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Battling Breast Cancer
Two local women share their stories of survival
Patricia “Pat” Brister
Patricia “Pat” Brister’s yearly mammogram came back clear in the early fall of 2009. Soon after, she felt a small lump in her breast and on December 20, her gynecologist confirmed she had stage-two breast cancer.
“My family was in town for Christmas, so it wasn’t the best of times but it was wonderful having all of them around, because it really did help me through,” she says.
Wasting no time, her doctor and close friend recommended her to MD Anderson Cancer Center and she made her first appoint for January. After more testing to make sure the cancer wasn’t anywhere else in her body, Brister decided to undergo a double mastectomy and chemotherapy. “I told them I wanted the most aggressive treatment and surgery I could get,” she says. “I think it’s my personality. I felt like I was being attacked, and I just wanted to fight back with everything I could manage.”
From February to June, she underwent six rounds of chemotherapy. “Chemotherapy is the hardest part physically,” she says. “I was fortunate I could work through it [as executive director of the Northshore Business Council and chairman of the GNOEC Causeway Commission].”
When the first pieces of her hair started falling out her husband, Joe, sat her down and shaved her head completely. “I said, ‘Honey come look how fast it’s coming out.’ He did, sat me down, got out his clippers and said, ‘We’re just going to do this.’ I really depended on my husband so much. He was just the strength that I needed.”
Soon after, friends took her to look for wigs and baseball hats.
“You hate thinking that that is important to you, but it is,” she says. “It sounds so vain, but when you look at yourself in the mirror, it’s not you.”
Following health regulations, 30 days after her last session she underwent a double mastectomy and breast reconstructive surgery at the same time.
Prior to the diagnosis, Brister already decided to run for St. Tammany Parish president during this year’s elections. “I went on
with my plans. [The doctors] assured me, ‘This is just a bump in your road. We can fix this, and you’re going to be alright.’”
As a public figure, Brister remained in control of the story. “It’s hard to hide the fact that you have cancer,” she says. “I wanted to go public because I wanted to control how the story was told. I wanted everyone to know that I was going to fight it, and I was going to be okay. I wanted women to know you don’t always find it with a mammogram so don’t put all your faith in that. Do the things that you are advised to do; do
your self-examinations and yearly check-ups in addition to mammograms. You can’t be in
denial about it.”
Her fight lead to support from all over including her family, the local community, other breast cancer patients and survivors, and she
even received letters of encouragement from President George W. Bush and Susan G. Komen Founder Nancy Brinker.
This past July, she celebrated one year being cancer-free. “One day you don’t have cancer, and the next day you do,” she says. “When something happens to you during that first year, when you’re not feeling quite right or if something unusual happens, you think something serious is happening. But after the first year, I think, ‘Okay, it’s been a year. I’m good. After the first year, I just felt so comfortable. I don’t think about it anymore.”
She also finds comfort knowing she didn’t pass the abnormal BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes to her daughter and granddaughter. A woman with one or both of these abnormal genes is 80 percent more likely to be diagnosed with breast cancer. Although having a few relatives with the disease, breast cancer wasn’t predominant in Brister’s family history.
“Fortunately I did not have that gene,” she says. “Of all the things that happened to me during that time, I remember the day they told me that test came back negative. That was such a relief that I could call my daughter and tell her that I didn’t pass this gene onto her and she didn’t pass it on to your daughter. That was a good day.”
Norma Jane Sabiston
Throughout her battle with breast cancer, Norma Jane Sabiston would read a letter of inspiration from her best friend, Senator Mary Landrieu. Posted on her refrigerator, she would read words of support that ended with “We still have a lot of living to do.”
“I just knew I had a lot of living to do so that’s what I put my mind on,” says Sabiston. “I’m going through my life full-speed ahead.”
After more than 25 years working in Washington, D.C., including 10 years as chief of staff for Landrieu, Sabiston returned to New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina to help protect and preserve Louisiana’s coastline. She fell into her normal routine, which included scheduling yearly mammograms around her birthday (so she wouldn’t forget). Last August, the routine procedure came back with results nobody wants to hear.
“My immediate reaction was ‘I don’t have time for cancer,’” she says. After the initial shock, she tackled the disease head-on, following the advice of her doctors at Touro Infirmary. “I really followed their advice in council,” she says. “I didn’t hesitate. I didn’t want a second opinion. I knew I was in really good hands.”
The course of action included a lumpectomy and radiation. Five months after the initial diagnosis, Sabiston had a lumpectomy. Following the surgery, she endured eight weeks of radiation. For five days a week for six weeks, she went to Touro at 7:15 a.m., and during the final two weeks, she went for six days. She developed a close bond to the small group of eight other patients – men and women, young and old – also fighting cancer. “We just all lifted each other with words of encouragement,” she says. “At the end of those eight weeks, I almost hated not seeing them anymore. They were a source of strength.”
Along with support from friends and family, she credits having a positive attitude as a necessity for recovery. “My dad had larynx cancer about 20 years ago, and I remember watching him fight through that,” she says. “I remembered those moments where I thought his attitude was really extraordinary so I tried to recall observing him.”
Her 81- and 82-year-old parents, who live on the Northshore, even moved in with her while she was undergoing treatment. Sabiston says she spent more time worrying about them going up and down the stairs three or four times a day than herself.
Fatigue proved to be her most difficult challenge, both physically and mentally, but she continued to work at her own consulting firm, Sabiston Consultants, which specializes in public affairs and political consulting. Instead of working well into the evening, her days ended at 4 p.m. because, “You have to wake up the next day and do it all over again.”
Now cancer-free, Sabiston continues to live her day-to-day life without a worry the cancer will return. “I am much more relaxed about it. I put a lot of effort and energy every day into the work that I do. I do have peacefulness about it. I feel good. My energy level is high. I’m getting back into my exercise routine. I’m much more conscious about my nutrition. I feel great.”
With the one-year-cancer-free mark approaching, she looks forward to just another day. “I think I’ll celebrate within. I beat it, I’m past it,” she says. One of the last steps to regaining her previous self was breast reconstructive surgery in June. “I didn’t think it was going to be, but it was important to me,” she says. “I always say this to people; it wasn’t my ego [that lead to my decision to have the surgery], I felt internally that it was important. It wasn’t about vanity. They tell you you’re healthy. You feel healthy, but when you look at yourself, that’s not the case.”
October also has a different meaning to her now. Breast Cancer Awareness month and pink ribbons now represent her new title of survivor. “I’ve supported Race for the Cure in the past, and I’m honored to be asked to participate in the pink ribbon events. I have to say I am going to be much more active, and I will work hard to bring other people into the fold as it relates to breast cancer awareness. We all need to be front-and-center on it. It is much more clear to me that I need to be engaged and active as much as I possibly can.”