PLATTSBURGH — Ellen Bouchard's accomplishments include Noon Rotary Paul Harris Award 2012, Rotarian of the Year, Paul Harris 5 Sapphire Award, Rotary Excellence in Service Award and Breast Cancer Survivor.
In the spring of 2014, she was among a group of women who participated in a MBT Bank sponsored American Red Cross fitness program, “The Better You,” with personal trainer Michelle Mosher.
In October 2014, Ellen was diagnosed with breast cancer.
“One of the things that helped me was I was probably in the best shape of my life,” Ellen, a Plattsburgh resident, said.
“I continued what I did.”
Mosher had taught her how to keep the furnace burning.
She loved spin class and decided to bike.
She found her Mother's Day gift at Dick's Sporting Goods, and she rode 60 miles three times a week.
At 54, she was the manager of MBT Bank on Route 3.
At home, she and her husband, Claude, had three adult children — Denielle, Michelle and Rei Medina.
In July of 2014, she was the president of the Noon Rotary Club and served on quite a few other boards at the time.
“I had gone just to get my yearly checkup, and they had scheduled the mammogram,” Ellen said.
“I went and got my mammogram and they called me back. They said, 'Well, we kind of see a few things, and we would like you to come back and we're going to do another mammogram and we're going to do a sonogram.”
Ellen asked the University of Vermont Health Network, Champlain Valley Physicians Hospital tech what she saw, and the tech pointed to splotches, calcium deposits, not uncommon in a woman her age.
NO LONGER HIDDEN
Dr. Curt M. Snyder, a Women's Imaging radiologist, looked at the results and decided to do a biopsy.
“What happened was when he called me back in, he showed me and he said this is what I'm concerned about,” Ellen said.
“He pointed to a spot that was more near my chest wall. That's one of the reasons why I couldn't feel anything. You never would have felt it because it was against my chest wall. I said okay. He said, 'I think it's breast cancer.' I was like really?”
The next day, she hadn't heard from Dr. Snyder, so she contacted her primary, Dr. Paula George.
“She was like what are you talking about?,” Ellen said.
“I told her what was going on. She got the reports, and she called me about 4:30 in the afternoon.”
“Where are you,” Dr. George said.
“In my office,” Ellen said.
“Of course, you are,” Dr. George said.
“I want you to come and see me.”
At MBT, Ellen grabbed her friend, Jamie Cross.
“I said you need to come with me,” Ellen said.
“I went over, and (Dr. George) gave me a big hug. She said, 'It's breast cancer.'”
Ellen got her diagnosis on a Friday afternoon.
By 11 a.m. Monday, her nurse navigator had called her from the Breast Care Center at the University of Vermont Medical Center.
“She called me and said, 'Let's get going,'” Ellen said.
“It was amazing because their mantra is it's patient driven.”
That time was a little surreal for her.
The hardest part was telling her children who were ages 26, 24, and 21.
The nurse navigator wanted to know if she had thought about a surgeon, a doctor.
Ellen didn't know anybody at the Breast Care Center, but she knew people who knew people.
A colleague's mother was in process of her treatment there.
Dr. Farrah B. Khan became her medical oncologist.
Dr. Seth Harlow became her surgical oncologist, and she had a plastic surgeon.
“I was diagnosed as having Stage 2 breast cancer,” Ellen said.
“I was given the option of a lumpectomy with radiation and chemo or a mastectomy with chemo because they said there is nothing left to radiate.”
The timing was crazy.
Ellen was off her high blood pressure meds because she had dropped so much weight.
She quickly learned new lessons about her body and anatomy.
“It was hard because you look at the doctor, and you say what would you do?” Ellen said.
Dr. Harlow said it was her preference.
The success rate was 50-50 either way.
“For me, I decided to do the mastectomy with chemo,” Ellen said.
“It sounds really weird because I was afraid of radiation.”
The cancer was in her right breast.
“Unless, you have an issue with the other one, your insurance doesn't cover it or unless you have a major history or also depending on what stage you're at ,” Ellen said.
If she had elected to have treatment on her left breast the insurance wouldn't have covered it.
Ellen would have to cover the costs out of pocket.
“Because unless you're at a certain stage or a certain type of cancer,” she said.
“My cancer was estrogen driven. Part of it is because of my age. One of the things that I'm still on is estrogen therapy, which is to do the opposite. I take it to stop producing it, to slow it down.”
Ellen's surgery was scheduled for Nov. 19, 2014 at noon at UVM.
“I had decided to do what was a fairly new procedure where they basically go in and scoop out everything, but they leave the outside of your breast,” she said.
“Because mine was on my chest wall, Dr. Harlow agreed to do that. I guess it's very technical and a lot harder. I didn't lose the outside of my breast.”
