Claudia Bennett was 45 years old when she got her first mammogram. As a woman working in a time-consuming and demanding job in the health care industry, she barely had time to fit the test into her busy schedule.
It was January 2001, and she was a radiation therapist at Wenatchee Valley Clinic.
“They had everything right there to do the mammogram, so I just ran over on my break and had it done,” she said.
With no history of breast cancer in her family, she was shocked by the results.
“A day later I got a call,” she said. “They told me they found something and that I had to come back. A couple of days later I was scheduled for [lumpectomy] surgery.”
Bennett, who had felt no lump or pain in her breast prior to the mammogram, was diagnosed with invasive ductile carsonoma. It is the most common type of breast cancer.
Because this type of breast cancer can invade lymph and blood systems and spread cancer cells to other parts of the body, she demanded aggressive treatment that included both chemotherapy and radiation.
After her second chemotherapy treatment, her hair began to fall out. She took matters into her own hands by shaving her head.
“I ate lobster and prime rib, watched a movie and cried all weekend,” she said. “I looked like Uncle Fester from The Addams Family.”
Her mom, brother and two sisters — both radiation therapists themselves — all lent their support.
“In my family, it’s not boo hoo,” she said. “It’s buck up, you can do this.”
And she did.
More than 10 years later, Bennett is cancer free and has been working as a caregiver at Columbia Ridge Assisted Living in Washougal for the past year. Her trademark sense of humor, coupled with the ability to be blunt and to-the-point are a couple of reasons why Bennett was asked to speak during a Breast Cancer Awareness Month event at Columbia Ridge last Tuesday. The Pink Tea was a fundraiser for The Pink Lemonade Project. The organization, which provides educational retreats for women who have been diagnosed with breast cancer, was founded by Dr. Allen Gabriel, of Camas, and his wife Cassie.
Bennett, now 58, said since her diagnoses she has tried to help others who are going through the same thing — from family members to the patients she works with.
“I think that maybe if I talk about my cancer, people will realize it’s not that bad,” she said. “Twenty to 25 years ago, everybody looked at it as a death sentence. It’s not. There’s light at the end of the tunnel.”
She advises breast cancer patients to be involved in the decisions impacting their health.
“Be part of your treatment, but also listen to your team of doctors,” she said, adding, “Don’t put too much stock in articles you read on the internet.”
She has dealt with a number of serious side effects following that initial diagnosis and subsequent treatment. It an aspect of breast cancer that she doesn’t sugar-coat.
“At least I am alive to tell about it,” she said. “That is the way I look at it.”
Chemotherapy kicked her body into early menopause. She was diagnosed with osteoporosis, and medications aimed at alleviating that condition had their own set of side effects. Her leg bones became brittle and began to disintegrate. She was forced to use a wheelchair for more than a year. A precancerous thyroid had to be surgically removed.
In addition, her appetite increased and she gained a substantial amount of weight.
“If I wanted chocolate, you better not be standing in front of the fridge,” she joked.
Since getting back up and around and going back to work at Columbia Ridge, she has lost 60 pounds and feels better than ever.
Even today though, there are subtle reminders. Brown age spots dot her arms. Persistent hot flashes make it nearly impossible to wear makeup.
“It’s always in the back of your head,” she said of the possibility that the cancer could return. “With every little ache and pain, sore throat, you think, God, is it back? And it’s always going to be like that.”
Next month, she will celebrate her 59th birthday. She knows that her battle with breast cancer is part of who she is, but it doesn’t define her.
“It’s not a short story,” Bennett said. “It never is; it’s never gonna be. It’s a lifelong thing.”