SELINSGROVE — If there’s a word that describes Freni Aungst’s attitude after two diagnoses of breast cancer, it’s thankful. But zany, energetic and hopeful aren’t far behind.
“Part of my recovery is to give back,” Aungst said. “Because so many people gave to me.”
Aungst, 66, was first diagnosed with breast cancer in early 2008, resulting in a mastectomy of her right side. Then, one month shy of her five-year anniversary of being cancer free, the cancer returned, this time settling in her liver.
“Breast cancer recurrence is no doubt heart-wrenching news for any breast cancer patient,” said Mohammad Tahir, MD, PhD, breast and oncoplastic surgeon at the Breast Health Center at UPMC Williamsport Regional Medical Center, Divine Providence Campus. “However, local recurrence in the absence of distant metastatic disease is very treatable and may not affect overall prognosis. Research and advances in treatment in the era of personalized medicine have greatly improved disease free and overall survival of breast cancer patients.”
Aungst has been on a monthly anti-estrogen treatment because her cancer is fed by estrogen. She opted against surgery this time because there were too many lesions on her liver.
“I counted on the injections to do the trick, and they have,” she said.
Now, 11 years after her first diagnosis, her life has settled into a “new normal.”
“I know that the chances of a cure now are slim to none,” she said with a smile, but added that her oncologist, Dr. Mayur Patel, of Geisinger Medical Oncology, in Selinsgrove, has assured her that he has plans if the cancer worsens. Of him and Dr. Timothy Pagana, of Williamsport, who performed her mastectomy, she said, “I trust them with my life.”
“We have more treatment options at hand now compared to what we had 20-30 years ago,” said Tahir.
Aungst has had to accept unpleasant changes, whether from scars, depleted energy levels, increased weight, disrupted sleep patterns, an inclination to protect her breast when in crowds, or “chemo brain,” which causes nightmares and confusion with words, forgetfulness and the dropping of filters, i.e., saying something inappropriate at the wrong time. Chemo brain, or fog, can linger and linger.
“The changes are there. The changes are real,” she said. “If it doesn’t interfere with your recovery, just try to move on.”
“Breast cancer, generally, has an excellent prognosis if diagnosed early and treated,” Tahir said. “Today, nine out of ten (90 percent) women who are diagnosed with breast cancer survive beyond five years. This figure reaches to 99 percent if the cancer is contained only in the breast. However, regardless of the size and stage of the cancer, breast cancer is considered a systemic disease from the start, and there is a small chance that it might reoccur or appear as a distant metastatic disease.”
Aungst’s strong faith has helped her, and she choked up when saying she has to fight away thoughts of not being able to watch her four grandchildren grow up. Then with her typical optimism she chuckled and said, “I pray I stay in their crazy moments.”
She is indebted to her friends, she said, and looks forward to more opportunities to give back.
“It’s been a wild ride,” she said. “I’m just not done.”