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In Their Life with Jeanne Polak, Breast Cancer Survivor

Jeanne Polak of Grayslake believes she's a better person for having walked the breast cancer journey. In 2005, Polak, 55, was diagnosed with Infiltrating Lobular Cancer and began her battle alongside her doctors and her family, a husband of 33 years, a daughter and a son. She's worked as a mammogrpaher for 29 years, currently at Advocate Condell, where they treated her breast cancer.

How did you find out you had breast cancer?

I had a yearly mammogram done in February of 2005. My coworker at Advocate did the imaging. It’s funny, we are embarrassed as every other woman to have someone see our breasts, so the imaging was done quickly and set aside. At the time, mammograms were still done with film/screen. The films were ready for the radiologist to read them the next day. The following day I was actually in the radiologist’s office when my films ran across the screen for her to read. It was Dr. Jasmine Oberhaus who was reading and when she saw them she told me she wanted me to have a biopsy done that day. When Dr. Oberhaus saw the new images, it was the area I was being called back for from the previous year (for a time films were released with the areas of concern circled). The area now looked more concerning.

This is why women need to have annual mammograms. An area that isn’t highly conspicuous one year can look more suspicious the next, as the cells continue to divide and multiply they obviously make it clearer that there are changes happening. Women should always bring their previous exams for comparison with them if they have been done at a different facility the year before. This is extremely important in allowing the radiologist to see if changes are occurring. It can save a patient from coming back for additional imaging or can reveal small but significant information.

What emotions did you go through when you found out?

The weekend was difficult. I kind of knew the results wouldn’t come back negative because I heard the concern in Dr. Oberhaus’ words. I was praying that breast cancer would pass me by, but knew it was unlikely. On Monday I was at home and called to talk to the doctor working in the Woman’s Center. I must have gone through every emotion on the phone with him — crying, laughing, expressing fear, wanting reassurance they wouldn’t let me slip through the cracks… I had a HMO and was worried I wouldn’t get the best treatment possible although I had the most incredible doctors on my team. I will forever treasure every one of them. They were perfect for me. I wanted to get to be part of the team, involved and getting to make choices and every one of them let me.

What is Infiltrating Lobular Cancer?

If you can picture this…the fibro-glandular tissue in our breast makes me think of grapes on stems. The ducts are the stem part and the lobules are the grapes. So there are many clumps of these in the breast. The major (end) stem of each clump ends at the nipple. When lactating, the milk develops in the lobules and is directed to the nipple through the stems. This is where breast cancer starts, either in the duct or the lobule. Cancer in the breast becomes ‘infiltrating’ when it has escaped (broken through) the border of edge of the lobule or duct.

My surgeon was Dr. Paul Strohmayer. He was so open-minded and gave me space to think through surgical options. We started with a lumpectomy, had to go through a re-excision and ended with a bilateral mastectomy. The course of this surgical journey was full of twists and turns. I started out wanting very conservative measures but with unexpected information along the way, I had to change my original thoughts completely.

Bottom line is that because I had the mastectomy, I did not have to have the radiation therapy. I had the chemotherapy because it was considered to increase my odds of results.

What's it like being a woman fighting breast cancer?

Breast cancer can be confusing. If you want to be involved, as I did, in treatment options, there can be many. You have to become informed to make confident decisions and then you can only move forward and believe in the decisions you made. I had all kinds of days… days of confusion, sadness, fear, hope and gratitude. I have never felt closer to my Creator. I asked God to take my hand and not let go. I was blessed in that I didn't have to reach out for support to a group. I had support all around me. I had it at home, through work, through friends and through my incredible doctors. I felt like I was cloaked in love and support. I felt protected getting to have my physicians watching so closely over me. In the end I feel blessed to have had an experience that many others never will. I found out how much I am loved and cared for. People pass away and many people come to show their love and respect for them. I found out, in one of my most challenging times that people wanted to be there to show support and concern for my well being. That is incredible to get to experience. I am eternally grateful that I am here. I was able to see my children graduate. I get to spend time with a great husband. I get to be there to ‘pay it forward’. I get to be there to listen to or smile to or encourage someone else that is at the start of their journey.

We are blessed that research has brought so much to the diagnosis and treatment of breast cancer. Back in the early 1990s I had a little business that went to women’s homes and fit them with prosthetics and wigs. It was Bill Clinton that signed a law into effect that if one breast has been removed due to breast cancer the other can be modified to match the reconstructed breast. This was an incredible gift to women would be having mastectomies. It would allow them to see two breasts in the mirror each morning and evening. It would allow them to feel comfortable in dress and casual clothes. They would no longer have to pull on a prosthetic in a specially made bra and remind themselves of the experience of having breast cancer. They would be able to move forward more easily. This was enacted not too long before my journey. I am thankful that I had the option of reconstruction.

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