Katie Clarke was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2011. She underwent a bilateral mastectomy with reconstruction at NorthShore Glenbrook Hospital, followed by four months of chemotherapy and a year-long course of Herceptin treatments at Evanston Hospital.
Before her own diagnosis, and in memory of her best friend who lost her own life to the disease in 2006, Katie and her family would make a point of cheering on the participants of the three-day breast cancer walk in Chicago armed with motivational signs
and licorice. This, and her own breast cancer journey, would later inspire Katie and her sister to found
The Licorice Project, an organization devoted to spreading joy during a difficult time and bringing together breast cancer patients, survivors, families and friends.
In part two of her NorthShore patient story, Katie shares one of the most difficult but important moments following her breast cancer diagnosis:
I’m often asked, “How and when did you tell your kids you had breast cancer?” My husband and I agreed
that we wanted to be open and truthful about everything as soon as my diagnosis was confirmed. We turned to my breast surgeon, Dr. Winchester at NorthShore University HealthSystem, for advice on what to say to our three middle school-aged boys. We planned
a family meeting and decided that I would do the talking.
I began the conversation by telling them that I’d found a lump in my chest, to which my youngest shouted, “You’re pregnant!?” When I said, “No,” he answered, “Phew!” I told them that the lump was in my breast and they wanted to know immediately if it was
cancer. When I said that it was, they all began to cry. It broke my heart to see them so sad and frightened. Holding their hands, I assured them that the doctors were very encouraged and had given me a good prognosis since the lump was very small and I had
caught it early. I explained to them that there would be many steps, tests and procedures. I explained that it would take time and patience but that when I finished the therapy, I would be okay. Of course, many questions followed:
“Are you going to die?”
“Will you lose your hair?”
“Will you get a wig?”
“Who knows about this already?”
“Can we tell people?”
“What should we say?”
“Does this mean we can get breast cancer?”
“Are people going to bring us dinners?”
My husband and I answered the questions as best as we could, which, of course, led to even more questions. Since school was about to end for summer vacation, we assured the boys that all their summer plans would stay intact. We wanted to keep their lives
as “normal” as possible. The family meeting concluded with lots of hugs and kisses.
Telling our children that I had cancer was the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do; however, it was also one of my proudest moments because of the strength and composure that I maintained during such a difficult conversation. There’s no right or wrong way
to explain a cancer diagnosis to children. Each family will deal with it in their own unique way and to the best of their ability.
When the fourth biopsy in four years revealed some of the cancerous cells were now more aggressive than during the previous four years of active surveillance, I found it very hard to accept that the other shoe had actually dropped. I'd been sailing along
with a Gleason 3 + 3, the least aggressive prostate cancer category. I hoped/believed the numbers would stay that way as I lived through the rest of my 70s and into my 80s and who knows how long from there. After all, my father had lived with prostate cancer
and died from unrelated issues at 86.
As with so many other men, I had the first biopsy after a PSA test suggested a possible problem. In my case the PSA had risen slowly over a decade from 1.4 to 3.7, but being 67 at the time and research changing some of the previous thinking about PSA levels
in older men, the initial urological surgeon and I decided a biopsy was a reasonable option.
My fears after getting the news from the fourth biopsy were:
Navigating My Treatment Options
The urologist who had been following me urged surgery (he performs robotic prostatectomy) and I provisionally scheduled the operation for six weeks hence. I needed time for the biopsy site to heal, digest the diagnosis, and collect and process more
As a dentist turned health reporter, my almost 40 years as a health journalist turned out to be a mixed blessing as I tried to intelligently navigate the daunting amount of often contradictory and confusing information, even for a health professional. I
discovered one of my greatest strengths as a reporter—the ability to thoroughly and unemotionally research virtually any health topic—failed me dismally because this time I was too emotionally involved. I would read the same sentence or paragraph over and
over or talk at great length to trusted sources and come away even more confused. Yes, get the cancer out. No, you can safely keeping watching. Surgery? Robotic or open? Radiation? But what type? Or perhaps one of the less tested treatment options? You can
imagine the toll this emotional roller coaster took on my family: Arline my wife of 41 years and my two sons.
Finding My Advocate: A Six Week Journey
As the six weeks dwindled to two, I still felt uncertain—and frightened—about my decisions and options. While agonizing on the phone one night with my older son he said, “Stop it, Dad! More than most, you are in a position to find one voice you can trust who
can guide you to a decision that you and mom can live with. Find that voice."
I did: Dr.
Charles Brendler, Co-Director of Northshore's John and Carol Walter Center for Urological Health. I was referred to Dr. Brendler by a close personal friend of mine, who is also a physician and serves as a department head at a major Chicago medical center.
He told me Dr. Brendler was the person he would see if he were in my position. Now I understand why.
During the nearly two hours Dr. Brendler spent with Arline and me, he painstakingly reviewed my medical records, gently and carefully examined me, and, for most of the two hours, engaged with us in heartfelt conversation. He reassured both of us, spoke caringly
about our feelings on the personal and intimate issues unleashed by prostate cancer and its treatment, and offered compassionate understanding and objective advice.
Three decisions emerged from our meeting. Two involved additional confirmation of the status of my prostate cancer, one via MRI (Dr. Brendler supported my desire to have the scan) and the other through a second opinion of the interpretation of my four biopsies.
The third and most important was the deciding to accept Dr. Brendler’s recommendation to see a urologic surgeon, who, because of his unparalleled skill in performing open prostatectomies, would be the best fit for me.
When Arline and I exited Dr Brendler's office and walked through the parking lot, we looked at each other and breathed the first sigh of relief in more than a month because we knew we had found peace with my prostate cancer journey. We followed through on
each of the decisions and three weeks after our fateful meeting my prostate was removed by the surgeon Dr. Brendler recommended. The cancer was locally contained and completely removed.
Thanks to active surveillance, I had four years without treatment. And thanks in large part to Dr. Brendler, I remain totally continent and am on the road back to sexual function seven months post-surgery. I’m grateful beyond words that when my son urged
me to find the one voice I could trust, the voice I heard was Charles Brendler's.