Healing helpers: Humor, acceptance, positive attitude

Patty Agne said she was fortunate to have the support and advice of her sister, Susan Byrns, and Byrns' daughter, Malinda Seymour, who are both oncology nurses, as she underwent treatment for breast cancer. "I had this guidance all the way through," said Agne, who plans to volunteer at the Upstate Cancer Center.

Patty Agne said she was fortunate to have the support and advice of her sister, Susan Byrns, and Byrns’ daughter, Malinda Seymour, who are both oncology nurses, as she underwent treatment for breast cancer. “I had this guidance all the way through,” said Agne, who plans to volunteer at the Upstate Cancer Center. (PHOTO BY ROBERT MESCAVAGE)

By Jim Howe

As Patty Agne navigated the pain, uncertainty and odd moments of her experience with breast cancer, she found that her attitude was key.

Her attitude helped her:

* keep a sense of humor. When her hair was falling out, she went with a friend to Saving Face Barbershop in Syracuse for a towel shave, and took selfies at every stage, including with her doctors.

* go with the flow. As a person who prefers “natural” things, she had to tolerate the “unnatural”: chemotherapy drugs.

* accept the necessary “healing sabbatical” she took for 8½ months during her treatment. This meant setting aside the work she loves as a self-employed massage therapist.

Agne's father and brother both died of esophageal cancer, and she learned about cancer survival from some of her massage therapy clients. (PHOTO BY ROBERT MESCAVAGE)

Agne’s father and brother both died of esophageal cancer, and she learned about cancer survival from some of her massage therapy clients. (PHOTO BY ROBERT MESCAVAGE)

Agne, 60, of Syracuse, spoke to fellow survivors in June at a National Cancer Survivors’ Day event in the Syracuse area, sponsored by Upstate. She told about her father and brother, both of whom died of esophageal cancer, and about her 20 years as a massage therapist, which introduced her to cancer patients and survivors.

She also spoke about humor while wearing — as did several people at the event — a silly balloon hat. “This stuff is not funny to most people, but I can find the humor, and that keeps me going,” said Agne. She likes to tell about a clueless health insurance worker who told her that breast cancer payments are made in a “lump” sum. “I’ve gotten a lot of mileage from that one.”

Kristine Keeney, MD

Kristine Keeney, MD

Although some people consider her a control freak, Agne said, she decided to let go and trust the process after she found a lump in her left breast in October 2013. That led to a diagnosis of breast cancer, with surgery the following summer. She underwent a second surgery on Aug. 1, 2014, and Kristine Keeney, MD, reported “negative lymph node and widely clear margins.” Cancer gone.

Because of a high risk of recurrence, Agne had an intravenous port inserted, and she became one of the first patients to undergo chemotherapy in the new Upstate Cancer Center. After 16 chemotherapy treatments and a two-week break, she had radiation treatments five days a week for eight weeks. She will also take a daily pill for at least five years.

How did she get through her treatment?
“I have great faith, and I don’t mean about ‘going to church’ faith. I mean about deep trust in life and everything that happens,” Agne explained. “It’s an easier way to go through it, when I trust that I’m where I’m supposed to be.

Anna Shapiro, MD

Anna Shapiro, MD

“Even Dr. Shapiro said that people do better with a positive attitude,” she said, quoting her radiation oncologist, Anna Shapiro, MD.

Keeney, the surgeon who removed the lump from Agne’s breast, said she remembers the massage therapist as “indomitable.”

“She just came with an attitude that was strong-willed and upbeat,” Keeney said. “She is a healer, as well, and it was very important for both of us that she have successful surgery and treatment that would allow her to get back to her work that she so enjoys. She loves her work, is surrounded by great friends, and she uses her experience as a cancer patient to help her and others heal.”

Agne finished treatment in March and began seeing clients again in April.

CancerCoverf15clrThis article appears in the fall 2015 issue of Cancer Care magazine.

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