As a wife, mom and athlete most of my life, I enjoy bonding with my family through our love of sports. I’ve been blessed to spend time biking and swimming with both my kids, and support their sporting endeavors by getting involved. My husband and I are both USA Swimming officials and are often on deck working our daughter’s USAS meets. And – in addition to being a college sophomore and Eagle Scout, my son also swam competitively, like me. Our ‘love of sport’ has helped us to make some of the most amazing memories.
A little over a year ago, however, my life was turned upside down. My active lifestyle was put on-hold. In August 2015, in the excitement of moving our son to Florida where he would begin his college career, I felt a change in my right breast. I had always had regular breast exams, but for some reason I decided to do a self-exam. I never felt a lump, so I wasn’t initially alarmed. Within a month my mammogram was scheduled at Penn State Health Milton S. Hershey Medical Center’s outpatient breast center in Hershey.
Annual Screening Mammogram
That day, following the procedure, I was advised that a breast ultrasound was needed for further investigation. Not long into the ultrasound, a cold fear washed over me as the clicking and measuring moved into my armpit and I knew the radiologist was checking lymph nodes. Dr. Alison Chetlen, a Penn State Breast Center radiologist, told me there was a large mass that needed to be removed. It meant the “C” word. Everything changed in that moment. Up until that point, I thought it could never happen to me. Not only am I active, but I eat healthy, go for regular breast exams, do not have any family history of breast cancer, never smoked, had given birth and nursed my children – the list could go on and on. The ‘list’ that, I believed, made me immune to this disease.
Diagnosis: Invasive Lobular Cancer
The next day, following the biopsy, I learned that I had invasive lobular cancer, which was slow-growing. A lobular cancer tumor does not typically present as a tight lump, but instead fans out across the breast, like tentacles.
Everything started moving very fast, and I was overwhelmed. There was so much to learn and so many decisions to be made quickly. But my surgeon, Dr. Kristine Widders, was wonderful. She listened to all of my concerns and questions and we worked together to figure out the best course of treatment. I had researched possible treatment options, and there was one thing I knew – I hoped to avoid chemotherapy. Surgery and radiation? I could handle that, but chemo scared me. After oncotype testing, my medical oncologist, Dr. Truica explained chemo is typically more effective for aggressive, faster growing cancers. It was a tremendous relief. After discussing my options, I decided a bilateral mastectomy was the best choice for me; Dr. Widders scheduled my surgery for early October 2015, just two months after seeing our son move-in to his freshman dorm. How quickly life can change.
As I prepared myself for surgery, I decided to check-in with my gynecologist. Just two days before my mastectomy, I had a check-up with my gynecologist. So, when the news came two weeks after my mastectomy that I also tested positive for endometrial cancer, I was stunned. Why was my once strong, healthy body self-destructing? Was this seriously happening? I couldn’t believe what I was hearing.
Once I recovered from my first surgery, I underwent a full hysterectomy just seven weeks later in January 2016. Soon, I started five weeks of daily radiation. It was pretty extensive – they map and tattoo you to make sure treatment is in the exact same location every time.
It was a very stressful and frightening time, but as difficult as it was, I knew I was in good hands at the Penn State Breast Center. Between my appointments with Dr. Widders, combined with my radiologist, Dr. Jennifer Rosenberg and my oncologist, Dr. Christine Truica – they all worked together as a seamless team. They were just incredible.
Recovery and Perspective
Recovering from two surgeries within four months and dealing with a double cancer diagnoses as a typically on-the-go athlete-mom who does not sit-back for much in life – this was not easy; I was struggling. When even the little day-to-day activities like doing the laundry or weeding were painful, I was very worried that doing the things I loved most – biking, swimming, and yoga – could be beyond my reach in the days, weeks and months ahead.
I remember one particular moment of frustration following a radiation appointment. I wasn’t myself, and others could likely tell. One of the technicians asked how I was doing. As I explained my feelings, how intimidating the linear accelerator had been throughout each treatment, and only thinking about what the process was doing to my body and the impact on my ability to do all the things I love in life, she enlightened me. She pointed out something I had missed along the way: “This is your warrior!” She was right. The very machine that I feared was indeed fighting everything that I could not, on my own. It was going to rid my body of the cancer that I had never planned on in my lifetime. From that point forward, I changed my attitude. It became my partner in regaining my life.
Now, a year since my first surgery and the start of my cancer journey, I’m learning to trust my body and ease back into life. It’s been an emotional, spiritual and physical journey, but I’m thankful. I appreciate every sunrise, the time I get to spend with my children, and being able to cheer on my daughter (even if I’m in the gallery on those hard bleachers, above the pool).
And, thanks to the Penn State Health Milton S. Hershey Medical Center’s Pink Ribbon Program at the University Fitness Center, I’m getting back to my active lifestyle. Penn State Breast Center nurses Nichole Cook and Lynn Fantom made me aware of the Pink Ribbon Program during a breast cancer support group meeting. The program was created by a breast cancer survivor and is specifically structured for women to strengthen their shoulders, chest, back and abdominal muscles. Jen Price, the Pilates instructor at the University Fitness Center helped me regain a full range-of-motion after my breast cancer surgery.
And it helped – I’m finally back on the road! It was a long recovery process, but I’m back! I took some time to go for a bike ride this past summer on our family vacation in Florida. It was huge for me and very freeing to be active again. It was truly a victory lap – my victory lap! I’ve been given back my life that I thought I was going to lose. But now, I’m planning for the future and plan on some upcoming cycling races. Life is good.