By Dr. Antje Petershagen
My name is Dr. Antje Petershagen. I am a doctor specializing in rehabilitative medicine, a psycho-oncologist, and a breast cancer survivor.
SBC note: According to the American Psychosocial Oncology Society, psycho-oncology is “a cancer specialty that addresses the variety of psychological, behavioral, emotional and social issues that arise for cancer patients and their loved ones.”
Art by Dr. Antje Petershagen
Illness has accompanied me since early childhood. I cannot remember my body without scars. I have three abdominal scars. The first two I got in 1965, when I was three years old. After a partial ileum resection (intestinal surgery), I needed additional surgeries for adhesive ileus (bowel obstructions). I had adhesive ileus again in 1981. I had additional partial ileum resection and surgery for adhesive ileus in 1996. I have also been diagnosed with pelvic vein thrombosis with subsequent pulmonary emboli. In this context, a factor V mutation was diagnosed, with lifelong anticoagulation therapy.
Since not knowing my body was different from others, I never felt really ill. As a little girl, I thought, this is a “normal” body. I worked around many physical problems due to my intestinal issues and diarrhea, but I never held myself back from participating in any adventure.
As a child, I was bullied because of my scars (kids can be cruel), and I was very skinny. Gaining weight was a problem since I spent most of my childhood and teenage years in the bathroom. I was shy and the time being hospitalized at a young age, not seeing my parents, not understanding what was going on, left scars in my soul. In these times there was no psychological support, neither for me nor my parents.
In early adulthood, despite my additional illnesses, I felt pretty good. I finished my university education, medical school, and even my 5-year internship. Somehow, I am resilient and I know how to cope with illness.
In 2012, I was diagnosed with breast cancer, and it was a challenge. I had been seeing my gynecologist for cancer screenings since I was 50. This time, I’d had no symptoms but I felt an inner call to go for the screening. The diagnosis process involved a manual exam, ultrasound, mammogram, and a vacuum-assisted core biopsy. I was diagnosed with highly-moderately differentiated invasive ductal carcinoma and highly to moderately differentiated ductal carcinoma in situ (DCIS), both in the left breast.
I proceeded to have surgery to remove the cancer and some surrounding breast tissue. After tissue removal, histology was used to determine whether the surrounding tissue was cancer-free. Twice, surgery did not achieve cancer-free status. However, the lymph nodes were not affected and no metastases were detected.
Because the operations were not successful, I decided to have a single left mastectomy. I decided to have reconstructive plastic surgery at the same time. I never regretted this decision. No chemotherapy or radiation was needed.
For five years I was on Tamoxifen, an anti-hormonal therapy since I was tested to be hormone receptor positive. In 2014, I was diagnosed with a tumor in the right breast. Luckily it was a benign tumor, called a fibroadenoma, which I had removed surgically.
Later, when I started my education to become a psycho-oncologist, I was surprised how much anxiety was expressed in the cancer groups I participated in. Cancer was our topic. We studied so much theory, but meeting the real patients was a challenge for us.
We met a young patient who told us her story, never being able to have the life of a teenager, but instead spending months in hospitals. When we got the notice that she died some weeks later, the group was shocked.
As a breast cancer survivor, I could relate to patients, empathize with their fears, anxieties, their reactions and comments, and even their thoughts on not continuing with therapy. My colleagues did not take it easily, as they often could not understand the mindset. They had to learn to be empathic, to respect a patient’s decision, and to find skills to open up a healthy dialogue with them.
We had intensive training on how to tell someone their diagnosis, and how to stay calm and yet supportive. And here is my strength. I do know how huge anxiety can become, how easily it can arise—unexpected and overwhelming—and how important it is to be open to the emotions, instead of using phrases like, “You are strong” and “You just have to stay positive.” Comments like this do not help at all.
Being active in breast cancer support groups gave me the chance to apply my very own experiences. I have three perspectives to look at the topic: as a psycho-oncologist, a doctor, and a patient. It is the perfect experience to support breast cancer patients going through this difficult process, from diagnosis and beyond.
Getting diagnosed with cancer means starting a new life; there is no return to the life before. Cancer provided a huge opportunity to change my life. Without cancer I would not have found the motivation to leave my comfort zone, to go beyond inner limitations. Cancer made me so much stronger than before. I’ve gotten more creative since my diagnosis in 2012. In my life after cancer, I reduced my working hours and started writing a book about my journey, which I self published.
I also did what I always wanted to do: paint. Art was always important in my life, but I fell in love with watercolor painting after being diagnosed with breast cancer. Slowly, I started to show my art in public. Over the years I became an established artist and showed my work in several exhibitions.
I started traveling as a solo traveler in India, hiring a driver and exploring India. And most importantly, I spent a lot of time studying Indian philosophy. I spent time in an ashram and dived deep into my meditation and yoga practice. Ultimately, I completed over 700 hours of yoga teacher training and received my certificate from the Kriya Yoga Center in Passau, Germany. I also teach medicine for students wanting to become yoga teachers. Last year I decided to participate in a mentor program to expand my work as a coach and psycho-oncologist. Cancer was a huge chance for changing my life to the life I always wanted.
I don’t overdo things; I choose carefully what I want to do and I learned that “no” is an answer. My focus is now on being a mentor and coach for breast cancer patients, expressing myself through my art, and using art as a tool in my workshops. It took me years to tell my story and to open up about the breast cancer part of my life. But it is important to share my experiences, my story, to support women, and to speak out loud about the illness and its deep effect on my life.
When someone goes through breast cancer, they are not the same person as before. But we are all stronger and wiser.
Thank you for sharing your story, Antje. SBC loves you!
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