplementation of Protandim, added Chinese medicine, and also worked with an energy healer. I was determined to do anything that came my way and apply every tool possible. 

I went through eight cycles of chemotherapy over 16 weeks, and aside from losing my hair and a little bit of weight, did not experience any significant side effects. No sickness, not even a single wave of nausea. I was able to maintain a normal life.  For anyone diagnosed with cancer, I would highly encourage them to be treated at the Block Center. 

Following chemo, in the spring of 2012, I started 5 weeks of radiation at the Northwestern Lake Forest Grayslake Cancer Center, under the care of Dr. Joseph Imperato, who was referred to me by both Dr. Bethke and the staff at the Block Center. Their staff was equally amazing – happy, positive, smiling faces greeting me at every session, making it the best possible situation, considering I was there five days a week. 

My treatment concluded on July 2, 2012, and they threw me a party with my husband and kids joining in the celebration.

What was the most difficult part of battling breast cancer? How did it change your life?

The most difficult aspect was the emotional toll it took on my kids, especially initially, but once they saw that I was able to manage through chemo very effectively and still maintain normalcy in family life and at work, I think they realized I would be okay and then they worried less.

I think the single most way that it changed my life is that it empowered me. I successfully managed through something that I hope no one ever has to face, but I there was no option other than to just do it. All the changes I made in my way of thinking and my diet will only benefit me for the rest of my life. Now, I feel that if I can beat cancer, I can do anything. There is nothing to fear. 

How did you find strength? What worked for you? What and who helped you through it?

I found strength in my family and spiritual beliefs. Regarding my family, I told my husband that his job was to keep me laughing. He’s a wickedly funny man anyway, so it came natural to him to find the humor, where we could, in the situation. I know that laughter is an immune-booster, so that was important to me!

Our approach, together, was to conquer this with love, not fear. We were open to whatever came our way and found the blessings in what was happening. Our family had been close, but we became so much closer. My children also were a huge source of strength for me and their hugs gave me much comfort. We said that their hugs gave me ‘superpowers’ to fight the cancer. They were my reason to fight so hard. I also use a lot of visualization techniques and very positive, life-affirming statements. I tell myself every day that I am healthy, that I am cancer-free. 

I can’t even begin to list all the people that helped me through this. Some don’t even know it, and some of the people I don’t even know myself. I also firmly believe that my stepdad was looking out for me too! In summary, it was just so moving to know so many people cared and offered prayers and support, from close friends, to some that were mere acquaintances, to complete strangers. 

There were many occasions where I would be out sporting my bald head, and strangers would walk up to me and share their stories and offer encouragement and prayers. It does become a sisterhood when you join the ranks of breast cancer survivors, and I only hope I can help someone else in the same manner others helped me. 

Did you join a support group?

I did not join a formal support group, because I actually didn’t feel like I had to. I had long list of people that became my support team from various perspectives.  I have an uncle who is a 9 year survivor of brain cancer, his wife is a breast cancer survivor and another aunt by marriage who is also a breast cancer survivor. These family members were instrumental in giving me encouragement and sharing what to expect in various stages of the process.

In addition, I have a friend at work, also a breast cancer survivor, who was like my fairy godmother. At various milestones of my treatment, she would leave little packages in my office of things that helped her during that stage, things like certain foods that she craved during chemo to a make-up kit to still try to feel pretty when  I started losing my hair. I also had so much flexibility and support from all my friends and co-workers at Baxter Healthcare, where I work, that I never felt like I needed anything else. One lesson I had to quickly learn is that it is okay to receive help and love, when usually I was the ‘go-to’ person. 

How long have you been cancer free?

I would say I’ve been cancer free since Dec. 8, 2011, when I had surgery and the tumor was removed. It turned out to be Stage 3, as it had moved into my lymph nodes. I had 28 nodes removed and 5 were positive. 

Do you have any advice for other women, including those who don't have breast cancer?

Of course! I’ve learned so much from this. I has truly been a transformative experience. You must not take your health for granted. Be an advocate for yourself.

Most of all, I would say that a positive attitude truly does make a difference.  My 9-year-old daughter summed it up best. This is the lesson she has learned from all of this: 'If you are positive mentally, then positive things happen physically.'

I know it sounds cliché, but it could not be more true. Use every moment to experience who you really are and who you want to be. Choose love over fear.  Fear is the polar opposite of love. Love is truly all there is. 

Has your outlook on life changed?

I hope it has been forever altered. There is joy in the small and simple things.  There is a lot of kindness in humanity and it comes in unexpected ways and from unexpected people. Trivial and material things do not matter at all.  I know I have been truly blessed. The most remarkable thing that has come from this is that my kids tell me that I am their hero. That alone has made this journey worthwhile.

Special thanks to Kelly Klopp, Media Relations Manager at Northwestern Lake Forest Hospital and photographer Chris Strong.

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