116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
When Traci Burns was diagnosed with triple negative breast cancer - a particularly aggressive cancer - just days before Christmas, she felt like her life was spinning out of control.
'I was shocked because we don't really have a family history and I didn't really have any of the risk factors,” she said. 'The holidays were a blur that year. ... It was a bit of a whirlwind.”
But Burns was lucky. A well-timed mammogram caught the cancer early - at stage 1 - and within one month of her diagnosis, she began treatment. The first six months of 2016 were spent going through chemotherapy and in July, she underwent a double mastectomy, removing both of her breasts. Next month she'll start reconstruction, she said.
'I literally went from my mammogram on Dec. 10 through the following August before I had one week without one single appointment,” she said. 'It was constant. And you have no control over any of it. They tell you where to be and when to be there and you go.”
Burns' experience is not unlike others. In fact, 'everything for cancer patients is extremely structured,” said Kimberly Ivester, director of the Helen G. Nassif Community Cancer Center.
'You have appointments you need to go to, labs you need to have done and it's all dictated for you,” she explained.
The experience can be stressful, overwhelming and draining, which is why the Community Cancer Center strives to provide a variety or opportunities to improve quality of life for cancer patients, survivors and caregivers.
'We really focus on incorporating the whole patient - mind, body and spirit,” Ivester said. 'If someone has a strong mind, a positive attitude, you know they're going to get through treatment much easier. ... We look at how can we tangibly provide things that will effect them from that standpoint.”
Resources include support groups, financial guidance and a variety of classes, including free art and music classes, which the Community Cancer Center started offering in October. The monthly art classes - which have ranged from painting to clay work, decoupage and more - are meant as an alternative therapy to support patients and survivors in regaining a sense of control.
'Really what they do is give patients the opportunity to express themselves,” Ivester said. 'Patients feel like they are in control of something. It's an outlet for them, an opportunity for them to go do something outside of focusing on their cancer treatment.”
Classes are led by an instructor who assists throughout the class, but unlike some art classes, instructors do not tell participants exactly what to create.
'You're starting with a blank slate and able to do whatever you want with it,” Burns said. 'Instructors encourage you to be as creative as you want. It's just very liberating to have that creativity.”
Ivester said it's also an opportunity for patients and survivors to share their experiences with each other.
'Not every cancer patient's journey is the same by any means, but meeting other people who have been there, done that ... They get to know each other,” she said. 'There are many times that our classes evolve into participants meeting outside of the class, because they've connected with somebody or built a relationship that's a support relationship that they can trust. ... That has a significant impact on them and really allows them to know that things are going to be OK.”
'It gives you hope and encouragement that things are going to be OK and life is going to go on from here,” Burns said. 'You feel that camaraderie. You don't feel alone. Even with my family and all the support I've gotten from my friends - nobody else in those circles has been through this so it's really nice to realize that other people have gone through it.
'They've survived it - the hair loss, the weight gain, the nausea. All the fun stuff that comes with the treatments,” she continued. 'Even though people are by your side, people that haven't been through it don't really understand what it's like.”
Going forward, the Community Cancer Center hopes to expand classes from once a month to twice or possibly more.
'We have some great community partners that are so excited to offer these opportunities to cancer patients,” Ivester said, citing the Ceramics Center, Prairiewoods, Living Proof Exhibit, Aiming for the Cure and the St. Luke's Foundation as examples.
'We're very fortunate to have great community support to bring programs like these to our patients,” she said. 'We just really truly enjoy seeing our patients progress from cancer treatment when they were really struggling or scared to feeling better and feeling like they've gained some control.”
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