What normally happens surgeons make an incision, remove the cancer and put in an implant.
Patients return for skin grafts and tattoos.
“I didn't have to do all of that,” Ellen said.
“They put in what they call an expander, and they put some fluid in it. I would go in and they would slowly expand it.” Eventually, the expander was replaced by a permanent implant.
“I think it helped a lot in my healing process,” she said.
“I didn't have this huge scar. I just had this one line underneath.”
Ellen and Claude were waiting for Dr. Harlow when a man walked in wearing full garb — mask, rubber gloves — and carried a tin box.
“He comes back in with Dr. Harlow,” Ellen said.
“He puts on his regular gloves, and this guy hands him this little, tiny tube and a little tiny needle. He basically took it and put it into my breast.”
This nuclear test was going to light up cancer cells in her body.
“They were able to tell if it had spread through my lymph nodes or whatever,” Ellen said.
“They only took out my receptor lymph nodes, so I only lost three lymph nodes, which was really good because it showed it hadn't spread.”
The edges were jagged where her growth was.
“I was still considered a 2, but I was closer to a 3,” Ellen said.
“My three hour surgery took about six and half hours.”
Ellen was in the hospital about three days after because she had a really violent reaction to the anesthesia.
“I think part of it was I was there for so long,” she said.
But she didn't end up having her surgery until Dec. 10, 2014.
At midnight on Nov. 18, Claude went into full respiratory arrest. “His lungs had filled up to almost 90 percent with fluid,” Ellen said.
“So he was basically drowning in his own fluid. His heart couldn't work, so basically the he had the heart attack because his heart couldn't work.”
Claude was in ICU, recovered and accompanied his wife when she had her surgery.
Ellen was scheduled to return for a follow-up visit on Dec. 22, but the weekend before she had a real bad pain, a different kind of pain.
“I didn't know what it was,” she said.
Claude pushed her in a wheelchair.
Her medical team wanted to know what was going on.
She shouldn't be like this.
“I had a very large blood clot in my upper arm,” Ellen said.
“Then, I had to go on these fun, belly shots twice a day for like a month, heparin. It helps to thin your blood.”
Claude was her nurse while she floated between pain and medicine.
“I remember being whipped around the hospital on the 22nd, but I don't really remember anything until the first week of January,” Ellen said.
First, Ellen and Claude met with the plastic surgeon to make sure everything was fine.
Next, they started chemo training.
“Every doctor or every person you may encounter comes and sees you,” Ellen said.
“It was great.”
She met her dietitian, hematologist, anesthesiologist, oncologist, surgical oncologist.
The nurses gave her tips to keep her nails short and wear clear polish.
Ellen returned on a Friday to get her port in and started chemo the following Thursday.
Despite the pending chemo, Ellen said they were blessed because Claude worked at the City of Plattsburgh Building Inspector's Office.
He was a code enforcement officer.
“Between the sick time that he had, the union, a lot of the guys gave him time,” Ellen said.
“For that two months when we were both home, we were both recuperating. He could take care of me.”
Ellen started chemo in January of 2015.
“I had this wonderful nurse name Sue who explained everything to me,” she said.
“She told me the kind of chemo I was getting usually affects your sinuses. There were two stages to the chemo. Every time you go, they draw your blood and your chemo is made every time you go specifically for you.”
The pharmacy makes up the chemo, and then it is brought to the patients.
“Every time you go, it's going to change,” Ellen said.
Nurse Sue held two imposing needles.
She asked Ellen if she wanted Lidocaine before she accessed her port.
“I said, 'I don't know. Do I?'” Ellen said.
“I don't know what I'm doing.'
Nurse Sue told her the pros and the cons of pricks and burns.
“I said, Well, that's dumb. Just do it,” Ellen said.
“I didn't take the Lidocaine. She just accessed it. It was a prick. It takes a second. Then, that's how they did everything. They drew my blood from there, so you didn't have to get stabbed a thousand times.”
For two hours, Nurse Sue pushed the chemo through Ellen's port.
For the second part, a bag of chemo was suspended on a pole.
Ellen told the nurse she had to go to the bathroom after receiving all the fluids they were pushing into her.
Nurse Sue warned her that her urine would be bright, orange-red.
“'The most unbelievable orange-red colors,'” Ellen said.
“'I don't want you to freak out. It's normal. You're not bleeding. You're fine, but it's going to be like that. Almost make sure you wipe well, you flush twice and you wash your hands twice as long as you normally would.'”
When she returned, Ellen received her next bag of chemo.
Five to six hours passed from start to finish for the whole day.
Ellen went every other week for eight weeks of the first chemo.
The next day, she would have to return to Vermont to get a shot of the Neulasta, a bone marrow stimulant.
