Repeat diagnoses of breast cancer and subsequent treatment taught Sylvie Grégoire to slow down and find her inner strength—and to help other women going through the same ordeal

By Lesley Young

"I survived breast cancer—twice."

When Montreal lawyer Sylvie Grégoire first felt a lump in her left breast in the shower in 2002, alarm bells went off. "I waited a few weeks," she says, "but it didn’t go away." Her GP sent her for an ultrasound and mammogram. The results confirmed the presence of a lump, and a biopsy was taken the same day.

Grégoire, 38 at the time, somehow made it through the excruciating two-week wait to learn whether she had breast cancer. "What’s strange is that I just sort of knew," she says. "At one point I was sitting watching a movie with my husband and out of the blue I got a wave of anxiety and I knew it would be bad news."

The breaking point

Unfortunately, Grégoire’s intuition was right. She was diagnosed with breast cancer. "When [the doctor] told me, it felt like a death sentence," she says. "It was very traumatic. My whole world was shattered in that one moment." Only when surgeons removed the tumour would they be able to determine the degree and extent of her cancer.

The challenge

To cope with a diagnosis of breast cancer.

The plan

Grégoire went on long-term disability, knowing she wouldn’t be able to manage the long hours in her job in the legal department at a major pharmaceutical company. The results of the surgery showed she needed a second surgery to remove yet more tissue, including the lymph nodes around her armpit (to make sure it hadn’t spread there). Afterward, she opted for chemotherapy, and went through four rounds, three weeks apart. "I was so sick, I threw up four days in a row after each time." Still, she tried to make the most of the summer, allowing herself to be taken care of by family and friends at the cottage. The chemo was followed by one month of radiation therapy.

The biggest obstacle

For Grégoire, the hardest part of being diagnosed with cancer is the "not knowing." The long waits during treatment for results are agonizing, she says. Grégoire empowered herself by conducting research into the disease and treatments. "It made me feel more in control of the situation."

The next biggest obstacle

Grégoire says she was constantly on edge, waiting for the cancer to come back after they’d knocked it into remission. Slowly, day by day, she learned to turn a new page. By August 2006, three years after her diagnosis and treatment, she decided it was time to quit her hectic job. "My heart wasn’t in the world of big business anymore. Cancer had taught me to slow down, to do things I enjoy."

She planned a big trip to India with her husband and mother in the late fall. The first week in September, however, she was devastated to find a lump in the same breast. "It was surprising. But it was so much worse the first time. This time around I knew what to expect." She managed to organize at least part of the trip with her husband before surgery to have a double mastectomy. "We literally left the hospital after seeing the physician to go the airport. We told one another to make the most of it, and we really did."

Grégoire didn’t realize just how bad the news would be: medical advancements had enabled doctors to pinpoint her unique, severe form of breast cancer. She discovered she had the genetic mutation HER2 (Human Epidermal Growth Factor Receptor 2), which causes more aggressive cancer, and would need to follow a rigorous chemo protocol. This was overlapped with a year-long drip every three weeks of a special treatment called Herceptin. She also had her ovaries removed, and found the hormonal rollercoaster of going into early menopause in her early 40s the most difficult part of it all. "It was very depressing. Chemotherapy was not as tough as instant menopause!"

The results

By January 2008, Grégoire says she was feeling a lot stronger. "I was back to exercising. I had also stepped back and become more involved in community project and volunteer work." Grégoire has walked the Weekend to End Breast Cancer for the past five years with her husband, and puts on a benefit luncheon that raises between $10,000 and $18,000 every year. "I also do peer support. The cause has helped me so much, I want to give back."

If there has been a positive outcome to Grégoire’s ordeal, it’s that she discovered inner strength she never knew she had. "I also found empathy for others. I used to be a business lawyer. Going through this, I learned I needed to have human relationships and feel like I am helping others." Taking on a teaching job allows her to pursue volunteer work to her heart’s content. "I’m still learning every day." she says. "To grow as a person, to have meaningful relationships and to let go of the things that are not important."

The tips

Be hopeful
Grégoire’s top advice for women who are diagnosed with breast cancer: "Be confident that medicine has improved. We tend to have this idea that cancer is an end. And it is a big change. But there is more hope than ever."

Ask for help
"Women tend to turn down an offer of help," Grégoire says. "But it’s okay to say yes. You’re making people happy by accepting their offers."

Want to help women like Sylvie Grégoire? Make a donation to Best Health's team for the 2009 Weekend to End Breast Cancer.

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Web exclusive: July 2009

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