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Cancer survivor Eileen Kaplan has the last laugh

Published 10/19/2011 12:00 AM

Eileen Kaplan heard a lot of encouraging words from the medical team that saw her through her breast cancer treatment and bilateral mastectomy. But five words especially stuck out in her mind:

"You should write a book."

Of course, sometimes these were prefaced by words like, "You drove us crazy for a year," but Kaplan smiles and says she took the compliment to heart. She didn't act on it right away, though. "I didn't really know how to start," she says. Then one day, in the shower, inspiration struck.

"It's where I do all my best thinking," she laughs. "And all of a sudden the first line popped in my head and I said 'Oh my God.'"

That one line, which introduces the memory of being measured for her first bra in a department store at the age of 10, became the foundation for her book, "Laughter is the Breast Medicine," and Kaplan's subsequent work as a women's health advocate and motivational speaker.

And it marked the second time a moment in the shower changed the course of her life. The first was when, during a self-examination in 2005, she discovered what she instinctively knew to be a tumor in her right breast.

Though she calls her work "an inspirational book of humor," Kaplan doesn't flinch or shy away from the realities of cancer treatment. She takes the reader through her experiences – the probing biopsy needles, the lumpectomy, the emotional and physical exhaustion of chemotherapy, and the alarming reactions some treatments visited on her body. But she conducts the book as she conducted her approach to recovery — when the darkness descends, it is quickly dissipated. In snappy, engaging prose, she quickly assesses what worked, what didn't, and what was so ridiculous she had to laugh.

"It's not that I didn't cry," she stresses. "I did. But this was my journey through my breast cancer. I have no inhibitions about talking about it, laughing about it. God has given me a second chance at life and I'm taking it and running with it."

The 'taking and running with it' includes a high volume of speaking appearances and book signings, a full schedule of which is available at www.laughteristhebreastmedicine.com. The website also contains a directory of the locations which carry her book.

Her can-do approach affirms the central message of Kaplan's advocacy work — which includes mentoring pre- and post-surgical patients at Dana Farber Cancer Institute and Brigham and Women's Hospital, both in Boston — that women entering the world of this "ugly, ugly cancer" must take control of their treatment.

"You are the queen of your body," she says. "You're the boss." Particularly when it comes to the issue of reconstruction after one or both breasts are surgically removed, she urges women to "keep getting opinions" until they hit on the answer that is right for them.

Kaplan initially opted for the foundation of reconstruction to be done in conjunction with her mastectomy, reasoning that "if you're out and they're coming off, why would you wait for another time?" she says.

As part of the process, circular tube expanders were placed behind her chest wall. Over time, they would slowly be filled with fluid, and then, implants would take their place.

She knew the process would be painful, but didn't anticipate what followed. The procedure was in December. By March, the pain was unabating "no matter where or how much I moved," she says. She talked to her cosmetic surgeon and had the expanders removed. Though she calls her decision an easy one, she stresses that the decision to have or forego reconstruction is intensely personal for each woman who confronts it. Well-meaning people may offer sentiments like, 'Well, you're done nursing, you don't need them anymore,' or, 'You don't need breasts to be a woman.' While Kaplan says these might ring true with individual people, she recoils at the idea that there is a one-fits-all prescription for how a woman should look or feel about her body. She is an unapologetic advocate for each woman's journey.

"It's very much my personality," she says. She talks about attending a UConn game awhile back and spotting two of her former teachers, who greeted her with: "Oh, we would have recognized that voice anywhere!"

"I guess I was always creating static," she smiles.

But as strong as she comes across, Kaplan emphasizes that the loving support of her husband, Arney, and daughters Marcy and Dana, was critical to her recovery.

"I am very lucky to have a wonderful husband," she says. She recalls how during radiation treatment for the cancer in her right breast, she discovered a tumor in her left, and decided both breasts had to go. She says her husband greeted the news of a double mastectomy with a world of support. "'I don't care what you have,' he told me. 'I just want you,'" she says.

He has also helped to care for her as she has coped with lymphedema, a chronic fluid-buildup which occurs when the lymphatic system is cut or blocked, and which can develop anytime after surgery. Part of Kaplan's educational outreach includes passing along information patients might not have about other conditions that can arise as part of cancer treatment.

As she gears up for speaking engagements at the Jewish Community Center in Hartford on Oct. 23 and "Celebrating Breast Health: Our Journey to Wellness" event at St. Francis Hospital in Hartford on Oct. 29, Kaplan reflects on how her journey has transformed her whole outlook.

"Last year, people complained about the snow," she says. "And I would think, 'Well, snow melts, but cancer doesn't go away so fast.'" But she is thankful most of all that she came through it with her sense of humor intact.

The only other permanent result of her chemotherapy?

"Conveniently enough, I have forgotten how to cook," she laughs.

Eileen Kaplan lives in Bozrah. Contact her via www.laughteris
thebreastmedicine.com.

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How to examine your breasts

(Courtesy of the American Cancer Society)
Lie down on your back and place your right arm behind your head. The exam is done while lying down, not standing up. This is because when lying down the breast tissue spreads evenly over the chest wall and is as thin as possible, making it much easier to feel all the breast tissue.
Use the finger pads of the three middle fingers on your left hand to feel for lumps in the right breast. Use overlapping dime-sized circular motions of the finger pads to feel the breast tissue.
Use three different levels of pressure to feel all the breast tissue. Light pressure is needed to feel the tissue closest to the skin; medium pressure to feel a little deeper; and firm pressure to feel the tissue closest to the chest and ribs. It is normal to feel a firm ridge in the lower curve of each breast, but you should tell your doctor if you feel anything else out of the ordinary. If you're not sure how hard to press, talk with your doctor or nurse. Use each pressure level to feel the breast tissue before moving on to the next spot.
Move around the breast in an up and down pattern starting at an imaginary line drawn straight down your side from the underarm and moving across the breast to the middle of the chest bone (sternum or breastbone). Be sure to check the entire breast area going down until you feel only ribs and up to the neck or collar bone (clavicle).
There is some evidence to suggest that the up-and-down pattern (sometimes called the vertical pattern) is the most effective pattern for covering the entire breast without missing any breast tissue.
Repeat the exam on your left breast, putting your left arm behind your head and using the finger pads of your right hand to do the exam.
While standing in front of a mirror with your hands pressing firmly down on your hips, look at your breasts for any changes of size, shape, contour, or dimpling, or redness or scaliness of the nipple or breast skin. (The pressing down on the hips position contracts the chest wall muscles and enhances any breast changes.)
Examine each underarm while sitting up or standing and with your arm only slightly raised so you can easily feel in this area. Raising your arm straight up tightens the tissue in this area and makes it harder to examine.