Local News

Program helps cancer survivors forge new path

Posted January 14, 2010 7:15 p.m. EST
Updated January 14, 2010 8:13 p.m. EST

— A psychological support program at the Duke Comprehensive Cancer Center for women with Stage 4 breast cancer is helping the women and their families deal with needs outside standard medical care.

Pathfinders started at Duke three years ago, and those involved with the program said it has helped quell their fear and confusion and renewed their determination to fight the disease that has taken some of their friends and relatives.

"If Pathfinders had not been a part of my journey with cancer, I probably would not be living today," said a woman who asked to be identified only as Jennifer.

Jennifer was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2004, but it went into remission with treatment.

"It came back in 2008 and almost killed me. That's when I got involved with Pathfinders," she said.

The disease even took the lives of her unborn twins.

"I say cancer sucks. I have a T-shirt that says that too," she said.

Cindy Atkins said breast cancer forced her to retire from her job as a Durham firefighter.

"I wasn't afraid of dying," Atkins said. "(My fear was) leaving my husband and kids. Will they be OK without me?"

Her husband, Bill Atkins, said Pathfinders also helped him cope with his fears.

"Just to be able to voice what I was feeling took a tremendous pressure off me," Bill Atkins said, calling his wife's diagnosis "the worst news I could have ever gotten."

Dr. Kim Blackwell, an oncologist at Duke who is so aggressive in her fight against cancer that some have dubbed her the "Cowboy of Chemo," said Pathfinders has affected her as well.

"There is such a thing as a good death, and I think, in particular, the examination of each of my patients and sensing what they view as a good death is what I've learned from the Pathfinders program," Blackwell said.

Jennifer said her latest scans show spots on her liver and bones, and she is already using Pathfinders to prepare for another battle with cancer.

"It's a place I've been all too often, a place where people don't always come back from," she said. "It's hurt and misery and self-pity. (It's) sadness, and it's just death."