Survival skills

Breast cancer survivor Linda Brant tells her story

Photo By David Robert

In January 2006, at age 47, Linda Brant’s life, body and future were forever altered. “I found a lump in my right breast,” Brant remembers. “Because my mother has a history of fibroids, and I’ve had fibroid tumors in the left one, I was thinking it was a fibroid and keeping an eye on it. Then I noticed it was getting bigger.”

When Brant’s scheduled mammogram came due that May, she gave the radiologist a heads-up.

“My gut feeling was it wasn’t normal, so I kind of [knew] it wasn’t going to come back normal,” she says. “Over the course of four months, it got a little bigger.”

The mammogram prompted the biopsy, and when those results came back, Brant’s instinct buffered but didn’t block her worst fears.

“It wasn’t knock-down shock—the hope is there that it’s not [breast cancer]—but my surgeon called and [confirmed] that I have invasive ductal carcinoma. It was a little bigger than two centimeters.”

Brant—a married mother of one daughter and two sons—recalls the surgeon explaining that the lump had to be removed, but she tuned out much of it.

“I was just real quiet. You kind of go numb,” she says, adding that from there, the process accelerated “pretty fast, which can be very disorganizing and intimidating. You’ve just found out you have cancer, but they need to get going on it, and you don’t have a whole lot of time to do research, fact-finding and get your head together.”

Tough decisions

Although she had extended family members who died of “totally different” cancers, Brant, now 49, says there wasn’t time to hesitate, either.

“I always swore that if I ever get cancer I was going to go to this clinic in Tijuana. I wasn’t going to do chemo or other stuff. But after talking to my family doctor, the surgeon and my dentist—I was having some dental work done beforehand, and when you start chemotherapy, you’re at such a high risk for infection … and the mouth can be a major source of [that]—so we had to quickly fix some things. With all of those health-care professionals, I was hearing the same thing: “It’s not gloom-and-doom, Linda. Breast cancer is curable if you catch it early. Chemotherapy is not gonna knock you down.’ I was hearing a lot of positives, and it made me more comfortable to follow the traditional route. The medicines they’re using are so much better than 10 years ago, even. I went ahead and had what they call a modified radical mastectomy.”

Told she was “a good candidate for a lumpectomy,” Brant chose to have her right breast and 11 enlarged lymph nodes removed because doctors originally thought the cancer—growing in the lower part of the breast—had invaded the chest wall.

“I thought, ‘For my peace-of-mind, I don’t want to have to worry if I feel something else [and wonder], is it fibroids or cancer?’ Turned out, it did not, and I got very clean margins. They also removed 11 lymph nodes because there were some that were bigger than others, enlarged a little bit. But none of those had any cancer.”

Despite all the self-contained miracles of the human body, lymph nodes do not regenerate, so the body has to find new ways to drain those essential fluids.

“I have a slight lymphodema in my right arm,” Brant says. “But I have full range of motion in it. I did what the surgeon said; the exercises, kept it moving, massaged it. It’s not quite as strong as it used to be, but I can pretty much do anything I want to.”

Brant briefly checked online resources for more information, then she turned to her spouse of 31 years, Robert Brant, 49, for support not just closer to home, but to her heart.

“I talked to my husband to make sure that me having [a perfect body] wasn’t the only thing he loved about me. He just wanted me. He said, ‘I don’t care.’ All of that came into play for me to decide to [have surgery].”

Brant’s modified radical mastectomy removed the entire breast tissue but left the muscle, excess skin and as many lymph nodes as possible. Some women, she says, actually have their ribs scraped when breast cancer advances at an alarming pace. Brant endured the discomfort of a mammogram, biopsy and chemotherapy at Washoe Medical Center (now Renown)—but emerging with only one breast was both an unbearable pain and a brutal, blatant truth.

“My surgeon was a very dear, sweet man,” Brant said, paying tribute to Reno’s Dr. Paul Stumpf. “I actually relied on him more than my family doctor. In the initial process, when I was making the decision and asking the questions, he said, ‘This is not something to take lightly. This is an amputation. You are losing a body part.’”

Though she managed to avoid the threats of infection, pneumonia and other post-surgery complications, Brant faced the stark reality of disfigurement and two drains that must be emptied daily. Her sister, an R.N. in a post-surgery recovery room in Oregon, was at Brant’s side to care for her drains, bandages and fluctuating despair and hope.

“I was very fortunate. That was a godsend.”

Spiritual needs

God, spiritual redemption and faith were Brant’s consolation throughout her ordeal.

“I am a religious person. I think that’s why I had a gut feeling there was something wrong. I think He just told me, ‘This needs to be taken care of.’ From that point forward, things definitely fell into place that I would never have dreamed of. I ended up with a very good surgeon and some care that I know was just kind of guided. Every day in the mirror, you see that it’s gone. Even if you’ve had reconstruction, it’s still not yours. It’s gone. Your self-image gets attacked. As women, we tend to really cherish how we look. It’s kind of our vanity thing. I felt like people noticed. Everybody was looking at me, even though they weren’t. You’re very self-conscious. Sometimes it was so overwhelming—I don’t know how many times I ended up crying—and I just had to turn that over, give it to God and say, ‘I trust that you’re taking care of me, healing me.’ That’s part of how, mentally, I got through it.”

