By Tina Alvey
Diagnosed with advanced breast cancer nine years ago, Dr. Connie Hyler-Both has found one of her biggest challenges to be adjusting to what she calls the “new normal.”
“For me, survivorship issues are the big key,” Hyler-Both says. “They don’t tell you about the fine print on the cancer diagnosis. The cancer and the treatment are going to leave you with a ‘new normal.’
“Mentally, you think you’ll be back to ‘normal’ in a year, but you won’t really return to what you used to think of as normal.”
Hyler-Both says it took her a full year to “get over” the depredations of the chemotherapy and radiation treatments that followed her mastectomy and breast reconstruction.
In addition to suffering through chronic lymphedema with frequent bouts of cellulitis, she has battled “chemobrain” and persistent neuropathy that rendered her unable to work until she finally hit upon a successful treatment with acupuncture.
A veterinarian practicing in Summers County for the past 25 years, Hyler-Both says the memory issues associated with “chemobrain” plague her to this day.
“That’s tough when you deal in a high-stress, challenging profession,” she says.
Noting staffers in her office stepped up and helped her when she struggled, Hyler-Both says, “Thank God for my staff. They saved me.”
The lengthy commute to work each day from her home in Clintonville to New River Animal Hospital also became a challenge, as fatigue once caused Hyler-Both to nod off on the drive home after an arduous day at the office.
“This is the way life is, and you live it and learn to live with what you’re dealt,” she says.
Noting, “It would have helped me to know what to expect,” she acknowledges, “Survivorship issues are finally getting the attention they deserve.”
Despite the many challenges she has faced during her journey with breast cancer and its aftermath, Hyler-Both says fervently, “I thank God every day I have survived. And I have such appreciation for others who have survived.”
Looking back to the beginning of this experience, she says the real question is not “why me?” but “why not me?”
“The interesting thing is, when I found the mass in my breast, I knew it was cancer,” Hyler-Both says. “(The mass) was painful. I found it in August 2004, was diagnosed in October and was at (Johns) Hopkins in December having a mastectomy.”
Surgeons at the internationally renowned Johns Hopkins Breast Center in Baltimore removed a seven-centimeter tumor from Hyler-Both’s right breast, along with 16 lymph nodes, 10 of which were benign.
She notes that “other health issues” led to her choosing Johns Hopkins specifically, but she knew from the beginning that she wanted a breast center.
“They could tell me about all aspects of the tests, treatment, options — all in one center,” she says, pointing out that there are breast centers in West Virginia offering similar expertise.
“I strongly urge anyone (who may have breast cancer) to go to a breast center for a second opinion,” Hyler-Both emphasizes.
“At Hopkins everybody — nurses, nurse practitioners — had been through it themselves; it was very valuable to have their insight,” she says.
While she now has the perspective that only time can offer, when she first received the diagnosis of stage 3 ductal adenocarcinoma, Hyler-Both faced the double-whammy of finding out that her brother was also battling cancer.
“It was real traumatic,” she recalls, noting that in the years since that initial shock, she has lost a brother, a brother-in-law and her father to cancer.
She is quick to point out that the trauma of her own fight against cancer was not hers alone — her loved ones were also affected.
“It really takes your eyes off yourself — worrying about everyone around you, because it affects them, too,” she says. “My daughter was 9 when I was diagnosed. It was rough for her. It still is rough for her; she’s in college now, and she still has bad dreams.”
As much as the cancer experience will always be a part of her life, Hyler-Both also chooses to put it behind her, saying, “I don’t do cancer any more. I’m done with it.”
But she still feels compelled to reach out to others who may have to face the decisions and the fear she once did.
“My story is to help somebody else — to teach somebody else,” she says.
Taking that mission to heart, Hyler-Both accepted an invitation to speak about breast cancer to students at the West Virginia School of Osteopathic Medicine — where her physician husband is an instructor.
“Last spring, I got some feedback on that,” she recalls. “I had spoken for an hour to a class of around 200 medical students. I gave my story, including my post-treatment story.”
One of those 200 students told her husband in a laboratory setting later just how much of an impression “the other Dr. Hyler-Both” had made with the information she presented in that lecture hall.
“I made a difference,” Hyler-Both said.
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