Kristie Ryser wasn’t perfect about doing her monthly breast self-exams. But the 21-year-old had been feeling achy and thought something in her body was wrong, so she checked – and found a lump.
Ryser’s hunch would lead to a stage 2 breast cancer diagnosis in the spring of 2013 and more than a year of treatment, including seven rounds of chemotherapy and a double mastectomy. During that time, she relied on information and services from the American Cancer Society, which provides people fighting cancer with supplies they need during recovery from surgery, transportation to appointments and more.
“I didn’t really know what to expect. You hear about cancer but you never think it’s going to happen to you,” she said.
Now 25, Ryser is a volunteer for ACS’ Reach to Recovery program, where breast cancer survivors support people going through treatment.
The idea behind the program is simple. “You’ve been in the trenches, you know what it’s like,” said Lydia Duffy, the community engagement director for ACS’ Spokane affiliate.
With Eastern Washington’s Susan G. Komen chapter shutting down at the end of the month, Ryser and ACS staff want people dealing with a cancer diagnosis in Spokane to know services are still available.
The Komen chapter opted not to renew its contract with the national organization and is instead shifting resources to Every Woman Can, a foundation started by Inland Imaging to raise awareness of breast cancer and support screenings and other health care. The change will let more money stay locally and allow Every Woman Can to provide grants in all 20 Eastern Washington counties. Services will continue.
“The most important thing we can do right now is really get out the word, spread that awareness,” said Deb Barnes, the acting executive director for Komen who will take the helm at Every Woman Can. “We don’t want women to feel like there’s any change at all.”
Every Woman Can focuses more on preventive screenings and support finding health care and treatment options for breast cancer, while ACS provides support services and information for every type of cancer.
ACS programs include funding hotel rooms for people who travel into the city for treatment and providing resources like wigs and a cancer-friendly cookbook full of recipes to address common side effects from treatment, like nausea and dry mouth.
“I don’t want people to think they have to go out of city for support. We’re here,” Duffy said.
They also operate a 24-hour free hotline that people can call for accurate medical information about what a cancer diagnosis means, likely treatment options and local resources. The idea is to prevent people from going down the rabbit hole of WebMD and ending up terrified by rare side effects or getting incorrect information.
“When you’re facing a breast cancer diagnosis or any diagnosis in general, you don’t want to Google things that you shouldn’t Google,” Duffy said.
Ryser said she called the hotline once because she couldn’t sleep in the middle of her treatment and just wanted someone to talk to. A volunteer spent an hour with her in the wee hours of the morning, just talking about her life, she said.
Both organizations are advocates of early screening. Idaho ranks 48th in the country for mammograms among women ages 50-74, at just 69 percent, according to the National Cancer Institute.
“If Idaho was No. 1 in the nation, more people would be living,” Duffy said.
Ryser had her last treatment in May 2014 and started volunteering with the Reach to Recovery program shortly after. Because of her age, ACS often pairs her with women in their early 20s who have just been diagnosed with breast cancer. She recently talked to a 21-year-old woman, who feared breast cancer would define the rest of her life.
“It was refreshing to hear her talk about her concerns, because those were the exact same concerns I had,” she said.
Ryser was able to reassure her that it’s possible to live a full life after recovery that’s about more than cancer.
The further out she is from treatment, the more Ryser is able to see her cancer as “just a bump in the road.”
It’s “something you get over,” she said.
Subscribe to the Morning Review newsletter
Get the day’s top headlines delivered to your inbox every morning by subscribing to our newsletter.