When Jennifer LeBlanc found a lump in her right breast on April 27, she was 37, and she worried.
She’d just been to her annual gynecological check up two weeks before, and she worried that it was already there and had gone undetected. She worried that, even worse, it had just grown that fast. Neither one of them were good signs.
“But that’s not what this story is about,” LeBlanc stopped herself.
Learning to control her fears, or at least her reaction to them, has been one of the more useful things she’s learned in the months since, along with a dictionary’s worth of medical jargon, like “triple positive invasive ductal breast cancer.”
“It was Stage 1, which is good. But the triple positive — that’s the bad part,” LeBlanc said in a Feb. 2 interview with The Advocate.
It means her cancer has all the right traits to move within her body, and it terrified her.
“There was a while after my diagnosis that I couldn’t really talk about it with anyone other than my family and my doctors. I didn’t want to talk about it. I didn’t want to think about it. I didn’t want to even acknowledge it had any affect on my body,” she said.
When she began treatment at Mary Bird Perkins - Our Lady of the Lake Cancer Center, she also scheduled a one-on-one session with Francinne Lawrence, survivorship coordinator of the center’s new THRIVE program.
THRIVE is a program that offers “health and wellness coaching, yoga, art therapy, nutritional education, Pilates, water aerobics and more to help cancer survivors move beyond their disease to wellness,” according to a news release from the center.
“You’re considered a survivor from the moment you’re diagnosed,” Lawrence said.
With a team that includes a health and wellness coach and access to an oncology nurse, THRIVE helps participants to find the motivation and tools to reach their physical and emotional health goals, which can include: losing weight, eating better, quitting tobacco use, lowering stress, returning to work, managing financial concerns, sleeping better and/or enjoying more quality time with friends and family.
While some elements of support have been in place for years, Lawrence said, THRIVE marks a concerted effort to increase participation, in part due to a push from its accrediting agency, the American College of Surgeons’ Commission on Cancer, to do so.
“We want to get all of our patients involved in some way, but it’s not limited to Mary Bird patients. We want anyone in our community who has ever been diagnosed to use this service,” Lawrence said. Survivorship picks up where treatment leaves off.
“Patients are in this situation where they’re constantly at the hospital (with a lot of support) during treatment, then we say, ‘OK, go home.’ ”
So much of a patient’s fight with cancer is in mitigating the stress that comes with a diagnosis and treatment. Lawrence said, so when she meets with patients, “I ask how can we best help you? The more tools we can give patients to deal with the emotions that come with cancer, the better their long-term outcomes will be. There’s good science to back this up,” she said.
Sometimes, it’s easy to figure out how to help a patient. And sometimes, she has to read between the lines.
LeBlanc was worried about letting cancer change her.
She adopted a warrior mentality when she was first diagnosed. She had an enemy, and she had to be ready to challenge it. She recruited her husband, 19-year-old daughter, mom, dad and friends to back her up, and on her birthday, June 13, JenTeam was officially formed.
Other survivors she met through THRIVE became close friends, and the staff members she saw regularly became like family.
She would go through six tough rounds of chemotherapy — a mix of three powerful drugs that made her very sick, very weak and very bald.
“I still insisted on going to work every day, even when I was getting tired. I didn’t slow down at all because to me, that was letting cancer win,” she said.
Lawrence, she said, “heard what I was saying, but she also heard what I wasn’t saying. I needed rest. My health was declining, and I had to learn that resting was part of my battle, too.”
When she started chemo, LeBlanc also started Mind-Body Together, a program that meets regularly to do “all kinds of things. We learned to meditate. We talk. We do projects. Art journaling, we made collages with magazine. Once a group brought some therapy dogs by and I sat in a corner petting a dog,” she said.
She also came to see that a medical leave of absence from work was good for her body, so she did it, without the guilt that cancer was winning. Art journaling and collages were not the sort of thing she would have done before cancer, but completing each exercise felt like a psychological win she needed.
“Sometimes, you just need a project, you know?”
As part of the overall program, THRIVE also includes monthly workshops that address common physical and emotional concerns of cancer survivors, family members and caregivers.
All THRIVE programs are provided at no cost. For information, visit www.mbpolol.org/THRIVE or call (225) 215-1391.