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I became a breast cancer survivor when I was diagnosed in October 1997.
I’m from Onalaska. It’s 792 air miles southwest of Anchorage. We don’t have mammogram capabilities out there, so I had to fly into town. It’s time consuming.
When I was diagnosed, my family wanted me to get a second opinion. Their definition of a second opinion was, get another mammogram, get another biopsy. But I didn’t want to go through that process again. So I got all the records and talked to a surgeon at a different hospital. The surgeon that I talked to was trained by the surgeon I had already been seeing, so I said, “I’ll just stay with the Alaska Native Medical Center and get my care there.”
I had the surgery, eight chemotherapy treatments and six-and-a-half weeks of radiation therapy. I had to come in town and get the radiation therapy and go back home. I stayed at the Alaska Native Medical Center, or I stayed with friends. It depended what time of the year, what was going on.
Three-and-a-half years ago, I was diagnosed with pernicious anemia. I had a staggering gait, just clumsy as could be, and then I couldn’t eat. Anything I ate stung and burned my mouth. I lost 50 pounds. Then a doctor came into town, and I told her. She says, “It sounds to me like you have a vitamin deficiency.” We set up an appointment to come into town at Providence to do a Shillings test, because my husband’s insurance recommended going there first. After I got the Shillings test done, we went over to Alaska Native Medical Center and gave them the results. The internal medicine doctor put me on one ml of Vitamin B-12 for the pernicious anemia. I receive a Vitamin B-12 shot once a month. I’ll be getting that for the rest of my life.
My husband lived in Adak when I was diagnosed. He was working there and had an 18-month contract. I was going through it by myself, and it was really hard, because our kids were in high school. One of them had graduated and went to work with her dad. But it was hard because I was all of a sudden mom and dad for a while, and it was in their teenage years. It was a difficult time for them as well as for me. Although he’s out there helping financially, it made me a tougher person, because I was more independent. I didn’t know I had that independency until then. It made me a bigger and better person knowing how to speak up and learning I can do it and survive by myself. I’ve done it. I’m going through the motions of surviving when my husband isn’t here. I can do it without him. Then I can do anything without him. It gave me a lot more confidence in myself. I’m not afraid to speak up. But I also felt like I needed him there. We had very big phone bills. My husband and I would talk often about the kids, or if I would be down, I would call him up.
I thought I was supposed to be the strong person, because my husband wasn’t there. I was there for my children, and I tried to be everything for them. I come from a large family who’s strong and made us believe we’re supposed to be strong. We’re supposed to survive and make it through. I know there’s a point I didn’t take care of myself physically. I love sports, and I like to participate in that. I think when I was going through the chemo, I didn’t for a while. I got down and depressed for a while because nobody would come to see me. We live up on a hill. It was wintertime, and it’s scary driving up there.
I think I have more emotional support now than I ever did then. I don’t know if they were just afraid to talk about it. But when somebody tells you you have cancer, people think they’re gonna get it. It’s kind of funny, you don’t think much about it until you’re diagnosed or somebody’s diagnosed, and all of a sudden, you hear more people talking about it. I didn’t have very many people come and talk to me. I felt like they were afraid to talk to me, because they thought they were gonna get it or they didn’t know how to deal with it. There wasn’t any kind of support system or anybody I could talk to. Even if you didn’t say anything, I felt like just your presence would have made a difference or even just a hug would have sufficed. I have a brother who’s a year-and-a-half older than me. He was diagnosed three months after I was, so we were able to talk to each other. There were other people in the community, but we were the first two Alaska natives.
When I was diagnosed, I couldn’t go back to work for a while. They wouldn’t allow me to go back. There was no rhyme or reason. They didn’t explain it to me until I got defensive and said, “I want to go back to work. The doctor says there’s no reason why I can’t.” It wasn’t right away that I heard why they prevented me from going to work. They made it sound like, “Your immune system’s gonna be down. You’re gonna get sick. You work around sick people.” I said, “The doctor says that’s not so. If anything, it depends on your thoughts and how you feel and what your attitude is about this, if you’re gonna get sick or not.” I wanted to work.
I was one of the lucky ones. Thank goodness we have health service to help. They paid the way to Anchorage and they provided me with a place to stay. I didn’t like the place we had, because I had to share it with somebody we didn’t know from a different community. So I stayed with friends or a cousin, or I just braved it and stayed there. It was a hardship because I couldn’t work for a while, and that’s why my husband was in Adak working. There weren’t any jobs that paid well enough for our family to stay at home. I needed to work.
Hope and attitude was the one thing that made me survive. The Aleutian weather has made me a stronger person, too. Our Aleut people lived out in that harsh environment for years. I figure they can do it, but I needed more to survive because that was the only thing you could do. I wanted to do it for myself and for the kids with a positive attitude and not let them see me be down about it. I just wanted them to know that we got to make it, go through the motions the best we can with a good positive attitude.
As a cancer survivor, LIVESTRONG™ means attitude. It’s survival, hope, and go for your dreams. LIVESTRONG™ means doing things that I wished I could have done, I need to do, and I want to do. Exercise is good. Having time to yourself, but also being there for somebody who may be down or not feeling well. Just even as much as asking, “How are you doing today?” and meaning it and wanting to hear what they say. I think that makes a difference.
My name is Lottie Lekanoff Roll, and I am a seven-year cancer survivor.