Beating Breast Cancer
Three Survivors Share Their Inspiring Success Stories
By Jennifer M. Aguilar
How One Blonde Kicked Cancer’s Butt
It was just about a year ago that Jennifer Bowser was getting ready for another day at the office, not knowing that her life was about to change forever. “I was doing my normal mourning routine putting lotion on my face, neck and chest when my hand slipped and hit the lump… I found it by accident,” Bowser said.
Though many women in her position would begin to worry immediately, Bowser said even she was surprised by her reaction. “I was actually, very surprisingly, not upset. Before the doctors called with the official diagnosis, in the midst of all the testing and the biopsies, in my gut I knew it was cancer. But my gut feeling was also that I was going to be fine, so my reaction to the confirmation from the doctors that it was breast cancer was, “OK, what is our fight plan? Let’s kick this cancer’s ass!”
“I wasn’t upset – I was ready to fight. I was determined to beat it,” she said.
That’s not to say her journey was completely without tears, of course. Though she kept her cool when speaking to the doctors, Bowser admitted that her friends and family gave her the space she needed to be able to cry, at least a little.
Since Bowser was actually at work when she first received her official diagnosis, the first person she told was her coworker and friend. “My best friend at work knew what was going on, so I went to her desk, I looked at her, started to cry a little, and she hugged me and told me that she’d help me kick its ass,” Bowser said.
She then found a quiet place outside to call and tell her friends and family.
“I sat there for a minute and stared at my phone trying to collect myself and keep my cool. I didn’t want to be upset because I knew they (friends and family) were already on the edge, because they knew I was going to be getting a phone call from the doctor,” she said.
“I called my mom first and she broke down in tears on the phone and asked me if I was OK. I told her I was fine, ‘I got this.’” she said. Bowser then called her dad, and her husband who also broke into tears on the phone… (he had recently lost his sister to ovarian cancer). “Then I called my aunt and my cousin, Heather,” she said.
“After the shock wore off, they were all ready to help me fight; my mom, aunt and cousin, along with my husband, were my core group who were there with me, and helped me every step of the way.”
With a supportive group behind her, Bowser found the added strength she needed to fight the cancer, just as she had said she would. But the treatment process wasn’t without its challenges, not the least of which were all the side effects that took a toll on Bowser both physically and emotionally. Outwardly she looked different, but inside she felt different, too.
The doctors warned her that the side effects could be far-reaching, from her hair falling out to mouth sores and bone pain. Unfortunately, she ended up experiencing a number of these ill effects and more.
“I was more upset about losing my hair… I had really long blond hair and I loved it, “she said. “And, of course, the chemo would make me sick and not be able to taste food. I love food, so that was hard as well.”
“I remember feeling sick a lot, being hungry yet nauseous at the same time. All of my fingernails and toenails came off. I found out that is another more rare side effect of the chemo. I wanted to feel normal again so badly,” she said. “I think the most challenging was the emotional toll it takes.”
“I remained calm and collected most of the time, but there were moments that I had by myself where I was pissed. I cried because I was mad at this whole situation. I threw stuff because of all the anger I had towards this cancer and what it did to me,” she said.
Fortunately, Bowser managed to let her anger fuel her fight. That coupled with the incredible support of her family helped her brave all that cancer treatment entailed.
“The best thing I remember was how my family was there for every step, without hesitation. They took off work and put their own wants or needs aside and were there by my side in an instant if I needed them,” she said.
And fortunately, after six months of treatment, Bowser got the news for which she had been waiting and working toward. She was in remission!
The doctors had been diligent to start chemo very quickly after her diagnosis, and when they did a bilateral mastectomy, they tested the area and found that her cancer was 100% gone. “They got all of it and there were no more cancer cells. I was ecstatic!” she said. “My mind went from kicking butt to working on feeling and looking like my old self again.”
