When Melinda Knight was first diagnosed with breast cancer, she was almost more afraid of the prospect of treatment than of the disease itself. She recalls, "Just before I started chemo, I had more sleepless nights thinking, 'I'm going to be sick…I'm going to be vomiting.' First thing I thought, 'I'm going to lose my hair. Not my life-my hair.'"
But now she wants to say to women facing a similar situation, "I want everybody to know that chemo is not a bad thing. The medications that they have today are so remarkable that you will never be sick to your stomach." She adds, "You're going to be very tired, but you're not going to feel lousy. Chemo is going to save your life, so it's worth it. And it's not bad. It wasn't for me."
One year ago, Knight was diagnosed with breast cancer, which was treated with lumpectomy, chemotherapy, and radiation, followed by a year of Herceptin. Certain breast cancers are in a class called HER2-positive. HER2 refers to a gene that helps cells grow, divide, and repair themselves. When cells have too many copies of this gene, cells, including cancer cells, grow faster, and HER2-positive breast cancer may be a more aggressive form of the disease. A new type of treatment for this form of breast cancer uses targeted therapy with drugs such as trastuzumab (Herceptin), which has been shown to cut the risk of disease recurrence by as much as 50 percent.
It was the fact that Knight was diagnosed with this particular form of breast cancer that led her to the Comprehensive Cancer Center. Accompanied by her friend Christine Putney Capozzi, Knight initially went to the Dana Farber Cancer Institute in Boston. The doctor there told her that, though they would love to treat her, it was a long trek back and forth from Providence. The doctor said that Dana Farber had done the protocol with Herceptin with physicians at The Miriam Hospital and referred Knight to Rochelle Strenger, MD. That referral was the beginning of what proved to be a successful and illuminating experience.
When Knight began the process of learning about and treating her disease, she thought she was on a path that would test and challenge her in combating illness and reclaiming her health. But she soon saw that she was also on a parallel path of self-discovery and ongoing healing. She knew at the outset that she would need the support of her close friend, Putney Capozzi. But she learned along the way that she was definitely not alone in her struggle, and she discovered many others whose love and concern sustained her. Among those were her physician, her navigator, her nurse, her social worker, and all the wonderful women in her survivors support group-women whose determination and kindness and unwavering support opened a new world of possibility and hope that helped vanquish the fear that cancer brought.
Knight realized at the outset that she needed to turn to a friend, despite a well-honed independent streak. She advises, "Take someone along. Your friends love you, but they can be detached. Have someone there who takes notes. Christine took copious notes, and I still call her and ask her 'do you remember when the doctor said…' It's wonderful to have support. My husband has Alzheimer's disease, and I don't have children, so having a friend along is all I could possibly ask for. And fortunately, with two little children, she took the time to come with me."
In addition to the support, having a friend with you can just be fun. Describing her chemotherapy sessions, Knight says, "It's great to have a friend come with you. You can sit and talk. We stuffed envelopes for a RISD fundraiser one day, we gossiped…it's a sharing, bonding experience. We've been friends for a long time, and I couldn't ask for a better friend in the world to do this with me-and I couldn't find a better place than the Comprehensive Cancer Center. They really just know so much. They make everything understandable."
When Knight started going to the center, she had the same nurse at each visit, and it wasn't long before she came to truly value her nurse, Eileen Rose. She also speaks with great fondness of her navigator Julie Gray, her social worker Margaret Smith and her chemotherapy nurse Joan Delvecchio. Of all the women who helped her at the center Knight says, "…they make sure you understand, they smooth the road for you. It's a remarkable, smooth process that you go through. They know what they're doing."
When the day came for Knight to leave treatment, her nurse knew what lay ahead. She told Knight that she should participate in The Miriam Hospital's Breast Cancer Survivors Group. Knight responded, "I am not a joiner." She told Rose that she wasn't interested, but Rose insisted, "You're going to go." Knight says simply, "She's my nurse and I love her, so I do what she tells me."
Reluctantly joining the group, Knight quickly realized that, despite widely differing personalities and life circumstances, they all had much in common. They had all finished chemotherapy and radiation, and were all at the same place in their recovery. Of that time Knight recalls, "The doctors say go on and enjoy your life, you're all better. But you know maybe it's coming back, maybe something else is wrong." She says that at that point you feel left adrift. "All of a sudden, you've been going through such intensive connections with doctors and nurses, and suddenly they say…'okay, go and live your life and you'll be fine.' But you don't know that. So that's really an important reason that the survivors' group eases you on.
"One of my childhood friends said, 'I just can't see you in a group like that.' Believe me, I couldn't have seen myself there either. But it's enlightening. You come away feeling healthier. We talk about everything. We talk about how you're dealing with your family, how you're dealing with your job."
Sharing this profound experience with other women proved to Knight that she wasn't so solitary after all. Today she says of the group, "These women have just been a joy to me. They light up my life, they really do. They are funny, and touching, and have been so important to the recovery that I've gone through."
Today she cautiously says that she hopes that the future is bright and rosy. And to other women facing the same situation, she says, "Breast cancer is not the end of the world…whatever happens, it's okay. Go with it. You're going to find that you have friends that you didn't know you had, you're going to find that you have support that you didn't know you had."
Remarkable new drugs and procedures treated Knight's cancer, but it was the power of friendship in all its forms that got her through this very challenging time in her life, and that shined a bright light on the future.
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