Moffat County breast cancer survivors share stories
Craig — A breast cancer diagnosis from one’s medical professional is an announcement no one wants to hear.
It can bring with it month after month of waiting room visits, a list of possible treatments that sound worse than the disease itself and a fear of your life never being the same again.
However, those fortunate enough to go through the process and come out stronger because of that experience have plenty of wisdom to share.
The difficult news
As a teenager, Dixie Stierna knew her adulthood might be scary, health-wise.
She refers to herself as “a DES baby,” a child born to a mother prescribed the synthetic hormone diethylstilbestrol during pregnancy. DES was given regularly to expectant women from the 1940s to the early 1970s until 1971, when the Food and Drug Administration determined it caused significant medical complications for those exposed to it in utero, among them endocrine disorders and an increased risk for early breast cancer.
Stierna said she regularly requested screenings like mammograms but was told she had to wait until she was 40 because it was unlikely anything could be found anyway. Her trepidation about developing cancer had been so great as an 18-year-old that she already had decided she no longer wanted her breasts to be part of her body if it meant running that risk.
“I thought I would just be able to get rid of them and be happy,” she said.
By the time she was able to put her mind at ease, screenings initially showed no trace of cancer. But her relief was short-lived — in 2010 at age 46, the day she had been dreading came with the discovery of LCIS (lobular carcinoma in situ) and DCIS (ductal carcinoma in situ).
The diagnosis was less painful than breaking the news to her children, who, though fully grown, took it hard.
“I could just see the sparkle drain from their faces,” she said.
Unlike Stierna, Nancy Lee had little time to wrap her head around a cancer diagnosis.
What started as a routine visit to the doctor’s office in 1982 became something more serious when her physician found some cause for concern and told her rather glibly that cancer was a possibility.
“He said, ‘If you were my wife, I’d have you in the hospital tomorrow,’” she said.
Lee felt hopeless at the time — she and her husband were new to Craig, she had few friends in the community and her parents lived hours away from her. Although there was support available, the then-30-year-old lived in fear.
“I was just sure it was a death sentence,” she said.
The same kind of apprehension went through the mind of Debbie Voborsky in 2010 when a mammogram revealed a small mass in her left breast that at the time was likely between a Stage 0 carcinoma and a Stage I cancer localized only to that part of the body.
The medical opinion that it was a good thing to catch the problem early was not one Voborsky shared at first. After watching her father struggle through cancer treatments, she wasn’t ready to try her luck with surgery.
“I almost blew it off,” she said. “I didn’t have time to be taking off work, and I was probably like a lot of women, wanting to blow it off for a couple months. If I’d have done that, I’d have been in a lot more trouble.”
The next step after diagnosis
Voborsky received a mastectomy in early August 2010, shortly after her diagnosis.
The results were positive, though the fear she felt at the onset had yet to subside.
The remainder of the year was tough as she recovered from the surgery physically and mentally.
“I thought I was fine after I heard that I wasn’t going to have anything, no radiation or chemo, just take a pill for five years, but I think I went through a lot of anxiety,” she said. “Now I know I was one of the lucky ones.”
Stierna also opted for the mastectomy procedure, relocating temporarily from her home in Minnesota to be with her sister in Arizona. Although concerned about the situation, she also attempted to keep a sense of humor when discussing a reconstructive surgery with a plastic surgeon.
“I turned around and said, ‘I want a matching set,’” she said, pointing to her back and getting a laugh from the doctor.
Even with a smile on her face, the recovery process was painful, and Stierna suffered a staph infection not long afterward that made things more difficult. However, the worry of her body image hurting after so many alterations was lessened by the people around her.
“I had so much support, and they didn’t ever make me feel any different, so I never felt any less human, any less woman,” she said.
For Lee, the ordeal was a little more harrowing.
The average recovery time for mastectomy patients is currently three days or less. When Lee received her surgery 32 years ago, she was hospitalized for a full week.
“You wake up and see things attached to your chest, and your body’s just not the way it’s supposed to look,” she said.
Although she felt self-conscious about her appearance, Lee said her husband, Denny, quickly cheered her with a comparison of her scar tissue to one he had received in the military.
“He said, ‘Now we match,’” she said. “I think in a lot of ways, it’s harder on the caretakers.”
The experience wasn’t over for Lee — the cancer spread to her lymph nodes, requiring chemotherapy, leading to hair loss and a long road where she felt she’d never be healthy again. If not for former Craig resident Dr. Andre Huffmire helping administer treatments, which weren’t readily available in Northwest Colorado at the time, she also would have had to travel to Denver even more than she already did for medical purposes.
The treatments worked, but even once she showed she was on the mend, her doctor’s goal for her to be cancer-free for five years soon became 10 years, and all she could do was to find the will to keep going.
“I think going through that made me a better person,” she said. “My life has changed a lot, but it’s been for the better.”
Life after cancer
Lee hit her 10-year mark in 1992, and while she continues to receive yearly screenings, seeing an oncologist thankfully isn’t a regular occurrence for her anymore. Still, she supports causes surrounding the disease and isn’t shy about telling people, based on her own experiences, not to toy with their health.
“Early detection is the key with anything, so get your butt to the doctor,” she laughed.
Likewise, Voborsky said her friends and family have been more vigilant about their lifestyles, as has she herself, still working to curb her former smoking habit.
Pink ribbon pins, magnets and other items are prevalent in her house to remind her of her brush with the disease, but she doesn’t intend to forget anytime soon.
“It was pretty scary for a while,” she said.
Stierna, who began working as an ultrasound technician recently with The Memorial Hospital, has seen cancer from both sides. Although not everyone who has been through it has been or will be as fortunate as she has been, some advice she gives is universal.
“It’s all about attitude,” she said. “There are stages you have to go through to accept what’s going on, and I try to walk them through. ‘You can do this, you can move on and life does get better.’”
Then there’s Stierna’s other motto, a little more to the point and one she believes all women can relate to in times of trial.
“Fight like a girl.”
Contact Andy Bockelman at 970-875-1793 or abockelman@CraigDailyPress.com.