‘Unbelievable’ support feeds cancer survivor’s battle

In May of 2002, Sharlene Kirby was diagnosed with a rare and aggressive form of breast cancer — inflammatory ductal carcinoma. It was determined to be at stage IIIB, meaning it had either spread to tissues near the breast (skin or chest wall, including the ribs and the muscles in the chest) or to lymph nodes inside the chest wall along the breast bone.

Kirby was basically given one treatment plan as an option — four treatments of chemotherapy, a mastectomy, then more chemotherapy. But after three treatments of chemo, she had a bad reaction to one of the drugs used. This scared her and sent her to seek out possible alternatives.

She started seeing a naturopathic doctor, but by September she decided to go ahead with the recommended surgery — a modified radical mastectomy on her right side including removal of the mid-section of the lymph nodes. After surgery and more than seven weeks of local radiation — daily — to prevent reoccurrence, her oncologist wanted to put her on a drug called Tamoxifen, which works against the effects of estrogen (estrogen has been shown to promote the growth of breast cancer cells). Kirby resisted.

“I had heard too much about the drug’s negative side effects, and after my reaction to the chemotherapy I was naturally apprehensive about going through anything like that again,” she said. “But they didn’t give me any other option.” She kept up her naturopathic treatments and hoped to fight the cancer by strengthening her health and immune system.

In April of the next year a radiation test on Kirby’s left side came out negative, but on May 2 (strangely enough, the same date as her initial cancer diagnosis) a check of her collarbone — typically the next area to be affected — found a small lymph node affected with the same strain of cancer. And what had been a fibro-cystic (non-cancerous) lump in her left breast now proved to be malignant.

So it was back to the oncologist and another treatment plan; more chemo, another planned mastectomy. As if to add insult to injury, this news came just after her hair had finally grown back in fully and she was feeling stronger again.

“At this point I decided to get a another opinion. I went to see a different surgeon — I didn’t want three surgeries (two removals and reconstructive surgery) like before,” she said.

Her plastic surgeon referred her to Oregon Health and Science University in Portland, where a surgeon in the Breast Clinic is doing research on the hormone DHEA’s role in breast cancer.

“He gave me research, which was very unusual. He answered all my questions, also very unusual,” Kirby said. She was interested enough to begin a two-part hormone treatment being studied, consisting of a monthly shot of Zoladex in the ovaries along with a daily regimen of Cytadren, which suppresses adrenal function (adrenal glands produce DHEA — which acts like estrogen — as well as estrogen) and a cortisone replacement.

It has been six or seven months since beginning her treatment at OHSU and Kirby feels there is reason to be hopeful. The bronchial cough she had is gone, she is feeling stronger, and the tumor in her breast seems to be somewhat diminished (although she knows an upcoming PET scan will reveal whether that’s so) as does the bump in her collarbone area. She is much more optimistic than she was last May. She now wants to write a book about her experience and interview other patients.

Throughout this ordeal Kirby has kept up the naturopathic treatments of hydrotherapy, acupuncture, therapeutic massage, and supplements; she has also been practicing yoga, Pilates, and spending time in a sauna. These are the things that have helped her to endure the conventional treatments, but they are also things not covered by insurance. She has gone into debt in order to keep them up and still owes her naturopath a large sum.

As a way of gathering together all of her friends and family who have been so supportive as well as hopefully raising money to pay off debts for her non-covered treatments, Kirby plans to hold a fund-raiser — for herself — in February. She is collecting goods and services to raffle off, at a dollar a ticket, at the River City Saloon the first or second week of February. A friend of hers has set up a Web site for information and pledges: www.kjdesign.com/liferaffle Like most cancer patients, Kirby has a whole new appreciation for life and everything in it. And despite how difficult it’s been at times, she sees the positive side. “This has been an amazing experience. The love and support I’ve been shown is just unbelievable.”

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