Carol Hamlin Buczek
Local cancer survivor raises funds for Making Strides Against Breast Cancer
“We all want to think it can’t happen to me. But yes it can — it can happen to anybody.”
Carol Hamlin Buczek, president of Tours By Design, Inc., in Hinckley, said it was her “proactive” approach to treatment and recovery that helped her become a successful survivor of breast cancer.
It was June 2015, about a month before her 52nd birthday, when Buczek said she saw a dimple on her breast that she had never noticed before.
“I knew it didn’t belong there,” she said.
Buczek called her primary care physician and although she was due for a mammogram soon, she said she was told to get in right away.
“I pointed it out to the technician. They did a lot of extra pictures and called me back two more times and then asked me to stick around for an ultrasound,” Buczek recalled. “Then the doctor came in and said he could tell it wasn’t just a fatty cyst, it was a tumor that needed to be biopsied. I got one, and the next day I got a call and they said, ‘You have cancer.’”
As anyone, Buczek’s said she was shocked to hear the news of her diagnosis.
“Everything becomes a blur — life changes from that point on and nothing is ever the same,” she said.
She would get an MRI (Magnetic Resonance Imaging) and then follow-up with the doctor to go over her care plan.
“Once you hear you have something, even though the majority of the time it’s nothing to worry about, in your head, you’re still going, ‘I know now I have cancer,’ and then you tell yourself you can’t possibly have it,” Buczek remembered.
Choosing to be educated and informed about her specific diagnosis, Buczek sought a second opinion from Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston and decided to stay in Utica for surgery and treatment. She received a lumpectomy in July 2015 and also had 11 lymph nodes removed — three of them were “positive” for cancer.
Buczek was told she had a type of cancer known as Triple Negative Breast Cancer, which means cells tested negative for estrogen receptors (ER-), progesterone receptors (PR-), and HER2 (HER2-). Simply, it’s a very aggressive cancer with a high recurrence rate. When going to Boston for her second opinion, Buczek went over the treatment plan outlined for her in Utica and physicians agreed it was the right approach.
“I’ve since learned that it’s the protocol for that type of cancer. I was told, ‘We throw everything we can at it from the start so you have a greater chance of a successful outcome,’” she said.
But surgery was only the beginning of Buczek’s journey. She also had 24 weekly doses of chemotherapy — almost half a year — followed by radiation treatment. After starting radiation, treatment had to be delayed two months before she could start again because of difficulties with side effects, and a large amount of fluid had developed around her lungs.
Her total treatment, from surgery to follow-up, lasted about 11 months.
“Everyone is different — every cancer is different — and I had no idea there were so many types of breast cancer,” Buczek said. “I knew people who were diagnosed years ago who had surgery and that was it. I knew others diagnosed who had surgery and radiation, but no chemo. I kept thinking maybe I’ll be like them. Then I was like, ‘Oh my god, I have to have all of it.’ Then I’m self employed, so your mind races and you wonder, ‘How will I still be able to work and support myself?’”
As for advice to others who may have been recently diagnosed, “Once you get through the initial shock and fear, start researching and learning as much as you can,” she said. “You have to be proactive, and everyone will handle it differently. I had a really good support team, and my family is wonderful. We got there. There’s the cliche that you’re suppose to take one day at a time, but it is so true. I’d look at a calendar and look at dates of how long I’d go through chemo, but nothing goes as planned. There’s always something that happens. You have to just take what happens that day and deal with it.”
Buczek said the best thing she did, and what she encourages other women to do, is to listen to their bodies and if they think something is “not right,” then go see their doctor without delay.
“The sooner you can find out something is wrong and take action, the better outcome you’re going to have,” she said.
And what else?
“Get support,” Buczek advised. “You can’t do it alone — you can’t go through this alone. It weighs on you mentally, physically and emotionally. It turns life upside-down in an instant, so you really need a support system. If you don’t have family or close friends, there are support groups out there.”
Although it’s been more than two years since her surgery, Buczek admits she can still have a “down day” and seeks the support of peers by going to a local support group meeting. She said women who have been diagnosed with breast cancer should also seek out the programs offered by the American Cancer Society.
A local representative “got me in contact with the national office, and they sent me a lot of good literature and information, and they have great programs,” Buczek said.
One of those programs is Look Good Feel Better, which provides patients with make-up and wigs, and a professional shows them how to apply it.
“It’s not just about trying to look pretty, but you’re in a room with other woman going through the same thing,” Buczek said. “When I went, it was the first time I was with other patients. I felt I was with peers and people who could help me who were in all stages of treatment. There were women with wigs, women who were bald...and I kind of looked around and said, ‘This is me now.’ They offered us scarves, hats and wigs, and taught us how to make yourself feel better during a down time.”
Buczek also participated in the Reach to Recovery program, which matches cancer patients up with someone with a similar diagnosis for mutual support.
“A woman in Syracuse and I became pen pals over the phone,” Buczek said. “She was a few years out of treatment, but that also gives you something positive. It allows you to say, ‘She did it, so I’m going to do it too. It’s not the end of the road.’”
“It’s a head game,” she said. “Every step of the way you try to stay positive. It’s not always easy to do that. I had my down days no question about it, and you’re going to and need to realize it’s OK to do that. But you can’t stay there. You’re going to be scared and feel that anxiety or be negative, but the next day is a new day and you have a new outlook.”
One of the most traumatic experiences of her cancer treatment was when Buczek said she lost her hair. Once wavy and now curly, the former cancer patient isn’t quite sure what to think of her new locks, but it has kept her in perspective.
“Losing your hair is traumatic. It’s not the end of the world, but once you hear that diagnosis, it’s like you keep getting kicked and punched,” she recalled. “The first meeting with the oncologist my brother was with me, and I sat there with a list of questions. He would explain things and then ask if I had questions. Finally he said, ‘I’ll take a break because I’ve thrown a lot at you.’ So then I broke down and asked, ‘Am I going to lose my hair?’ and he said, ‘Absolutely,’ and that’s when I started to cry. My brother said it would grow back. But for me, it felt like now my diagnosis is public. It’s not my own thing to deal with anymore.”
As a result of chemotherapy and radiation, Buczek lost her nails as well. Her eyes also reacted and today she continues to suffer from severe dry eye, one of the side effects of treatment. Even her hair, although it’s curly and “not quite the color it was,” Buczek said she sometimes gets frustrated because “it was the result of cancer — it wasn’t my choice and it’s one thing I’m stuck with.”
But despite the reminders of her cancer, Buczek continues to fight. Today she has achieved “pace setter” status in the Making Strides Against Breast Cancer event for which she raised more than $2,500 for last year. Her team, the Penguin Platoon, continues for raise funds for this year’s event, to be held Sunday, Oct. 15 at the Masonic Home campus in Utica.
Breast cancer “can happen to anybody and it’s not just older women, it’s women of all ages. Even younger women are being diagnosed — those in their 30s and even some in their 20s — so everyone needs to know their body,” Buczek said. “If something doesn’t look, feel or seem right, then ask questions and get it checked. People hate going to the doctor and dealing with the insurance nonsense these days, but it can save your life. Everyone needs to be proactive and know when something is off. Early detection is key.”