Strong, Fearless, Proud: A Conversation with Luanne Barnas, Breast Cancer Survivor

"I never take a day for granted. When I look back I think about the doctor who read my mammogram. What if she was having a bad day or was negligent at what she's trained to do? It could have been another year. I don’t want to think about that, though. I refuse to have any drama or negativity in my life – we have options right? I choose to remove myself from it."

Photo by Emily Korff

Luanne Barnas is a workout enthusiast who didn’t let breast cancer get in the way of her journey as a business woman, mother and friend.

A 52-year-old personal wellness coach from La Plata, Maryland, Luanne values her time spent with her husband, four children and three grand babies. With a background in personal training and as a fitness instructor, Luanne has spent her days as a health coach for Herbalife International since 2007. She and her husband, Ken, own two nutrition clubs in Waldorf and La Plata. “It’s a place where people can come get their healthy breakfast, lunch and a natural energy boost in a welcoming atmosphere. Both clubs offer the same services with a smile,”  she says. “We hold free fit camps, weight loss challenges and other social events to introduce people to a healthy lifestyle and this makes a difference in our communities.”

Health coach are not usually the two words used to describe someone diagnosed with cancer, but healthy people get cancer, too, Luanne says. Nowadays cancer has come a long way. It is no longer viewed as a death sentence, but still lingers without bias; influenced not by race, sex, religion, finances, hobbies or otherwise. It targets us all, and as a results our community comes together each October to reflect on Breast Cancer Awareness, their survivors and how far we’ve come. This month, we feature an inspiring, positive woman who found herself at a crossroads after a concerning routine mammogram, despite her daily health efforts.

A Conversation with Luanne Barnas, Breast Cancer Survivor

How did you find out you had breast cancer?

Every year I had a clean mammogram, until December 2014 when I received a notice to come back to redo one I had in November. That notice sat on my desk for several weeks and it always seemed to show up on the top, so I finally took action – and good thing I did! On January 30, 2015, I had a right breast ultrasound biopsy and on February 13 I was diagnosed with ductal carcinoma, with a 95 percent positive estrogen receptor prognosis. This meant it was early stage but aggressive.

What was your initial reaction?

It’s bizarre to hear the results – I was holding my husband’s hand really tight, and I could feel the tears building up, but then when I walked out of the office they handed me this pink, crocheted blanket. It validated that I was going to be a breast cancer survivor.

Aw, what a great idea!

It is. At first, I didn’t know how to take it. I went home and put it away. It took me about three months to accept the blanket, but I brought it back out during chemo. They are all created by volunteers who give them to patients for support. Now I love the blanket, it’s laying on my couch!

How did your family and friends take the news?

Mostly shocked – they said, me? I’m the healthiest person! It just proves, you never know.

What was your treatment plan?

My husband and I had earned an all expenses paid vacation to Hawaii which was scheduled for mid June. We were especially excited for this trip as we had members of our team going too! I had a lumpectomy in March at MedStar Georgetown Medical Center and I was in the best care with my breast surgeon Dr. Tsiapali and the entire staff. I healed fine. Luckily, I was able to make the Hawaii trip and then began the rest of the treatments when I returned. I went to oncologist Dr. Demonaco in Clinton, that’s where I had all of my cancer care treatments. I began with a cocktail every three weeks for four rounds. It was an IV drip of drugs to prevent cells from dividing and growing. It took about two hours each time. For me, it was painless. I also had 33 radiation treatments, but you can’t even tell – you can hardly see my scars!

Describe your experience with chemotherapy:

It was interesting. Except for being more tired than normal, I got through each day with positive thoughts and actions, took time to breathe and heal myself. I continued eating clean, exercising and following my nutrition plan (minus a couple supplements not to interfere with the treatment). I didn’t always have a big appetite, so my shakes were a godsend. Anything to get me a lot of calories and good nutrients! Honestly, I felt strong and healthy during 95 percent of the process. I’m so grateful to have had a peaceful experience, however, losing my hair was another story.

Can you explain?

I started by donating two long braids to Wigs for Kids and the rest began falling out three to four weeks into my treatment, piece by piece. Ken and our team members were traveling for our annual extravaganza (the only event I ever missed!) and as soon as he got home I asked him to shave it. I can’t even explain the feeling of having my husband shave my head. It was difficult to digest but I did kind of enjoy being hairless for the summer – legs, underarms, you know [laughs], but overall it was good because I was able to do something meaningful with my hair prior to treatment.

Throughout the process, what gave you strength and helped you cope?

My treatment took place between June and August of 2015 so I spent a lot of time at the beach in Ocean City, staying as stress free as possible. I always made a point to get up and dressed every day, treating my life as normal as I could. When I wasn’t at the beach I was either home catching up on things, on the phone building relationships, resting or reading. I engrossed myself in the movie “The Secret” by Rhonda Byrne. I watched parts of it every day. Family is also very healing. My husband Ken is my rock. He was there for me through the whole thing, as well as my mom, who is also a breast cancer survivor.

You are the definition of positivity!

Well, mostly, in my mind, I was cancer free from the minute Dr. Tsiapoli removed it! Our brains play tricks on us if we are not careful and I try my best to stay in control of my thoughts, words and actions.

Has your outlook on life changed at all?

Totally – I never take a day for granted. When I look back I think about the doctor who read my mammogram. What if she was having a bad day or was negligent at what she’s trained to do? It could have been another year. I don’t want to think about that, though. I refuse to have any drama or negativity in my life – we have options right? I choose to remove myself from it.

I love being a health coach and helping people every day to change their life through better choices and exercise. If things are not going great in your life, if you’re not feeling fulfilled or full of life and dreams when you go to sleep, then change something.

Your story is inspiring. How long have you been cancer free?

In December of 2015 I had my first mammogram and right before Christmas the results showed no signs of breast cancer.

 That must have been the perfect gift! What do your days look like now?

I’m working and traveling and life is good. I’m still trying to find the right hair style. The chemo also threw me into menopause, so that has been interesting. Not only did the periods stop but I get the whirlwind of hot flashes. My whole body just turns into a flame. It started after treatment was over.

 But the doctors warned you of the after effects, right?

Yes. It amazes me how much these doctors know. I know how to take someone and change their life through their diet and nutrition, and these guys know how to give me a bag of IV of a drug that’s going to kill cells. Its remarkable. And everyone’s cancer treatment is unique! Everyone I talked to was different. I’m very grateful everyday but I’m taking all precautions.  I try to stay medicine free, but I’ll be on one medicine for five years as well as getting regular mammograms every year.

What do you want other women to know about breast cancer?

 To not be scared of it and to understand it’s in your life for a reason – and it may be a reason you’ll never know. Keep a journal of the journey and if you look back at it, it’s not to feel sad, but grateful that it made you stronger than before.

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Rachel Lytle
Rachel Lytle is a digital marketing coordinator for MedStar Health and contributing writer to WOMAN Magazines. Rachel has a degree in Journalism from the Pennsylvania State University, but grew up in Southern Maryland. She has a passion for digital communications and has previous experience working for advertising agencies, college publications and as a writer for MedStar St. Mary’s Hospital’s Marketing and Public Relations Department. Rachel likes to play tennis, travel, and spend her spare time with family and friends.