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 women. 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 Waukee residents have battled the disease, and now they share their stories in an effort to raise awareness of it and to inspire others who continue to fight.
In 2010, Angie Sanders went to the doctor thinking she had pulled something in her leg while shoveling snow. She saw an orthopedic surgeon who referred her to an oncologist. She soon learned she had stage IV breast cancer that had progressed to her bones, and she was told she had one to five years to live.
“I remember my husband and I just said, ‘No. We’re going to fight this and kick its butt.’ ”
Angie started radiation treatments right away. The doctors had found spots on her pelvis, her spine and her skull, and they wanted to hit those spots first before starting chemotherapy.
She had chemo from May through December. She had scans every three months, and the first one showed the cancer was already responding to treatment and shrinking.
“It was amazing, and by late 2010, early 2011, it was pretty much gone,” she says. “No one thought that would happen, and I was the talk of the oncology department.”
She had a bilateral mastectomy and reconstruction n 2011, and later that year she had a recurrence. Luckily, it was not nearly as bad as before, but she spent the rest of 2011 and into 2012 continuing treatments.
“It was disappointing because I was doing so well,” she says. “Then in early 2013, they found a spot on my spine and did radiation, and then that was gone. I continued with chemo through 2013, and probably by September 2013 it was gone again. Basically since then I’ve been clear, so it’s been a year.”
Angie says it was a long and hard journey. Her kids were only 8 and 11 when she was diagnosed. But people rallied around them and did whatever they could to make things easier on the family.
“At the beginning I was not feeling well, but so many people would bring groceries,” she says. “Someone hired someone to clean my house. I was humbled and overwhelmed with the generosity. A friend did a sign-up for meals, and people were doing that and helping with my kids, getting them to places and to activities. The saddest part was missing my kids’ stuff.”
Now Angie is clear, but she continues on a maintenance dose of chemotherapy and other treatments to keep the cancer away, and she continues to have scans every three months. She says she takes things day by day, but often feels like she’s living her life in three-month increments.
“Of course there’s fear that creeps in, and I just continue to pray and tell God I want to watch my kids grow up,” she says. “I wanted to keep working, and I didn’t want to focus on the cancer. I wanted to keep things as normal for the kids as I could.”
She ultimately credits her faith and her support system for getting them through the toughest times.
“I don’t mean to sound cliché, but I surrendered it all to God, and my faith and hope is what got us through it,” she says. “And our friends and family supported us so much. We couldn’t have done it without them.”
Fran Wierson went in for a routine mammogram in 1997. During the scan, doctors found something that looked questionable. But according to her doctor, it was probably nothing. She was shocked when she received the pathology reports back from her biopsy saying it was cancer.
“It really was a shock,” she says. “My dad’s mom died of breast cancer, but we didn’t have anyone else in the family who had ever had it, not my mom or my sisters. Based on what the doctor said, I just wasn’t expecting it at all.”
Wierson had a lumpectomy and did chemotherapy and radiation treatments. Her sons were in high school and eighth grade at the time, and she was also working part-time. Wierson did the only thing she knew to do: face it head-on.
“The kids, I think they were sort of oblivious to it,” she says. “I usually went to the treatments on Fridays, and I’d come home and sleep, and I didn’t miss a lot of work. I didn’t have the red devil chemo where you lose all your hair at once. My hair got thin, but I never lost all of it. You could tell I was going through treatment, but I never wore a wig or anything.”
Wierson continues to be checked for recurrence, having scans done every six months. At one point, doctors said she could have them annually. But after a scare that turned out to be nothing, they reverted to every six months once again. She sees her oncologist then, too. In fact, it was just recently that her oncologist decided she didn’t need to be seen anymore, but she will continue to get regular mammograms for life.
Certain parts of her journey stick out in her mind. After her first mammogram after her cancer treatments had ended, the radiologist came out and said, “I have bad news.”
“My heart just dropped to the floor,” Wierson says. “Then she said, ‘We didn’t get a good enough picture, so we’re going to have to do this again.’ I said, ‘That is not bad news!’ ”
Wierson says she’s an advocate for regular screening and early detection. Her cancer was caught early, and she believes that her mammogram made her battle with the disease much easier than it could have been.
“I was so fortunate that it was detected early, and it was small,” she says. “I say breast cancer patients should do everything they can to treat it and try to keep it from coming back. They’ve made such strides in detection and treatment that so many more women are able to live full lives after cancer.”
Nicole McComas went in for her first mammogram when she turned 40. While the mammogram itself was easy, a shadow in her left breast appeared. After another mammogram, an ultrasound and a biopsy, McComas got the news that it was indeed cancer.
She was diagnosed with invasive ductal carcinoma, a cancer that 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, “If you have to take one, you might as well take them both.” After chemotherapy, she had her reconstruction surgery, then started radiation treatments. It was a long journey, but she came through it with flying colors.
Now McComas is a three-year breast cancer survivor. Because of the type of cancer she had, hitting the three-year mark is a big deal — it means a much lower rate of recurrence. Now, while she certainly remembers the difficulty of her battle, life has also gone on, she says.
“I think I don’t look at things the same way,” she says. “A lot of things just don’t matter anymore, like little trivial things. And I try to do more with my kids and be involved with them and their school as much as possible. You don’t forget about it, but you don’t have time to dwell on the past.”
McComas has said that when she hits the five-year mark, she wants to go on a trip with Above + Beyond Cancer. The group was founded in 2011 by Des Moines oncologist Dr. Richard Deming and takes cancer survivors on incredible adventures. Above + Beyond Cancer journeys have led participants to places like the top of Mount Kilimanjaro. 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.
Fellow breast cancer survivor and Ankeny mom Sue Mixdorf just returned from a trip to Machu Picchu, and now McComas says she’s eager to go and might try to take a journey next year.
“It sounds so amazing, and it gives you a chance to sit back and look back on your journey,” she says. “Even when you’re going through it, you don’t have time to sit back and think about it because you’re still taking care of people and dealing with daily life. It gives you a chance to think, ‘Wow, what I did was incredible,’ when you reflect back on it.”