Bowser is nearing her one-year anniversary of reaching remission, now a milestone that she says both feels like ages ago and also like yesterday. “It felt like it would take forever during all the treatments, and now looking back, it seems like it was a flash.”
Though still working to find her new normal, and waiting for her gorgeous hair to grow back out, Bowser seems content – even grateful – for what she has learned over the last year.
“I definitely feel like I can do anything now and it makes you realize the important things in life and what matters the most. The small, trivial crap that everyone, including myself, worry about all the time. Well, I don’t anymore.
When asked what she wants other women to know about beating breast cancer, she said, “I think your attitude and outlook on it can make all the difference. It was in my head that I knew I was going to be okay, I knew that I could kick this cancer’s butt!”
Faith and Family
Lisa Strunk spent years getting annual mammograms as recommend by her doctor, generally without much concern. After all, there was no history of breast cancer in her family. She had no reason to believe she’d get anything but good news back.
And for many years, that was true. That is, until shortly before her 54th birthday.
During her routine mammogram the doctors noticed a small lump. Then, on a follow-up visit the day before her 54th birthday, she heard the word no one wants to hear. “Cancer.”
“Cancer is always a scary word. And in our family we have seen and experienced cancer in several forms. My mom is a two-time cancer survivor (colon and lung), my husband’s father died from lung cancer, and I, too, had been diagnosed with skin cancer twice,” she said. “But I must admit I did not see it coming with no history of breast cancer in my family.”
“I remember just trying to make it to the car without crying on that first appointment, and being alone and scared,” Strunk said. “I remember making it to the car, and immediately calling my husband in tears.”
She also remembers asking her mom to go with her to her second appointment. “A girl can still need the comfort of her mom, even in her 50’s,” she said.
After receiving the dreaded diagnosis Strunk thought carefully about how to proceed with informing her loved ones. She didn’t want everyone to know right away, and actually worried about how to break the news to her teenage son at the time.
“I remember really worrying about how to tell my son who was a junior in high school. But my two guys (husband and son) were really great and helped me through everything,” she said.
“In the early days you are coming to grips with the diagnosis, so letting the word out slowly, for me, helped me manage my emotions while I discovered my treatment plan details.”
Doctors soon informed Strunk that she had a 1.5 cm malignant mass in her right breast, and that she would in fact need surgery to remove it. Fortunately, once she had those answers, she was able to enter what she dubbed “research mode.”
She reached out to friends who had already battled breast cancer for recommendations on surgeons and general advice.
“It was amazing how much support they provided, and I now realize it is like a club – women who have experienced and survived breast cancer. They were and are an amazing resource. Even women at work were amazing. My team sent me this fantastic inspiration gift from fightingpretty.org that not only helped me, but also helps others that are fighting cancer.”
And those weren’t the only sources of support she discovered.
“My church group helped deliver meals and sent words of encouragement as I progressed through surgery and radiation treatments. My support groups were critical to my recovery and I was extremely grateful to each and every person who prayed for me, provided a meal, called with encouraging words and helped my two guys support me across the six months of treatments,” she said.
Though cancer treatment can be a grueling process, physically and emotionally, Strunk said her initial concerns weren’t about discomfort. “I remember my first thought when I was diagnosed was ‘God, please don’t let my hair fall out for Thanksgiving and Christmas.’ I just knew my guys would get me some horribly comical hats to wear in all of those holiday pictures,” she said. “Funny how I was thinking about hair and not if I would survive; but that was what went through my head in those initial days, when I waited the two weeks for tests to come back so we would know what kind of treatment I would need.”
The good news was that Strunk’s cancer had been discovered quickly. “God is good all the time, and when my results came back I had what is called Stage 1 | Grade 1 breast cancer. My surgeon, Dr. Hampe, informed me that I would not lose my hair and that I would not need chemo,” she said. “So I had surgery in October, my birthday month, and in December started my 33 rounds of radiation treatments that ended in February, before Valentine’s Day.”