Although Brant struggled to stay strong, she couldn’t just toss off the tears—shed mostly in solitary moments.

“That’s when I could let my guard down and scream at God—there were several times I told Him off, ‘cause I didn’t think that was fair—and just [have a] release for myself. There were a couple times that my husband just held me. I really tried to keep it together around my kids, family and friends, ‘cause you hate to see other people upset, too.”

Keeping his vow to stand by Linda in sickness and in health, Robert remembers how he felt when Linda told him the awful truth—and who his wife is now, in his eyes.

“It was the hardest news I ever had to hear. You’re uncertain about what’s going to happen,” he says. “It’s one of the roughest things in life you ever have to go through as a supporter, ‘cause you don’t know what the outcome’s gonna be. It can change your life in a heartbeat. [She’s] the toughest gal I ever knew. She plugged along, day by day, going through the chemo. I don’t know if I could’ve done it. She hung in there, and we got through it, [with] a lot of praying and a lot of hope on top of it.”

Chance and precaution

Now moving toward survival, Brant recalls experiencing a spectrum of emotions, as well as the intensive range of questions pertaining to the disease’s potential causes: diet, injury, family history, hormones, environmental factors and more.

“None of it pertained,” she says. “In the back of your head, you kind of do the what-if. But when it gets down to bare bones, I don’t think it matters. It’s just an AWOL cell that goes berserk. You just never know.”

Still, Brant says she is more health-conscious now, choosing romaine over iceberg lettuce, monitoring caffeine consumption and avoiding mystery ingredients.

“One thing I am more cautious about is processed foods, partly because of the chemotherapy. You become chemical-sensitive. I’m not a huge red-meat eater, but I do like a good steak once in a while. I don’t eat a huge portion, [but] I need it to keep my white-cell count good and healthy.”

Additionally, since Brant was pre-menopausal when she was diagnosed, the tumor used the natural estrogen and progesterone in her body to help itself grow. This fairly common condition is called ER/PR-positive, so her doctors accelerated her menopause, kick-started by chemo.

“I’m on Tamoxifen, which will finish throwing me into menopause. It blocks estrogen, so if there’s some radical cell left after chemo, it can’t use estrogen to grow. I’ll be on that [drug] for five years. So now I’m really in menopause—hot flashes and all!” she says with a laugh.

Moving on

Part of a growing community of survivors, Brant reaches out to others who receive the same staggering news. She provides a listening heart, sympathetic shoulder and two good legs, participating in the Komen foundation’s Race for the Cure (see page 4).

“The ladies at [my support group] On With Life were my information source,” says Brant. “Instead of calling the doctor all the time, it was another place you could get little tidbits [of vital insight]. There’s definite things you had to call the doctor on, but sometimes when you’re feeling kind of funny, you could ask them. My toenails fell off, and I was kind of like, ‘Is this normal?’ and they were like, ‘Yeah. It’s from the chemotherapy.’ So it was a place to get other information without being judged and feeling like you’re stupid asking questions. It was another outlet [and] a great source.”

At the time of her diagnosis, Brant was retired from the banking industry and working for the scrapbooking company Creative Memories, which gave her a home-based, flexible schedule she was grateful for, as she was unable to work three weeks out of a month. Today, Brant is well on her way to beating breast cancer and conquering fear—but not entirely.

“There’s definite stages that you go through on how you’re feeling about it. There was a period of time I got really depressed,” she says. “Then I’d come back out of it, [thinking], ‘No. This is survivable.’ There’re other times where, if I do too much, and my chest is a little sore, then you’re [susceptible to] ‘toe cancer.’ It’s kind of our little joke at [On With Life]; if something happens: ‘Oh no! You’ve got toe cancer!’ You get paranoid, and then you kind of calm down. It’s reality.”

And in the reality of American society, where today’s working mothers are just this side of Superwoman, Brant says she occasionally succumbed to the pressure to do it all.

“There were a lot of times when my family or people would ask me, ‘How are you feeling?’ and I’d always say, ‘Good,’ just because sometimes, I really didn’t want to talk about if I was feeling crappy or have to give an explanation, or I just wanted to be normal. My husband finally caught on that that was my little placebo thing. It does such a number on your head, and to come out still sane is a miracle in itself.”

Reflecting on life B.C.—before cancer, when her worst fear that her demise would come in “a horrible car accident”—Brant is still in the fight, yet she confides that she “honestly never thought” she would be stricken with cancer, an issue she’s still debating with her Higher Power.

“I still don’t have an answer as to why; not a clue, but I came through it. I’m still in one piece and spiritually much stronger. I definitely believe that my spirit keeps me alive, and that needs just as much nurturing as the physical body, and it’s going to live on. He’s taking care of me. I can see now where people with chronic illness seem real cranky, negative and down-with-life. I try my best not to do that ’cause there is too much left that I want to do. I have two kids that are married, but there’s no grandbabies yet, and I want to see those. My prognosis [indicates] there’s a good chance it won’t come back, so I have to keep going forward. Sometimes that means sloughing off negative stuff, whether it’s friends or thoughts. I’ve even gotten bolder when people are talking about stupid little stuff. I’m like, ‘Oh, get a life! C’mon, talk about something worthwhile,’ because I don’t have time for that now. I have a life that has been re-given to me, and I’m going to live it. I’m moving on.”