“What's happening with the chemo is it's killing your white blood cells,” she said.
“The first chemo killed her white blood cells but it banged up my red ones. With the white blood cells, because I was getting it every week, it didn't have time to build itself back up. So you get this Neulasta shot.”
Some nurses told her that some people have more side effects from the Neulasta shot than off the chemo.
One of the side effects is lower back pain.
“A lot of the nurses said people said if they took Claritin every day, for some reason it helped,” Ellen said.
“So the first time I took the shot, it started within 12 hours later. It was like every time your heart beat it felt like you were getting this intense pain in you lower back. It was crazy it was so intense. I ended up not getting sick from the chemo.”
Nurse Sue had given her pills for nausea, but she recommended Ellen eat crackers and drink ginger ale.
It was also suggested that she get the shot at CVPH.
“The insurance denied it,” Ellen said.
“They said it wasn't the same hospital. So, we went back around it again, and then they denied it. I kept doing chemo and stuff. Then, They denied it because they said my doctor did not have rights to write at CVPH.”
Ellen had Dr. George write it, and it was denied again.
Once Ellen posted on Facebook: “Icy day, but beautiful ride. Crazy that I had to do all of this, and I wasn't even in the hospital for 20 minutes.”
Kerry Haley from the The Foundation of CVPH sent her a private message and asked what was going on.
RIGHT ON TIME
The year before, Ellen and Claude had switched their insurance back to the city.
“Every time I sat in that chair it was $38,000,” she said.
“Every time I went to get that shot, it was $6,000. It was costing me $44,000 every other week. Eighty percent sounds like a lot but if you're getting charged $44,000 every other week... That doesn't include that my blood had to be drawn because they had to check my numbers because I was on the Heparin shots. I was on all the other meds I had to take. My hematologist would check it.”
Ellen needed to eat and her permission to eat what she wanted.
“Your taste buds change,” she said.
“Everything changes. She didn't want you eating kale five days a week. If you got a hankering, I don't want you to eat salad five days in a row. That isn't going to help. She would monitor it. Put your doses up. Put your doses down.”
When Claude and Ellen arrived back home, she would ingest crackers and ginger ale and go to sleep for an hour.
“When I woke up, I had to eat and my husband knew it,” she said.
“So he always had dinner ready when I woke up. When we got toward the end of it, I was highly anemic at the point, and they were talking blood transfusion.”
After two months of the first chemo medicine, Ellen's red blood cells were beat up.
Her second chemo gave her really bad joint pain, but it didn't impact her red blood cells so they rebounded.
At this juncture, Ellen had gotten her shots switched from UVM to CVPH.
WORKED THROUGH CHEMO
At MBT, Ellen worked until 3 p.m., went to get her shot on Thursdays and then went home to recuperate over the weekend.
“Within three drops of getting this chemo, you can have a reaction as little as a rash, to an itchy throat to full anaphylactic shock,” Ellen said.
“And, they don't know until they give it to you how you're going to react.”
The nurse sat in front of Ellen with a full oxygen tank beside her.
“She said tell me if you start feeling itchy. She said you're going to know. This can happen but the minute she turns it off this will stop.”
Forty-five minutes later, a beep signaled Ellen had made it through the first stage.
The nurse said, “We're going to speed it up a little bit.”
The duo sat there for another 45 minutes to an hour.
The nurse said Ellen could talk, but she was too petrified to engage.
Another beep, more acceleration.
In the third stage, the nurse's hawk eyes are still locked on Ellen for any adverse reaction.
Ellen made it through the fourth stage with the final beep.
Ninety-nine percent of the time, if she was going to have a reaction, she would've had it already.
Ellen sat beside the nurse's desk for the remainder of her time there.
“I never ended up having a reaction, but that day I was six hours sitting in the chair getting chemo,” she said.
“That didn't include heading over in the morning, getting my blood tests, getting my port accessed, seeing the oncologist and then start the chemo.”
She did this every other week for another two months.
The whole chemo journey began Jan. 14 or 15 and ended April 23, 2015.
Ellen rang her bell on the last day of chemo.
“I was considered cured,” she said.
“They had taken out all the cancer, and I had finished all the chemo.”
Most women are prescribed Tamoxifen, but it can cause blood clots.
Given her medical history, she was given Anestrozole instead.
July 2020 marks her fifth year anniversary.
“Now, they are recommending that you stay on it for 10,” she said.
“The side effects for Anestrozole: joint pain. At this point, a lot of people take pain killer for it. I don't. I just take extra Tylenol.”
She also has to take prescription Calcium D, magnesium and potassium.
“All those things, those numbers never came back after my chemo,” Ellen said.
An echocaridogram is performed before and after chemotherapy.
“Because chemo can do a lot of damage to your heart,” she said.