“Since I was diagnosed early, my doctor had always told me that I was going to make it through this and I would have a very small chance of a reoccurrence,” she said. With that hope, and a detailed treatment plan in place, Strunk said she was able to set her sights on simply taking one day at a time.
She also learned quickly to embrace the incredible support around her, and to find gratitude even through the difficult times.
“I remember the wonderful medical women who I saw every day of my treatments who shared their cancer survival stories and helped encourage me and keep me going.
When I went in for treatments and saw other women who were going through so much more – some even knowing it would only extend their time, not cure them – it was very humbling and makes you focus on what is really important in your life,” she said. “God and the love of your family and friends keep you strong.”
Strunk has now been in remission for two years. And just as she continues to take preventive measures like hormone treatment and regular screenings to help keep the cancer from returning, she also takes great care to remember what she learned during her ordeal.
“I always thought of myself as a strong person, but cancer humbles you in many ways and now I know that I am stronger because of it. My personal strength was tested, but I learned that in order to be strong I needed to lean on others and focus not just on myself but learn to give back. I think I am a better person today because of learning those things,” Strunk said.
When asked what wisdom she would want to impart to those just beginning their journey to recovery, Strunk said, “Lean in. Refocus. Be strong. Surround yourself with what feeds your soul and keeps your energy up. If you are a Christian – refocus on your faith. If you are a workaholic like I was, work less and focus on time with family and friends. Lean into your women’s network at home and work. But most of all, know that you can beat this thing called cancer with early detection — I am proof of that,” she said.
Queen of Bravery
Very few couples make it to their 60th wedding anniversary. It takes a great deal of compromise and commitment to reach such a milestone, not to mention love and support. The vows, “for better or for worse, in sickness and in health” are much easier said than done, particularly year after year. And yet, it is persevering through trials that the deepest kinds of love are so often forged. And that has certainly proved to be the case for Barbara and her husband, Jack King.
Mrs. King, who said, “I’m actually the Queen, the power behind the throne,” recently celebrated both her Diamond Anniversary and her 83rd birthday. “I’m this side of the dirt, and that’s good,” she said, though her husband was much kinder, indicating that she was actually “83 going on 18.” But this year has marked another important milestone for “the Queen,” as well, and that is her 30th anniversary of being cancer-free!
King was in her 50’s when she was diagnosed with breast cancer. After waking up to discover blood on her nightgown on more than one occasion, she decided to take both her concerns and her nightgown straight to the doctor.
“I took my nightgown in and showed it to them, and the doctor said, ‘Well, we ‘ll do a biopsy and find out.’” Having already nursed two babies at that point, King mentioned with a laugh that her “breasts were working up until that point.”
Unfortunately, the doctor discovered that a milk duct had been blocked, causing the bleeding, and the need for a biopsy. And although the doctor initially said there was good news after mailing the sample off to experts in New York as was necessary at the time, King received a more grim diagnosis.
“They called me up and said everything was fine, and then a week later they called me back and said, ‘Woops; it is cancer.’ Talk about a low blow! They had already said I was fine…. But then (after NY specialists weighed in) they came back with ‘Well, yes it is,’” King said. “It took four doctors just to tell me I had cancer!”
Her local doctors suggested that she could wait and keep an eye on it for six months. But King said that simply did not suit her style.
“Everybody’s personality is different, but when they told me I had breast cancer, I just wanted that breast taken off,” she said. “I’m not the one that sits around and waits for something to happen. I want it to happen yesterday, not tomorrow. I want it done now.”
So, based on King’s wishes, the doctors removed what they knew was cancerous breast tissue. She pointed out that if she had been diagnosed now, thanks to advances in medicine, the doctors might have recommended a more conservative treatment plan. But given the limitations of medicine at the time, King didn’t hesitate to take action. She also indicated that she has no regrets about making the choice that she did.
“We have cancer cells in our body all the time, and our body self heals itself. Whether that would have happened without the surgery, who knows, but I’m not the kind to wait six months to find out!”
