Helping other breast cancer survivors
Click here to read Malgorzata’s blog in Polish.
I don’t know where the last five years have gone. It was a day in December in 2008. I was told that I had to repeat my mammogram. I would also need an ultrasound. Two days later, I got the biopsy results and the diagnosis was breast cancer. My tranquil and orderly life came to a halt…without squeaking brakes. For a moment, I thought I wouldn’t go to my girlfriend’s wedding – although the outfit I was supposed to wear was already on a hanger. However, after a sleepless night, I got up with the decision that nothing, nor anyone, would stop me or my life.
I decided that I would speak openly about my diagnosis. The Polish community continues to treat cancer as taboo. It is better not to know and hope that it would not happen to me or my loved ones. Soon I heard so many different opinions. I was told not to do anything, because it will spread all over my body. I was told I got cancer, because I did not have children (I know many mothers with breast cancer). I was told that most likely the annual mammograms had a negative effect on my health. I was told cancer must run in my family (it does not). I also received numerous tips about miracle drugs and treatments. The list of “good advice” is long. There is no time to name it all.
I chose the traditional approach. Lumpectomy followed by radiation and Tamoxifen for the next five years. And then again I heard how lucky I was because I didn’t have to have chemotherapy. I wouldn’t lose my hair. I didn’t have to worry, because I didn’t look sick at all. No, I was not angry, but sometimes I was sad. No one has their diagnosis written on their forehead. The side effects are not often visible and the emotions are hidden deep inside.
Most of us, immigrants, do not have our immediate family here. We ”assemble” a family with people we meet in a foreign country. Can we expect them to have the same reaction, offer us the same support as the real family? Yes and no. There are no rules. In my case, of course, I could count on my husband for his support and assistance. But my “assembled” family also absolutely stood up to the challenge. They helped me tremendously. There were surprise visits, endless conversations about anything and everything, including the disease. No topic was taboo. No one pretended that nothing had happened. No one turned away from me. All these people created my very own support group.
Since December 2012, I have been working at Advocate Lutheran General Hospital, as the Polish Patient Navigator. I have met many Polish women diagnosed with breast cancer. I offer them my assistance and support if they are ready and open for it. I often serve as an interpreter, when their English is not good enough to understand medical terminology. I often hear them say that they do not want to share the diagnosis information with their friends and even with some members of their family. They are afraid of rejection and unhealthy curiosity. Polish patients, in general, are not very interested in participating in support groups. They believe they have enough problems of their own and do not want to listen to the problems of others.
Yet, I’m always there when they need me. Certainly my own experience brings us closer together and we slowly gain mutual trust. I feel so satisfied when they start to ask for help, support or assistance with talking to family. Our diagnoses and the fight against breast cancer connect us.
About the Author
Malgorzata Cieslak came to the United States from Kielce, Poland in 1983. After working several years in social services, she became the Polish Patient Navigator at Advocate Lutheran General Hospital in December of 2012. Just four years earlier, Malgorzata was diagnosed with breast cancer, had a lumpectomy and underwent radiation. She has been cancer-free for five years. Today, in her role at the hospital, she helps Polish patients navigate the health care system.