Claudia Bretzing: Lessons, Tips and Advice from Cancer
Claudia Bretzing is a wife, mother of six, grandmother of 17. She is an accomplished violinist and a retired elementary school teacher. Claudia was inducted into Hall of Heroes at Nathan Hale Elementary. She was also the winner of “Stories of Strength” on ABC 15. She is the author of The Cancer Effect and a Breast Cancer Survivor
Claudia is a very energetic and positive person who kept very busy with her family and teaching 2nd grade. Her youngest daughter was starting her senior year of high school in 2009 and they had lots of fun things planned.
Earlier in the year Claudia noticed one of her breasts looked different than the other one, but she thought it was just old age. Once the school year finished she pointed it out to her nurse practitioner who didn’t seem too worried about it but she scheduled her mammogram anyway. After the mammogram they wanted to do an ultrasound on her breast. After the second ultrasound the radiologist said, “This needs to be biopsied. It looks very much like cancer.”
The next few weeks were filled with questions like, “Where do I turn? Where do I get a biopsy? What do I do now?” Claudia was diagnosed two weeks later with breast cancer and she chose a surgeon to help her along this journey.
The diagnosis was reeling for the family. Claudia’s husband was very supportive but she knows he worried more than he showed. It was extremely hard on her senior daughter, Brittany, who was a bit of a worrier, and she withdrew into herself. Thank goodness she had a very good counselor to talk to during the year.
Being an optimistic person she talked herself into believing everything was going to be okay. She decided she would get the treatment she needed and then her life would resume its normal path. Her treatments would be done by Christmas and so she had a goal to return to normal after that.
Claudia found that although the physical treatment was over, there was still an emotional battle. In fact this is one of the reasons Claudia wrote her book, The Cancer Effect , so other cancer survivors would know what to expect after you are done with the cancer journey.
Due to complications, Claudia’s treatment was extended and ended up going through March. This was big blow to her psychologically. This is when Claudia began to lose hope and feel discouraged because it didn’t end when it was supposed to end. She couldn’t control how the treatment went, which was hard for her. Claudia thought this was a good lesson to learn in life because she had to learn to let go and trust in God. We often think we are in control of our lives and then something happens which helps us realize we are not in control. God is in control.
Emotions and Feelings
First there was panic when she was diagnosed. Then there was shock that the body she had taken care of and had trusted was letting her down. Then there was worry–especially after the surgeon explained he would need to remove both breasts. This was a lot to have to process. Claudia also realized she was going to lose her hair due to chemotherapy. This was also very hard for her to swallow.
Claudia was dealing with so many things which were overwhelming that she opened a file in her mind and put everything in there that was too hard for her to process. Then she closed the file and tried to move forward with optimism. Claudia put on a brave and strong face for her friends and family, but doing this is dangerous because you can only do it for so long before you have to face those emotions.
Claudia compares it to beginning a race and burying your emotions as you start the race. The only problem is you have to pick those emotions back up at the end of the race and deal with them. For example one night Claudia went to a comedy movie and for two hours she was able to shut out any thoughts of cancer. But when the credits rolled and everything about her real life came crashing into her mind, she began sobbing and cried all the way home. You have to deal with the emotions eventually.
Advice for a Spouse
- Be supportive and be there for them.
- Give lots of hugs.
- Be strong for your loved one.
- You will see breakdowns, but keep loving and supporting them.
When Claudia lost both of her breasts, she filed that loss away. This was hard for her. But she couldn’t process all of the emotions of this loss after surgery because she had to reserve her energy for facing Chemo.
Losing her hair was also traumatic. Some people face this more easily than others, but for Claudia it was very hard. Some people aren’t afraid to go out in public bald, but Claudia couldn’t do that because she felt she didn’t look like herself without her hair. She didn’t even let her family see her without hair because she didn’t want people to remember her this way. She always had on a hat or a wig or a terry cloth cap.
Claudia’s first treatment of Chemo was the third week in August, so she couldn’t start teaching school. Thank goodness she had a wonderful substitute who helped teach her class that year. She would have a dose of Chemo, recover for a week, and then go and teach for a few weeks and then repeat the process.
Claudia was very sick through the process and had problems keeping food down, being dehydrated, having an allergic reaction to one of her Chemo drugs. For this reason they had to push her treatments out farther and she wasn’t done before Christmas.
Hitting a Low & Climbing Out
In January 2010 Claudia hit a low. She wasn’t sleeping well and couldn’t nap due to the medication she was taking which gave her restless legs. This physical exhaustion combined with the mental exhaustion realizing she had three more months of Chemo caused depression. Claudia felt like she wanted to pull the covers over her head and disappear.
