October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month, an annual campaign to increase awareness of the disease. While most people are aware of breast cancer, many forget to take the steps to have a plan to detect the disease in its early stages and encourage others to do the same.
Breast cancer is the most commonly diagnosed cancer in women and the second leading cause of death among females. In fact, one in eight women will be diagnosed with breast cancer in her lifetime. Each year it is estimated that more than 220,000 women in the United States will be diagnosed with breast cancer and more than 40,000 will die. These Ankeny residents have battled the disease, and now they share their stories in an effort to raise awareness and inspire others who continue to fight.
On Sept. 27, 2011, during a routine physical, Susan Mixdorf’s doctor found a sizeable lump in her left breast. Two days later, she had a mammogram and ultrasound. The radiologist said she was 90 percent sure that it was a benign lump, although it was three centimeters in size. But the next Wednesday, eight days after finding it, she had a biopsy.
“The next day, I received the news that is was indeed cancer — while I was at my daughter’s volleyball game and my husband was out of town, mind you,” she says. “And that’s where it began.”
Mixdorf was diagnosed with invasive ductal carcinoma, a cancer to starts in the milk duct and then spreads outside the duct. Her cancer was also classified as a triple negative, a more aggressive form of cancer with a higher tendency to reoccur within the first five years.
She decided immediately to have a bilateral mastectomy. After all, she jokes, she was 42 and didn’t need “them” anymore. The surgery took place in November, and she started chemotherapy just before Christmas.
After chemotherapy, she had her reconstruction surgery then started radiation treatments. Though the doctors were confident that they removed all the cancerous areas during surgery, they wanted to pursue the further treatment as a preventative measure. She had 27 radiation treatments, but her main concern at that point was for her daughters, who were 15, 12 and 5 at the time.
“I did genetic testing because I wanted to know if I was a carrier of the gene, and I was not,” she says. “Mine was a total fluke.”
During it all, Mixdorf managed to maintain a positive outlook and sense of humor. Soon after her diagnosis, her family made plans to have a portrait taken. So they went ahead and did them — in breast cancer T-shirts making tough guy poses with lots of fake muscles.
“People who are diagnosed with cancer can be happy and have fun while they’re fighting it,” she says. “You can choose to have a good day or bad day. I chose to make light of it and deal with humor because it was easier to laugh than cry. There were times I cried, like in the shower when my hair was falling out in handfuls, but overall I knew it would never beat me.”
Mixdorf jokes that there are benefits to fake breasts — like never wearing a bra or not worrying about them bouncing while exercising.
“The first time I did aerobics (after the surgery), and they didn’t move at all,” she says. “I was in the back row of the class cracking up.”
Now Mixdorf is cancer-free. She finished her treatments about two-and-a-half years ago, and now she’s waiting to get to the five-year mark. After that, her chances of it coming back are no different than anyone else’s chances of developing breast cancer.
Currently she is in Peru with the charity Above + Beyond Cancer. The group was founded in 2011 by Des Moines oncologist Dr. Richard Deming and leads cancer survivors on adventures such as the one Mixdorf is on now — a journey to the top of Mount Killamanjaro. Through their transformational journeys, participants inspire the public by devoting themselves to a life of advocacy and leading an example for healthy living and cancer prevention in their communities.
Her group is climbing to the top of Machu Picchu and carrying prayer flags for those who have lost their battles with cancer. One is her friend and mentor Ann, whose breast cancer did recur, and who died two years ago. Another is for Ankeny fifth grader Erin Moomey, who lost her battle with leukemia last year.
“There are many things you can’t control, but you can control how you react to it, and that’s an important lesson,” she says. “I have maintained that (cancer) gave me more than it took away. It was hard, but I had hundreds of people come out of the woodwork to support me, and now I’m climbing Machu Picchu, and who gets to do that? Someone else said, ‘It’s the best worst thing that ever happened to me,’ and that’s really what it is.”
Molly McConnell was only 34 when she found a lump in one of her breasts in November 2011. The Ankeny mom had just moved to the city in July, and she had five very young children. The oldest was only in fourth grade, and she has a son with special needs.
After her biopsy came back positive in December, she went ahead with a double masectomy in January. Also, because she was so young, she was also tested for the breast cancer gene. A woman’s risk of developing breast and/or ovarian cancer is greatly increased if she inherits a deleterious (harmful) mutation in the BRCA1 gene or the BRCA2 gene. Molly’s test came back positive.
“It was a complete shock,” she says. “My mom had breast cancer, but she was 55, and it was caught on her mammogram, and she just had a lumpectomy and radiation, no chemo or anything. Now all three of my girls are high risk. They won’t be tested until they’re older, but it’s something at least now we know about.”
After her mastectomy, McConnell went through chemotherapy and reconstruction. Because of her high risk, she also had a complete hysterectomy, since people who test positive for the breast cancer gene are also at higher risk of ovarian and other cancers.
Everything with McConnell’s treatment moved fast. The doctors caught the cancer when she was only stage II, so her chemotherapy was done more as a precaution since they thought they removed all the cancer with her mastectomy. She says her time doing treatment was a bit of a blur.
“Mostly because of my kids being so young and being so busy. At the same time, we just plowed through it,” she says. “I did not want my kids to be freaked out and scared, and I read someone’s blog that was a total mess and was young and her kids were in therapy. I was going to try my hardest to make my kids not think it was scary.”
McConnell’s kids now range in age from 6 to 12, and she says time made them stronger as a family. Her husband had to take on a lot of the care for the kids while McConnell was sick from chemotherapy, but they dug in and did what had to be done. She says their relationship is stronger, and they appreciate each other more now. The kids were young enough that they were able to be blissfully ignorant of a lot of the struggle.
“I think the hardest part was me being sick and losing my hair,” she says. “But I never even wore a wig or anything. I’d wear a scarf in public, but I just went bald at home, and the kids barely even batted an eye.”
McConnell is now cancer-free, though she’ll stay on an anti-cancer drug for another couple years until she reaches the five-year mark. Though it was a hard time in their lives, she’s ready to put it all behind them.
“I never got to the point where I thought I was going to die,” she says. “I just thought, ‘Let’s get through this.’ I’d definitely say that it’s changed me in a way that I appreciate things more now.”