Carolyn Aldridge discovered she had cancer completely by accident.
"It was just a shock," Aldridge said. "Literally a shock. That’s the last thing I would have ever thought."
In a rush to catch a train back in October of 2011, she was hit by the train car’s closing doors. She shrugged off a lump on her side, assuming it was bruising. But then that lump started getting bigger and she went to get checked out.
"I’m waiting for them to say, oh, we’re going to aspirate," Aldridge said. "We’re going to take the bruised blood out. And to my surprise, they told me it was cancer."
Breast cancer and it was a particularly aggressive form.
"It wasn’t just normal," she said. "It wasn’t just, you know, the ductal. It was triple-negative. And it was all of the things, as they say, angry cancer."
Triple-negative breast cancer doesn’t respond to less invasive treatments like hormone therapy because it lacks the three cancer receptors those treatments target. It’s also more likely to recur than other subtypes of breast cancer. So, after undergoing a mastectomy, Aldridge’s doctors recommended radiation and chemotherapy.
"To be honest with you, the thought of chemo really freaked me out," she said. "So, after the surgery, I really weighed my options. But because of it being a triple-negative, I just didn’t want to take a chance, so I said let me do all of the procedures."
And the procedures worked. A year after her diagnosis, doctors gave Aldridge a clean bill of health.
"You’re done, we’ll see you in 6 months," she said. "And I literally was like, okay what do I do now? How am I supposed to feel? Because I’m still feeling like something’s missing. You’re not plugging me into what I need to be plugged into – to help me get back to me. And you’re just looking at me saying okay, you’re fine. I just felt like I was still unplugged."
So, the cancer was gone – but so was Aldridge’s sense of normalcy. She was a healthy 51-year-old – but she didn’t feel like the person she was before her treatment.
"I’m a go-getter," she said. "I’m always going somewhere. I didn’t have that ability to just get up and go whenever I wanted to. I’m very independent. I had to become dependent on folk to help me."
Aldridge said she expected to feel tired but no one prepared her for how intense her fatigue would be or how long it would last.
"No one said you’d be doing your daily routine of shopping and all of a sudden you’ve got to stop because you can’t go a step further," she said. "No one told you how to manage those things. Or how to build your stamina back up so you could get back to a normal life."
And there were other things stopping Aldridge from getting back to her old routine. Scarring from her surgeries made it painful to lift her arm. She started looking into physical therapy options when someone told her about the STAR Program, which offers rehab designed specifically for cancer patients.
Kathleen Tetrault is a physical therapist who worked with Aldridge for two months at the STAR center at Brockton Signature Healthcare.
"The key to the rehab is setting up personalized goals," Tetrault said. "We listen to the patient and we determine together – the patient and the therapist – what they want to achieve from therapy."
Tetrault showed me how Aldridge used to clutch her right arm against her chest.
"She wasn’t able to move her arm away from her body and when she did, it was significantly painful," Tetrault said. "She was very tight in her chest area, which is common with the breast cancer reconstruction surgery that she went through. So, we gradually were able to release some of the tension and get her to have a little more range of motion."
The endurance and strength training paid off. Aldridge has enough energy to return to work full time, and she showed me how she’s now able to reach the top shelf in the kitchen where she loves to cook.
"In order to get to here, I’d have to be on my tippy toes or use the stool," Aldridge said. "But now I can reach up."
She can also do the simple things that became major challenges after her treatment.
"I can use the curling iron, because I can put my hands above my head and not have to wait a couple minutes because of the weight of the iron," she said. "I can do my normal activities now. I don’t have to call anyone to say, can you help me button the buttons in the back, I can literally lift around and do the buttons in the back now because they really worked with the muscles and the tissues until I got back to where I should be."
Aldridge said she's grateful to have her independence back – but what she values most is the emotional support she received from the staff at the STAR Program.
"The thing that stuck out the most to me – every single appointment, I was asked, how are you feeling?" she said. "They wanted to hear how I was feeling. Not how my arm was feeling, but how am I doing?"
Dr. Julie Silver understands how important that is. She developed the STAR Program in 2009, after discovering firsthand there was a need for it. At age 38, she was diagnosed with breast cancer.
"I had wonderful care, but I did have to rehab myself," Silver said. "And it was very hard. I had three little kids at home. It was very difficult."
Silver said the emotional and physical well-being of cancer survivors go hand-in-hand.
"There’s a lot of new research looking at distress in cancer survivors and really tying the physical and the emotional together," she said. "People who are in pain even if it’s muscular-skeletal pain they worry that their cancer’s coming back. They think that, that’s cancer pain. It really can help a lot alleviate some of that worry."
STAR rehab is now available in 40 states – and thanks to statewide initiatives backed by cancer charities, it’s accessible to survivors across Massachusetts and Rhode Island. Carolyn Aldridge hopes that will mean more people get the help they need to get their lives back on track after cancer.
"Life is not over," she said. "It’s just not. To me, it’s just beginning, but it’s just beginning a little differently now."