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Surviving Breast Cancer – and Thriving

Elissa Bantug

For many patients like Elissa Bantug, a two-time breast cancer survivor and program coordinator of the Johns Hopkins Breast Cancer Survivorship Program, living through treatment is only half the story.

Watch:  Survive and Thrive - Breast Cancer Survivorship Video Series

Regaining a sense of balance and normalcy afterward can be as challenging as the disease itself. The reality for a majority of patients is there are a number of short- and long-term physical and psychological effects to cope with following medical treatment for breast cancer. And, complicating things further, there is no organized system in place to ensure communication between a woman’s cancer specialist and primary care provider once treatment is completed.

“I remember being so scared when my oncologist said he did not need to see me on a regular basis anymore,” Bantug says. “There was no warning and no preparation --- like a Band-aid being ripped off. I realized I’d grown to depend on the very appointments I’d loathed. At some point during my treatment, without me even being conscious of it, those appointments had become my security blanket.”

Breast Cancer Survivorship Program

Recognizing this need, Johns Hopkins in 2010 launched its Breast Cancer Survivorship Program with support from the Maryland affiliate of the Susan G. Komen for the Cure.

Under the leadership of principal investigator Antonio Wolff, MD, a multidisciplinary team of specialists, including internists, oncologists, nurses, survivors, scientists and social workers, are working together to improve long-term care and address the specific needs of breast cancer survivors at Johns Hopkins and elsewhere. A new consultation service for women who have finished treatment started in December 2010, with Bantug coordinating the various services women see during their visits. 

In the new clinic, a breast cancer survivor will:

  • Receive an individualized survivorship care plan following treatment, reviewing cancer treatments received, as well as a detailed plan of what tests should be ordered (and by which practitioner) in the future.
  • Discuss how to manage current or potential late side effects of treatment.
  • Find out about new research being conducted at the Johns Hopkins Kimmel Cancer Center. 
  • Learn about reducing the risk of recurrence. 
  • Receive suggestions for wellness activities and psychosocial support. 
  • Discuss coordination of medical care.

For Bantug, life after cancer has developed into more than a series of medical milestones: “As I move further from treatment, having cancer no longer is the singular most important piece about my identity. That’s not to say that I, nor even most patients, don’t occasionally think about it; but it no longer dictates every avenue of my life as it once did. 

“Cancer has earned a piece of me, just as has being a wife, daughter and mother.”

Survivorship Web Site

Bantug and colleagues have created a survivorship Web Site to discuss a variety of post-treatment topics. She also felt strongly that breast cancer survivors hear from fellow survivors about survivorship care. At least 20 survivor video clips taken from focus groups are now available on the Web site. Topics include finding a “new” normal, survivorship care planning, sexuality, body image, and fear of recurrence.

Bantug also has written blog posts for the Kimmel Cancer Center’s blog, Cancer Matters.

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