Once the biopsy of the tissue was complete, she was relieved to receive good news, at last. “It had not metastasized, but they didn’t know that until they took my breast off and they examined the tissue… I opted to have the breast removed, and opted for reconstruction, and that was a pain in the neck; I mean, it was a pain in the boob!”
Though happy with the choices she made, and fortunate that radiation and chemotherapy weren’t necessary since all the cancerous cells were successfully removed, the recovery process wasn’t an easy – or pretty – one.
“I think I had 5 surgeries within a six month period! First I had the biopsy, then the surgery, then the reconstruction. It sounds like a slam-dunk, and it may be today, but it wasn’t then. Before an implant could even be placed, the doctors had to put an expander in to stretch the skin.
“Here’s a little added extra… I did have large breasts. They didn’t have an implant big enough, so they had to do a breast reduction on my good boob! I have, like, 19 inches of incision across my bustline!” King said.
And King’s ordeal was far from over. Several years later, when patients began experiencing problems with their silicone implants, King didn’t want to be among them. So, she again took bold steps to remedy the potential problem.
“I had a terrible time because the insurance company didn’t want to pay for it (a new, saline implant), but I had to do some fast talking, which I’m good at,” she said. “I had to convince them that it was painful, because they didn’t want to pay for the surgery.” When asked if her silicone implant had, in fact, ruptured, King laughed. Then, with a candor most women only aspire to, she said, “I had to convince the insurance company that it had, because I didn’t want to pay for the surgery to replace it!”
She had another scare when a cyst developed years later. Fortunately, in that case, the doctor was able to successfully drain the cyst before it could create further problems. The procedure was long and painful, but King left it with characteristic positivity. “That was not a fun thing to go through, but I danced as I left the doctor’s office, because I didn’t have to have surgery!”
In spite of all the battle scars, King came out of her ordeal with a positive attitude. And it’s easy to suspect that her own tenacity and unfailing sense of humor had to do as much with her recovery as her treatment.
“My husband was very supportive, and he helped a lot,” King said. “He says there were two of us that went through it, and that’s true… We’ve been married 60 years, and he’s a big reason I’m still here.”
She also found encouragement in an unlikely source, though, namely cassette tapes! While visiting a bookstore near their hometown at the time, which was just north of Fresno, California, King discovered a series of motivational tapes about dealing with hardships from medical problems to addiction. She credits those tapes with helping her overcome what had become a rather crippling anxiety, first that she wouldn’t make it through treatment, and later that the cancer would come back with a vengeance.
“I used to wake up at night after I’d had my surgery… my husband had taken a new job out of town so I was all alone in this big bed… my heart would start racing, and I’d start thinking what if they didn’t get it all, what if I get it again….” Fortunately, the tapes helped bring a sense of calm – and sound sleep – back to her life. And over time, a renewed sense of positivity as well.
Though the tapes helped her, for years King still dealt with a great deal of anxiety when it was time to go back in for her annual mammogram. “I used to get so nervous before I had to go in for a mammogram, so when I reached 80 I said, ‘Phooey! I’m not going through that again.’”
Though King might not advise others to adopt that same cavalier attitude when it comes to follow-up care, she is quick to encourage women going through breast cancer battles to think positively and to stay strong.
“Just because you make it through one thing, doesn’t mean that you won’t face another. But I’m still here, and still mean as ever,” she said, to which Jack said, “I’ll vouch for that.” Joking aside, King’s life stands as a wonderful testament to what medical treatment, combined with positivity, tenacity, and support, can accomplish.
Running with the advice she took to heart from Hays, she says it’s absolutely key to stay positive, even when it’s scary. You can’t think negatively. Instead, “You have to be able to look in the mirror and say, ‘I Love you’ to yourself. You have to love yourself!”
When you do that, it seems it becomes a lot easier – or at the very least possible – to share love and a meaningful, long life with someone else, as well. Jack and his Queen are inspiring proof of that!