The adversary seems to know when we feel down and wants to drive us lower. You face a lot of fears and Satan is the author of fear. There are many low points in a cancer journey especially with so many questions unanswered: Are the treatments working? Is this the end? Will it come back?
Here are some of the things that helped Claudia climb out of the fear and depression:
1. The Blessing of Service
The only thing that made her get out of bed was that she had to go to work. She would get up, get ready and then sit down a cry because she knew she had to face 26 energetic second graders that day. Being involved in the students lives gave her the motivation to keep moving.
“Teaching saved me,” Claudia confesses. It helped her get out and stop thinking of herself and her problems and think and serve others. This helped her come out of the depression a little.
2. The Power of Prayer
“God helped me through this,” Claudia continues. All those nights where she lay awake, she prayed and begged God to help her through this because she couldn’t do it on her own. God blessed her with a feeling of warmth and peace as she prayed which helped her know God hadn’t left her alone.
“You have to give up your feeling that ‘I’m in control,’ and you have to let Him take control and trust in whatever path He has for you to follow.
3. Earthly Angels
God also sent angels–physical ones in the form of friends, family or people from work who helped her when she was feeling down. An example of this was when she was inducted into the Nathan Hale Hall of Fame. The principal actually had Claudia’s picture painted onto their mural of Hale Heroes where there are pictures of firefighter, soldier, and police officers to show she was one of their heroes for battling cancer.
This act of kindness gave Claudia strength. She thought, “If the school thinks I am a hero, then I’d better start acting like one.” Claudia explained, “You kind of measure up to what people think you can do. It gave me courage to move forward and courage to move on.”
Most of the people who have read her book comment they never knew she struggled so much during her treatment, and this is because she put on a brave face. But this makes it harder because it is an inner struggle.
“There’s physical angels and there’s angels in heaven that are around you to help you through things.” There are times you feel very alone, but at those times increase your faith and your prayers, read your scriptures. There are three things that are pointed out in the scriptures: faith, hope (in God) and charity or service to others. So cling to those three things.
4. Heavenly Angels
On nights that were long and dark Claudia felt heavenly angels with her as well. She would lay there with tears streaming down her face and tell God she was at the end of her rope. Claudia felt the presence of angels–comforting and filling her with hope. She often thought they were family members who loved her who had passed on.
There was one night when she heard a comforting voice in her mind saying, “I love you, Claudia.” That was a sweet moment which helped her know that even with all the people on earth God knew her and what she was going through.
Claudia remembered her heavenly moments by writing them down in a journal. Most of the time her entries were sparse and very simple, but she wrote down these little miracles so she would remember them and was then able to share them with others.
Claudia reminds us to remember and record these small moments of heavenly peace and help because they aren’t all the time. Sometimes you are left alone to see if you can strengthen your faith. At those dark times it is so helpful to go back and read about the moments when you felt peaceful, calm and loved. When you go back and read about the experience you will often feel those same feelings again.
Another benefit of journaling is you can write about the hard times and when you feel frustrated. Sometimes people going through cancer treatment pull in and don’t talk to others, but journaling helps you get those negative emotions out. It is good to have a safe place to vent.
6. Support Groups
There are breast cancer support groups out there where you can find others going through a similar situation. Claudia was so busy with treatments and teaching school that she didn’t have time for support groups, but she knows others who find this very helpful. Claudia wishes she would have made time for something like this because it would have been the best thing for her emotionally.
After all of her treatments and the school year were over, Claudia had to open “the file” where she had placed everything she couldn’t deal with and face it. A social worker at her hospital referred her to the support group the following summer. Claudia found it so healing to go and share her story with others and be in a group where they could help each other out because they truly understood what others were going through.
Claudia wishes she had known about and joined this group beforehand because she thinks it would have helped her through the dark moments when she knew others felt that way too.
7. Changing the Way She Prayed
Claudia feels she used to just talk to God. But during this time of cancer she feels she and God were able to move beyond that to having conversations. God was answering. Claudia’s prayers became more meaningful, and she felt she could share with God all of the things she felt she couldn’t share with anyone else. These prayers helped her relationship with God evolve into a deeper and more meaningful relationship.
Perhaps the greatest lesson she learned was the power of listening for answers during prayers. There wasn’t anything else she could do during those long nights except pray and listen. She learned God could get her through even when she was physically exhausted.
