A Shoulder to Lean On

August 30, 2011 No Comments   

Teresa Fightmaster will NOT give in to breast cancer. As she says in the story she posted on breastcancersite.com: “WILL survive! Early detection saved me twice!”

Fightmaster, a registered nurse with the Saint Joseph Heart Institute at Saint Joseph East (SJE), was pretty much alone when she went through breast cancer the first time. That was five years ago, when she was 42. Lumpectomy and radiation were her treatments.

Then, on August 10 of 2010, after years of being cancer free, she got frightening news: She had another spot on her breast, and it was malignant. Now both breasts would have to be removed. In addition, she would have to endure chemotherapy.

But this time would be different. Around the corner at SJE, a co-worker was fighting back despair while struggling with her own breast cancer diagnosis. A nuclear tech, Cheryl Foscardo, asked Fightmaster if she’d be willing to share her experience with the other cancer patient, registered nurse Pam Brown. That request was the start of a special friendship.

Fightmaster remembers that a wig covered her bald head the day she met her new friend.

Brown, who works in theSaint JosephSleepWellnessCenter, recalls that “we had time to talk between my X-rays. We exchanged phone numbers, and later we got to talk more in-depth. She had gone through so much more than I had. It was so great having a resource close to my age. I’m so glad we were introduced.”

The two nurses would call each other some days, and text on others. One night Brown’s text asked, “Did you ever get nosebleeds?” Fightmaster was able to help her new friend through that – and through much more.

“When your hair falls out, you’re so traumatized,” Fightmaster said. “Your fingernails half fall out, and you lose your eyebrows and eyelashes. Doctors don’t tell you everything. There’s so much to deal with.”

Brown agrees that losing her hair was traumatic. But Fightmaster was there for support.

“I told her to get her wig before her hair fell out,” Fightmaster said. “That really makes a difference.”

The type of wig you buy can help or hinder, as Fightmaster let Brown know. Her first two wigs were so long that they ended up getting in her way. In addition, “wigs cause itching,” the nurse said. “For scalp itch, you put baby’s butt balm on yourself. And a satin pillowcase helps.”

Both nurses agree that shaving your head “is the symbol that you’re sick,” Brown said. “With cancer, you don’t feel sick except for treatment. With the hair loss, we just had to laugh at ourselves, or we would have cried. My wig gave me more bang for my buck. It was much thicker than my own hair ever was.”

Brown had always enjoyed her patients. She had always believed in treating them like family. Even so, “cancer does change your outlook. You appreciate things and people even more. My prognosis was good; that made me feel blessed and appreciative. People brought over dinners from church and from work. I’m a single woman used to taking care of myself and others. I had to humble myself to let people take care of me.”

The nurse is grateful to her co-workers, her doctors and her manager, she said.

“From diagnosis to treatment, there was such a great team of people – such a strong support system.”

Five years ago, Fightmaster was searching the Internet, trying to find answers. This time

“I called people I met through theBreastCenterat SJE,” she said. “This time I needed to find out about mastectomies and chemo. I talked to other women. They really helped me.”

A nurse at theSaint JosephBreastCenterhas asked Fightmaster to do a public presentation for other cancer patients. The breast cancer survivor will gladly be of service, she said. She would also like to help out with American Cancer Society “Look Good, Feel Better” classes that help women cope with appearance changes that result from cancer treatment.

“I would like to do that, even one-on-one,” the nurse said. “I buy long scarves and add to them. I’m kind of a ‘bling’ person. Losing my eyelashes was traumatic. As soon as I put on fake eyelashes and makeup, I felt like a different person.”

Fightmaster has “three pretty wigs” she wants to donate to other women. She had to fight to get her insurance to pay for them. She knows not every woman has insurance. Not every woman can afford a decent wig.

Both women have made an impression on co-workers and patients alike.

Fightmaster’s supervisor in the catheterization lab, radiologic technologist Paula Fox, is amazed at her nurse’s inner strength.

“Teresa is beautiful inside and out,” Fox said. “Since her original diagnosis, she has always maintained a positive outlook and a real survivor spirit. As her manager, I have watched her with amazement as she fights her disease with grace and laughter. She seems so brave, while my heart is breaking for her.”

Fightmaster has shown those around her the meaning of courage, Fox said.

“When she tired of the wigs she purchased, she fashioned scarves that have given her an outlet to express herself with beauty and dignity. She has inspired everyone who knows her.”

Kent Savage, a clinical neurophysiographer who is the manager for neurodiagnostic services atSaint JosephHospital, Saint Joseph East, andSaint Joseph-Berea, is Brown’s boss at the sleep wellness center.

“Although I will never know all of the folks she may have inspired, I can say that she has inspired me with her courage and conviction,” Savage said. “I clearly remember the day she received word of her illness. She accepted the news with more grace than I would have expected and was resolved to choose a treatment regimen that would cure her.”

Brown has shared her fear and uncertainty from time to time, Savage said. Yet “her strength and stamina through this process have been phenomenal. Her faith, courage and determination to be cured are inspirational. They will remain one of the most important experiences of my career.”

Cancer, Employee Stories, Saint Joseph East

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