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3 women share insights, resources related to everyday difficulties that accompany cancer treatment

Dr. Theresa Schwartz, at left, is a breast surgeon with SLUCare and SSM Health Saint Louis University Hospital. Jossalyn Larson, center, is a current breast cancer patient, and Heather Salazar is a cancer survivor and president of Pink Ribbon Girls.
St. Louis Public Radio & Pink Ribbon Girls

After being diagnosed with breast cancer a few months ago, Jossalyn Larson began traveling a path that one in eight U.S. women will find themselves on at some point during their lifetimes. Larson’s own journey currently has her at about the midpoint of her chemotherapy, and she’s been open about its associated challenges and surprises.

“It’s been pretty disruptive,” the Missouri S&T faculty member told host Don Marsh on Thursday’s St. Louis on the Air. “What’s confusing about it is [that] I never know how it’s going to be disruptive. Every chemo infusion provides different side effects, and some of them are cumulative.

“I’m just now starting to get neuropathy in my fingers and my feet. So my fingernails hurt. And so something as simple as taking laundry out of the washer to put it in the dryer is painful for me, and I never would have anticipated that.”

Along with Larson, Marsh was joined by cancer survivor Heather Salazar, president of Pink Ribbon Girls, and Dr. Theresa Schwartz, breast surgeon with SLUCare and SSM Health Saint Louis University Hospital, for a discussion in light of Breast Cancer Awareness Month.

The conversation focused on addressing some of the more mundane and perhaps unanticipated challenges that frequently impact patients – and particularly women – while undergoing treatment.

Salazar, whose Ohio-based nonprofit just recently started providing food, transportation and housecleaning services to St. Louis women, saw the need for such support firsthand after her own diagnosis 14 years ago.

“The thing that I think Pink Ribbon Girls does that other organizations don’t do is we come around you,” she explained. “Because the clinical side is something we can’t help with – that’s why we have great physicians and great nurse educators and things like that – but we can help the part of, ‘You still need to be a mom, you still need to be a wife.’ [We can] bring you meals, can we clean your house and can we make sure you get to treatment.”

In partnership with SSM Health Saint Louis University Hospital, Schnucks and Uber in the St. Louis area, Pink Ribbon Girls is offering early-stage breast cancer patients and those with gynecological cancers three family-sized meals per week, two house cleanings per month and as many rides to treatment as are necessary.

“If you’re stage four or have metastatic disease,” Salazar added, “we give you a stipend of $3,500 to use for whichever services suits your family the best.”

Schwartz, who helped bring Pink Ribbon Girls to St. Louis, applauded Salazar for helping fill a big gap.

“It’s a tremendous amount of effort and foresight to be able to say, ‘All right, what do women need in order to get through their treatment and be able to get back on their feet once this is all said and done?’” the surgeon explained. “So she was able to pull from her own experiences – and the experiences of other women who were going through treatment the same time that she was – to say, ‘All right, gosh, I’m realizing what everybody needs.’

“But then [too], to go out and find the people to fund it … for her to be able to pull this off and build the group to the level that it is now is just beyond impressive.”

Larson echoed Schwartz, expressing gratitude to Salazar during the course of the conversation.

“You know, it is Breast Cancer Awareness Month, and I always celebrated that as, ‘Yes, let’s be aware, and do more research, scientists!’” said Larson, who is married to St. Louis Public Radio operations manager John Larson. “But what you’re doing, [Salazar], is you’re giving us a practical way to really give back and not just rely on ‘science, do your thing.’”

She emphasized how critical her supportive family has been in helping her along her own path and assisting with daily tasks – and also admitted that accepting the help can sometimes be hard in and of itself.

“I get tired or, you know, it’s painful, and my husband has to take over,” Larson said. “And there’ve been times when I’ve broken down to my husband thinking, like, ‘I should be doing these things.’ Or not just ‘I should be,’ but I want to be able to do these things. I want to feel normal again, and not being able to do just the normal household things – it’s difficult.”

The discussion touched on the variety of options for treatment and surgery and also included the perspective of listeners who remarked on how cancer treatment has evolved and improved. One survivor described the emotional toll the disease has taken on her – even many years later.

The comments resonated with all three guests, and Larson shared some of her own emotions of late.

“At the beginning [in July] we were terrified, and we had to think about, ‘What does this mean for our kids? What does this mean for each other?’” she said. “And for the first time – I’m 36 – I’m thinking, ‘I better get on the ball and write a will.’ … [Now] it’s become more routine, and I’m less afraid, because I trust my care team so well, I’m less afraid that I’m not going to get through it.

“But what I’ve had to come to terms with was that since I’ve had cancer, I’m always going to have to be vigilant. I’m never going to be able to relax and think, ‘OK, that’s never going to happen to me.’ Because it already has, and it might again.”

Salazar added that as Pink Ribbon Girls gets up and running locally, they’re eager for “doers, donors and door openers” alongside the corporate partnerships already in place.

“We need a lot of volunteers … we’re really looking for that community support in St. Louis,” she said.

St. Louis on the Air brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. St. Louis on the Air host Don Marsh and producers Alex HeuerEvie HemphillLara Hamdan and Xandra Ellin give you the information you need to make informed decisions and stay in touch with our diverse and vibrant St. Louis region.

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Evie was a producer for "St. Louis on the Air" at St. Louis Public Radio.

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