Turning one of the worst moments in life into a silver lining is no easy task, but for one local cancer patient, finding a new community of other young diagnosed women has made all the difference.
Diagnosed at age 27 in the midst of training for a half marathon, Barbie Barnes faced a challenge no young mother would expect: stage 2 breast cancer. “I felt a lump in my right breast, and I panicked,” she explains. “I think some part of me knew right away that it was something real. I went to the doctor the very next day.”
Following a breast ultrasound and subsequent biopsy, Barbie received the devastating news that she had cancer. “It was the worst week of my life.” What followed was a whirlwind: learning about breast cancer, understanding its different types, a myriad of tests, and working closely with her medical team at UPMC Susquehanna’s Breast Health Center and Cancer Center to set her individualized treatment plan.
“I think it would’ve been a lot harder if I didn’t love the nurses at the cancer center,” Barbie explains. “They pamper you. You have to go there—they have heated massage chairs, and it feels like you’re flying first class. Silver lining. I’m incredibly grateful to the cancer center for a lot of reasons. For one thing, everything is in the same place, which made it a lot easier for me, and for another the staff is incredible. I remember all of their names, and when I was hospitalized after one of my chemo treatments—when my body was just breaking—Dr. Agbemabiese came to visit me every morning before he went to work. It really helped me get through emotionally. I don’t think it would’ve been the same if I went anywhere else.”
In the wake of having her world turned upside down, Barbie leaned heavily on support systems, established and new. “My husband and my son have been so wonderful, my co-workers have been so understanding and supportive, and the community at the cancer center is just amazing. I forged a support group with other young mothers who had been diagnosed in the area. I call them my ‘breast friends,’” Barbie chuckles.
Her advice to women facing a diagnosis? “Find ways to stay positive, use humor, keep yourself hydrated and well-nourished even when it’s the last thing you want to do, and stay active. Keeping my body strong by exercising during treatment really cut down on my side effects and energy drain.”
From her job in youth mental health services to spending time with her young son, Barbie is always attuned to the needs of children and their unique perspective on things, but when it came to explaining cancer to her three-year-old son Sam, she was at a loss. “How do you explain that to a child?” That’s when a special book came into their lives: “Nowhere Hair” by cancer survivor Sue Glader, which opened the door to discussing cancer as a family.
The book is honest but light-hearted as it walks children through possible side effects of cancer treatment like hair loss, loss of energy and mood swings in a way that helps them understand what is happening in their family and empowers them to help.
Thanks to the dedication of her cancer care team and tight support network of fellow patients, family and staff, Barbie successfully battled back and is now giving back, donating nearly 100 copies of “Nowhere Hair” to UPMC Susquehanna’s Cancer Center to help other young families talk to their children about cancer treatment.