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Jeannie Merrick W.H.C.N.P

Women’s Health Care Nurse Practitioner

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My Breast Cancer Story: Friends, family and ‘what ifs’

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Taken two months before being diagnosed, Jeannie and friends enjoy time spent together on the Rogue River Wild and Scenic Hiking Trail.

This is an on-going series chronicling my personal journey through the maze of breast cancer diagnosis and treatment. To start at the beginning, read the first post in the series.

A lesson I am learning: how to appreciate unsolicited help. I am fiercely independent and I was at first reluctant to accept the many and varied offers of giving. One friend, whose sister had breast cancer, wants to make a special vegetable broth that helps with nausea. Another offers to weed and harvest my garden. One riding partner proposes to ride my young horse so he won’t go wild. Another pal, who trades giving and receiving massages with me, offers to simply give a massage and not receive one until I am well again. As I slowly get weaker, not only do I accept such generosity but I also acknowledge that I do need the help. My husband can’t do it all, and he seems happy we have so many friends willing to lend a hand.

Always by her side, Jeannie’s husband, Tony, always seems to know the right thing to say at the right time.

The all-essential support system
My husband keeps telling me how strong I am and how proud of me he is. He bought, framed, and hung up a print from a recent exhibit at the University of Oregon museum. It is titled Tough By Nature and shows a weathered-looking ranch woman carrying her saddle. It feels so good to have his unconditional love and support. I know this is hard on him but I only know that because it’s obvious it would be for any partner.

The same can probably be said about work and my colleagues at Oak Street Medical. Everyone – colleagues and patients alike – has been incredibly supportive. After my initial diagnosis, I was emotionally fragile and terrified that I wouldn’t be able to do my job without losing my cool. I learned, however, that working can been a great distraction, even when I don’t always feel well. It is one of the few times I don’t think about my own misery and my cancer. Seeing my head wrapped in a scarf, my older patients sometimes ask, if they know me well, how I am doing. The younger ones seem a bit more oblivious. One teenager recently said “Hey that’s a cool turban!”

Pondering the “what ifs”
I think sometimes about what this experience would be like if I had no health insurance. I either wouldn’t be getting the quality care I am receiving, or I would have the extra stress of worrying about meeting the financial obligation cancer treatment places on a family.

I feel lucky, even when I feel terrified, fragile and fatigued. I also feel guilty. Every year, around my end-of-October birthday, I usually get my mammogram. I consider it a present to myself. However, life and work stresses accumulated over the past couple of years, and I somehow neglected to schedule my imaging appointments.

As a Women’s Health Care Nurse Practitioner who all too frequently sees breast cancer in patients, this is a source of utter embarrassment for me. It is particularly distressing when I think about the fact that if I had done my mammogram in either of the last two years, my breast cancer likely would have been found at a lower stage, and I would not have needed chemotherapy. Having a lumpectomy and radiation for a breast cancer that has not spread is no walk in the park, but chemotherapy is difficult, monumental and ironically dangerous to long-term health.

Jeannie’s son Simon, who lives in Alaska, took her diagnosis especially hard.

This situation reminds me of the Buddhist story about tossing a pebble in the water and watching the ensuing ripple effect. Whether the tossed rock is something good or bad, the ramifications fan out, affecting many lives. While I am working hard to come to grips with my new reality – cancer, chemo and increasing infirmity – I am really struggling to accept my missed mammograms. It feels inexcusable. I made a horrible mistake by not paying attention to my own health, and that has caused much suffering for me and the ones who love me. For this, I am sick at heart, sorry, and full of regret.

While I am working hard to come to grips with my new reality of cancer, chemo and increasing infirmity, I am really struggling to accept my missed mammograms. It feels inexcusable and reminds me of the Buddhist narrative – the one about the ripple effect that occurs after tossing a pebble in the water. Whether the tossed pebble is something “good” or “bad,” the ramifications fan out, affecting many lives. I made a horrible mistake by not paying attention to my own health and that has caused much suffering for myself and for those who love me. For this, I am sick at heart, sorry, and full of regret.

I am now making it my personal mission to remind those whose lives I’m fortunate to touch to get a mammogram. Along with the support of friends and family, as well as access to modern medicine, I am hopeful for a full recovery.

To follow Jeannie's journey, “Like” us on Facebook and visit the Oak Street Medical Blog every Tuesday and Thursday throughout October, Breast Cancer Awareness Month.

As a women’s health care nurse practitioner, Jeannie Merrick has spent 30 years working with women of all ages as a specialist in gynecological, reproductive and sexual health. Jeannie’s down-to-earth approach is reassuring and comforting to patients.