|be healthy | October/November 2016
Two women share their survival stories
by Tina Ding
Deb Bernhardt discovered something unusual while showering. Her chest had a raised area that felt weird to the touch. Since it soft, her physician wasn't immediately concerned; however, it was recommended she have it ruled out. Cancer, that is.
Since she had no history of breast cancer, she focused more on getting through the biopsy than worrying if it was anything to be concerned about. Deb was stunned to learn she actually did have breast cancer -- an active, aggressive ductal variety. She was 43 years old; her two sons were young adults, one heading toward a spring high school graduation.
"My husband, sister and I were numb. I had the c-word," Deb Bernhardt said. "All three of us went home and had a good cry."
By morning, she made a swift decision to become educated in all options offered through her medical insurance. Phone calls were made by lunchtime; she and her husband, Bill, attended an appointment with their family physician to develop a plan. She knew what insurance would cover and was ultimately prepared to save her life.
"I told Bill: I'm going to beat this," she said. She asked her physician and gynecologist to point her toward a plastic surgeon and to recommend an oncologist. With her team formed and a plan in place, she underwent a double mastectomy, immediately followed by reconstructive surgery. Her path was straight forward. She wanted to live.
Stephanie Belohlavek-Geiger's mind was heavy with thoughts of having lost her mother to cancer for years. She also underwent a mastectomy; however, her path was an 18 month long ordeal. There was something weighing on her chest, like a ton of bricks. She had a strong conviction that she knew her body -- and her body was telling her to seek attention; so, she sought a diagnosis.
"For me, it was embedded in my family tree," Stephanie said. "I knew that a diagnosis of cancer was a swift death sentence, in my case. I needed to know for me and for my girls whether or not this was a genetic thing."
Stephanie began having issues that brought her to her medical doctor; still, without a cancer diagnosis, she wasn't a candidate for radical surgeries. She was under the impression she needed cancer in order to fight it.
"It was because of my mother's sister, Joyce, that I was finally able to present solid medical findings to my physicians," Stephanie said. "Joyce had been through cancer and it was back. Due to her and mom's cancers being similar, she secured genetic testing; she learned she was positive for the BRCA2 gene." Her aunt held the keys that pushed Stephanie's physician to draw blood. It took another six weeks to determine a diagnosis.
"When he came into the room to share the results, his words to me were unexpected, yet not surprising. He said, 'I'll give you five minutes to gloat. You were right. You have the BRCA2 gene; you have breast and ovarian cancer syndrome."
Stephanie had lost 18 precious months asking questions, getting the direct impression she was paranoid and should let this go. She had attended required medical sessions that presented outdated information. Stephanie had undergone biopsies, while knowing full well those sites could become cancerous. Despite a closer look on several tumorous sites, results were inconclusive, but she knew in her gut they were pre-cancerous growths. She knew she could end up like her mom, leaving her children behind. She knew exactly what she had to do.
First, Stephanie got physical. She chose to be as physically fit as possible in order to prepare for her surgery. She ran and lifted weights and prepared the best way she knew how to fight this. She underwent a bilateral mastectomy (both breasts), a full hysterectomy (uterus), an oophorectomy (both ovaries), and reconstructive surgery all at once; and returned to work within three weeks.
"I went into surgery with two thoughts: this could break me -- if I let it," she said. "I knew I wouldn't be the same physically when leaving the hospital, but my mind and mental health would be exactly the same. This would not break me!"
Deb's outcome was similar. "I hit it hard and ran with it," she said. "I made my decisions and followed them with a mindset that I was going to be an overcomer. This would not take me. I hit chemo -- and I hit it hard. My son was graduating in the spring and I only had so much time to spend in chemo. I was going to be there to see him graduate." Her advice to women is to get to know your own body. "Choose to stay with a physician long-term. This person will know your body and know what's going on. Don't miss screenings," she said. "Take it seriously. It's your life. Pay attention to what your body is telling you."
Tina Ding is a teacher, freelance writer and grad school student with plenty of time for her husband and three children. She also loves photography, scrapbooking, reading and traveling.