Editor's Note: This is the final profile in ther series on some of Ford's own breast cancer survivors…the company's very own Warriors.
DEARBORN - Ford Powertrain Operations Engineer Annette Januszczak says her bout with breast cancer two and a half years ago has had “a phenomenal effect” on her outlook on life today.
“I literally get up every day and think about how grateful I am to be alive. That is how cancer changed my life,” she said. “I used to get wound up about everyday things and now I realize what a waste of energy that is.”
The road to that realization, however, was not without its share of bumps.
Januszczak was only 42 when she was diagnosed with breast cancer.
“I was completely surprised because I have no family history of any type of cancer let alone breast cancer,” she said. “I’ve never smoked, and I don’t have any of the other risk factors so it was not something I was expecting at all.”
When her doctor told her she had breast cancer in February of 2009, Januszczak says the analytical engineer in her took control and she immediately began to plan what she should do next.
“My response was very physical, and I think it was driven by pure adrenalin,” she said. “My first impulse was that I had to hit it hard, and I just started doing emergency planning in my head.”
Though she has an air of strength about her, Januszczak readily admits experiencing a great deal of anxiety.
“It’s like you’re on a fast roller coaster ride in the dark. It’s very scary. But it’s going to go where it’s going to go, and you really can’t change that,” she explained. “I was very fearful. You start thinking about your own mortality, and it’s very scary.”
Friends of Januszczak had had positive experiences at the Karmanos Cancer Institute, so she decided to go there for treatment. A week after her initial appointment, she and her husband went back to get the test results.
“That was probably the scariest part because I only felt something the size of about half a peanut myself and from the various biopsies they did they found five separate tumors,” she said.
Doctors recommended a mastectomy followed by chemotherapy and radiation.
“I had all the typical side effects from chemotherapy,” Januszczak said. “My hair fell out. The anti-nausea drugs they gave me resulted in a lot of digestive problems, and I felt really tired and rundown.”
The radiation treatments were exhausting in their own way, she says.
“The schedule was pretty grueling because I had to go in for treatment each and every day – except weekends – for 8 straight weeks,” she said. “It was tiring psychologically.”
Januszczak says she tried to keep as normal a work schedule as possible while she was undergoing treatments.
“For me, working made me feel better. It helped me feel like I wasn’t sick,” she said. “I didn’t want to sit home and think about what was happening.”
While on chemotherapy, Januszczak took part in the Komen Detroit Race for the Cure. She had participated in the Races in prior years, but this was the first time that she walked in a pink t-shirt as a breast cancer survivor.
“Prior to 2009, I would walk on the Ford Team to support the company's participation in Race for the Cure.” she said. “This time it was so personal and emotional. I thought of all the experiences I had with my co-workers and managers and how supportive everybody was and how key they were in helping me deal with everything I was going through, and I wanted to give back.”
In September of 2009, after finishing chemotherapy and radiation treatments, Januszczak’s tests came back clear. Doctors put her on hormone therapy and told her to come back for a checkup in six months. She thought her life might finally be returning to normal until something strange started happening a few months later.
“My abdominal area was getting larger, which was odd because I work out,” she said. “At first I chalked it up to weight gain from the hormone treatment.”
But by April of 2010, it was clear that something was very wrong.
“It was getting to the point where I was short of breath, and I had a lot of pain in my leg,” said Januszczak.
Her doctor ordered some tests and discovered that she had a five-pound tumor in her uterus. Fortunately, it was benign, but in addition to having the tumor removed she had to have a hysterectomy and a procedure to remove her ovaries.
Today, almost a year and a half later, Januszczak is feeling good, enjoying life to the fullest and thankful to the special people who helped her through her journey with breast cancer.
“My husband was wonderful. He was so thoughtful and very attentive,” she said. “And I really relied on my family, co-workers and friends. They were there when I needed them, and they gave me space when I needed it.”
Januszczak’s advice to others facing breast cancer is to “you can lean on your friends.”
“Know that there are people there and that they care about you. And be patient with them because they don’t know what you need, so ask for help in whatever way works for you,” she said. “Take advantage of the people who offer to make food for you or help with the laundry. And remember that you are not alone.”