“I didn't have anything there. But what they did find with the bone density test is that I have osteopenia. It's not osteoporosis, but it's the beginning of the deterioration.”
Another bone density test will be one of the factors to determine if she remains on the Anestrozole.
Now, Ellen sees her surgical oncologist every December and sees her oncologist every July.
“Whenever I see my surgical oncologist, I always have a 3-D mammogram,” she said.
“Every time I see him, he does a sonogram, too, in his office.”
She has had nine surgeries, the last this past June, to complete her reconstruction.
Chemo affects liver function, and within six months of stopping chemo her gall bladder was removed.
“It affected my gall bladder and my liver,” Ellen said.
RUNNING WITH CHEETAHS
Dr. Harlow is a sweet, stoic kind of guy, and Ellen likes to get him going when she sees him.
He asked her what she had done after her various surgeries.
“I said I got my fat rearranged again,” she said.
“He's like, 'What?' They do liposuction, and they fill in around my implant. They take the fat from my belly and put it around my implant to make it all smooth.”
Only an identical twin can donate fat to a sibling, according to her plastic surgeon, Dr. Robert D. Nesbit at UVM.
“He said, unless you're a cheetah,” Ellen said.
“Because they use the same DNA to start the next cheetahs when they try to increase the population so every cheetah has the same DNA makeup that's here.”
Ellen had the full range of BRCA gene testing.
“They do a very deep history check,” she said.
“It's very difficult because my family is very male dominated. I have five brothers. My father, there was six boys and one girl. My uncle has seven boys and two girls. My other uncle has eight boys and three girls. Men can carry that gene and not get the breast cancer or women if they carry the gene, they are going to get breast cancer.”
All of her tests came back negative, so her breast cancer was not genetic.
“But what's really freaky, our family, we have had a lot of cancers but it's all cousins,” Ellen said.
“It's not our parents, grandparents. It's not our kids. It's all the cousins. My brother (John Trombley) passed away from multiple myeloma (farmer's cancer) in 2007. He was early 50s when he was diagnosed. He lived five years after his bone marrow transplant.”
Cousins have had prostate, lung, ovarian cancer.
“It's really bizarre,” Ellen said.
“Everything is the cousins, so it makes us wonder. We grew up together. We all swam in the lake together. We all played together. We went to the same places together. We're all from this area.”
A cousin went to Memorial Sloan-Kettering Center for treatment, and one of the first questions she was asked was did you grow up or live for an extended period of time next to a military installation.
“I grew up on South Peru Street,” Ellen said.
“I could've hit the base gate with a rock. I swam in the lake every day. We used to take the beach bus to the lake.”
The location of the Crete Center was the city dump.
“The mill was there,” she said.
LOSS OF CONTROL
Ellen worked at MBT all through chemo.
Since March 2017, she has been the business development officer at Dannemora Federal Credit Union.
“What put me through was that in 2000, my mother had a stroke,” Ellen said.
“As strong as my mom was, she kind of gave up. You get to that point. She passed away in 2005. I think part of what kept me going in my mind was I wasn't going to give up for my kids' sake.”
Another key factor was the UVM social worker not only wanted to know who she was but how Claude was.
“They took care of your caretakers as well as take care of me,” Ellen said.
“The social work and the psychiatric help was there for me but it was there for my kids. It was there for Claude if he needed it. That made a big difference because they really cared about all of those things.”
Ellen had moments when she lost it like the morning after she told her children.
“Part of it is you have this feeling that you have no control,” she said.
“You don't know what is going to happen, and you have no control.”
There were the worries rain down about work, finance and the cancer spreading.
There was also the what-if regret if she hadn't skipped a mammogram the year before.
“Maybe they could have just taken it out, and I wouldn't have had to have the mastectomy,” she said.
“I don't really think I would change the way I got my treatment. I can't say enough good things about the whole outlook of the cancer center over there.”
Then, Ellen had Claude to see her through.
“I lost him unexpectedly on August 18,” she said.
“That was my nurse. That was my support system. It's been really difficult.”
They had been out to dinner to celebrate their 16th wedding anniversary.
Claude went down the hallway and returned unable to breathe.
He was purple. His heart stopped.
Rei started CPR.
“He was nine days at CVPH, but I had to let him go,” Ellen said.
“I had to make the decision to let him go.”
A friend made a necklace for her that memorializes Claude's wedding ring and his fingerprint.
“He turned 65 on July 17,” Ellen said.
“We lost him August 18. He was my rock. I just really miss him a lot, and this was not our plan."
Her desk is adorned with photographs of Claude, her children and their significant others, and her stepson, Adam, and his wife, Melanie, and their two sons, Oliver and Charlie.
"I'm trying to find a new normal,” Ellen said.
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