Favorite Bible Verse
At a low point one day, Claudia opened her scriptures and this verse popped out at her, “Peace I leave with you, my peace I give unto you: not as the world giveth, give I unto you. Let not your heart be troubled, neither let it be afraid” (John 14:27).
This verse became very personal to Claudia at this time because she felt God was speaking it right to her at this point in time.
Advice to Friends and Family Members
A lot of times people don’t know how to react when a friend or loved one gets a cancer diagnosis. They are still the same person but they are dealing with a health issue.
- Sometimes people withdraw, but the advice Claudia gives is to continue to “be yourself” around them. They still need your friendship.
- Keep visiting, but keep the visits shorter. Shorter visits will perk them up, while longer visits will wear them down.
- Keep calling.
- Give hugs.
- Listen if they need to talk.
- Drop off little thoughtful gifts.
- Send a card. Little cards in the mail meant so much to Claudia, and she saved every one of them. Often those cards arrived at low times.
- Help the family of the cancer patient with rides for children, meals, help with homework, or cheering for a child during a game. By helping the family, you help the patient feel reassured their family’s needs are being taken care of.
- Don’t say, “What can I do to help you?” Just offer a specific thing and act. For example, “I understand Tom needs to get to a game tonight. I’m going to come pick him up.”
- Talk to the spouse or older children in the family to get ideas of what might be happening in the family that you can help with. You can also ask family members what things the cancer patient enjoys doing.
- Give thoughtful gifts to family members. For example her daughter’s church youth group made her a comfort blanket and the leaders took her daughter out to lunch because they knew it was hard on her too.
There is something Claudia calls Chemo Brain in her book. She calls it this because the medications makes it so they can’t think very clearly, make decisions, follow directions, or even spell things right. So, don’t ask what you can do because they sometimes can’t even think what they want to eat for dinner.
Opening “The File” and Dealing with the Aftermath
“When the physical treatment is over, you still have an emotional battle—and that is what I wasn’t prepared for.”
After you are done with Chemo you have to deal with all of the emotions you put away because they were too much to process and deal with at the time. For example, Claudia had to process that her breasts were gone and she wasn’t getting them back. Claudia describes it as the pain of losing a loved one. You miss them, and you get better at missing them the longer they are gone, but it is still a loss. You handle it better as time goes on.
Claudia was not a candidate for immediate reconstruction. She had to wait a year. By the time the year had passed and she was done with Chemo, she was done with all of it and didn’t want more surgery.
So, the following summer she had to get prosthetic bras. She hadn’t had the energy to face this before then.
Luckily Claudia’s hair grew back thick and even curly. It was straight before.
“A big part of cancer is fear.” The biggest fear to overcome was the fear of cancer returning. Claudia says she almost turned into a hypochondriac for a while after because every ache and pain she worried it was the cancer returning. Thank goodness her oncologist was a good listener.
Claudia had constant ringing in her ears after the chemo was done and they had to do a scan to see if she had brain cancer. While doing another scan they found a spot on her thyroid and ended up having to remove that as well.
Changing Fear to Peace
So, Claudia had to figure out how to eliminate the fear of the cancer returning. This happened two years ago after yet another scare where they had to remove a spot on her intestines. During her recovery, Claudia finally reached a point where she was able to tell God, “If this is the way it is supposed to be, I am good with it…if it has returned, that is fine.” Claudia learned to just let go and didn’t even worry about the results because she knew God was in control.
Since that time Claudia has felt “free” because she has given all fear and worry to God. It took her a long time to get to that point, but she finally reached peace.
She had to learn to trust God–even if she didn’t have the answers to all the hard questions. She knew He did. The sooner you can fully trust God, the better it is for you and those around you. Also, “Don’t lose sight of hope in your life. Hope gives you the energy to keep going every single day.”
“People who have been diagnosed with cancer learn to appreciate every day, every moment with loved ones, every flower you walk by,” Claudia explains happily.
For people diagnosed with cancer: Don’t panic. Take time to find the right treatment and the right medical team you would like to have help you. Pick good oncologist, radiologists and surgeons. Be comfortable with them.
Seek out other cancer patients and support groups. You can even search out blogs online if you don’t want to visit people face to face. “Being able to relate to others helps you not feel so alone.”
Don’t get discouraged. Expect the unexpected, pick yourself up when you fall down and keep going.
This is a journey. Look for the lessons, and learn from them. This journey will make you more compassionate of others when others are diagnosed as well, and you can serve them. You will heal by connecting with others.