Kathleen Stremmel, 67, recounts her breast cancer treatment and how taking an active role in her health made a world of difference in her journey.
Kathleen Stremmel never expected to have to undergo a simultaneous double mastectomy and hysterectomy to save her life; now, she credits her advocacy and research, strong support system, and Sidney Kimmel Cancer Center – Washington Township care team for getting her to where she is today.
When Stremmel was diagnosed two years ago, shortly after her sixty-fifth birthday, she knew she had to act quickly. “Naturally, I was in disbelief,” she recounts. “But I have a very optimistic mind, and I was prepared to do whatever I had to do to get better.”
Stremmel has witnessed friends and family battle cancer, some of whom, including her sister, were given terminal diagnoses, but persevered through treatment and are living to this day.
“It wasn’t time for death to knock on my door,” she said.
Taking an Active Role in Her Treatment
The steps leading up to treatment went by fast and seamlessly, Stremmel recalls. After a diagnostic mammogram revealed cancer, she saw a breast surgeon right away. She was also referred for both chemotherapy, with Ana María López, MD, MPH – which would be needed prior to surgery, due to the large size of the lump – and radiation therapy, with Dane Cohen, MD – which would follow surgery to reduce the risk of reoccurrence.
“We discussed various options. Because I was BRCA positive and had a family history of ovarian cancer, I opted for a double mastectomy and hysterectomy,” explained Stremmel. “I knew I needed to do what was best for my health.”
Stremmel admitted that chemotherapy scared her. It’s known as an aggressive treatment, she said. “It’s always portrayed as a horror story, with terrible side effects. We see it online, on TV, and in the movies. I didn’t want to expect the worst. I wanted to do something about it.”
You are ultimately in charge of your own health, said Stremmel. “You should be your own advocate. Partner with your doctor. Ask them questions. Do your research. Make sure you understand what’s going on in your body and what you can do to help treatment work in the best way possible.”
Quality health care is meant to be patient-centered, explained Dr. López. “When patients (and family members) are engaged in meaningful conversations with their providers, it helps us address all of their individual needs and concerns and develop, together, the best treatment plan for the patient.”
Food for Thought
In addition to working with her providers, Stremmel dove into her own research. Between several books, blogs, and medical journals, she stumbled upon the potential benefits of intermittent fasting – a type of fast in which you limit your eating to a specific time window or pattern. She also discovered that consuming low-carb, low-sugar foods several days prior to chemo could help reduce the side effects, particularly nausea.
“It wasn’t perfect,” Stremmel said. “I felt like I had a bad flu for weeks. I felt beat. But, surprisingly, I never threw up once!”
Nutritional interventions to help manage side effects of cancer treatments are continuously being studied, notes Dr. López. “More than ever, we’re learning that a healthy diet may play a role in healing and making treatments more tolerable. While the benefits of intermittent fasting aren’t scientifically proven, they are of significant interest, and we are continuing to study them.”
The first four chemo treatments were the worst for Stremmel. But, from there, she said it got better.
Combating ‘Chemo Brain’
Stremmel’s most significant challenge would come after treatment: a common residual impact known as “chemo brain.” It refers to cognitive changes that occur during and after cancer treatment; most people report difficulties with memory, concentration, and reception, explains Dr. López.
“Although the exact cause of these symptoms is unknown, we do know they can impact a person’s life,” continued Dr. Lopez. “We encourage patients to set reminders, fulfill gentle mind and body exercises, and get plenty of sleep – which is paramount for both physical and cognitive rejuvenation.”
“Even though I feel about 80 percent ‘back to normal,’ I struggle with my short-term memory. There’s a fog that makes me forget things I was just told,” Kathleen explained. “I’ve adjusted by writing everything down. I set constant alarms and reminders on my phone. Surprisingly, I have no problem whatsoever with my long-term memory. I was able to return to work just fine.”
Finding a Strong Support System
“Everyone will turn to someone or something different,” said Stremmel. “I leaned on my loved ones and faith to get me through. God helped me realize that this was just cancer; it was just a concept. Once I realized that, there was nothing left to fear. I had my loving, supportive family by my side, and I could get through anything life threw my way.”
Stremmel says that her once positive mindset is even more positive now, as she wakes up with more gratitude and appreciation for life than before. “I know how precious life is and how quickly it can all be swept away.”
The Importance of Follow-Up
While Stremmel is in remission, she continues to see her providers on a monthly basis. She follows a healthy lifestyle, prioritizes diet and exercise, and stays on track with medications and check-ups.
“I want to do anything and everything possible to reduce my risk of reoccurrence. Everyone at the cancer center who has helped me along this path has been absolutely amazing, from the nurses, to the receptionists, to the physicians,” she said. “The patience and understanding I was treated with was second to none.”
When asked if there was one thing Stremmel wished everyone knew about breast cancer – and a cancer diagnosis in general – she said to remember, “it’s not a death sentence; it’s a journey.”