A decade after diagnosis
Editor's note: In honor of Breast Cancer Awareness month, the Daily Globe will feature an article each Friday in October about a breast cancer survivor -- how the disease changed the life of four women and their families. This is the first in that series.
WORTHINGTON -- Most people who have fought a battle with breast cancer wouldn't consider themselves fortunate, but Mitz Diemer's description of her experience with the disease contains the word "lucky" on a regular basis.
On a sunny day, while autumn leaves swirled about Chautauqua Park, Mitz spoke frankly about the events that changed her life more than a decade ago. From a family of three brothers and four sisters, Mitz was one of three of the sisters who were diagnosed with breast cancer. One of her sisters died from the disease 10 years ago this week. The other, like Mitz, is a breast cancer survivor.
"There was no family history of it at all," Mitz said. "All of us were in our early 50s, and all three of us had different kinds of cancer."
Mitz, who lives in Heron Lake, was diagnosed with an invasive carcinoma of the right breast, stage IIIA. Other factors of the cancer predicted aggressive behavior and a high risk for recurrence.
In December 2000, she had gone to the doctor for an annual exam, but because her regular doctor was unavailable, she saw a different physician. The doctor immediately felt the lump in Mitz's breast and set her up for a biopsy. The results of the test were not available until she and her husband returned from a previously planned family cruise.
"(The doctor) was pretty sure before I left that it was cancer," she said.
He asked that her husband, Larry, accompany her on her next appointment -- a clue to her, she said, that things were serious.
"Larry was so supportive, went to all my appointments with me, and when it came time to decide on a treatment, was right there with me," Mitz recalled. "We often forget how difficult a life-threatening illness can be to a family. We forget to ask them, 'How are you doing? How are you handling this?' Without his support then and now, my recovery wouldn't have been as easy."
Making the decision to have a mastectomy was made easier by her oncologist, who spoke with her and Larry at length about treatment options. One of the things Mitz asked him during that discussion helped her make the decision.
"If it was your wife," she asked, "what would you do?"
When first diagnosed, the doctor had advised her to get a second opinion, which she did. Her cousin recommended a colleague at Park Nicollet Hospital in Minneapolis. She remembers well visiting her now deceased sister, who had a recurrence of breast cancer shortly after Mitz was diagnosed.
She would go to North Memorial Hospital for a visit, then see her own doctor at Park Nicollet. During one visit, her sister's doctor came into the room to discuss further treatment.
"That was when I realized 'treatable' and 'curable' meant two different things," Mitz admitted.
After discussing her sister's cancer recurrence with her own oncologist, he gave her what she calls "invaluable advice."
"He put his hands on my shoulders, looked me in the eyes and said, 'This is your cancer, not anyone else's,'" she said. "There are so many different kinds of cancer, and decisions need to be made based on the size of the tumor, if it has metastasized, and involvement with the lymph nodes."
She went into the situation not knowing what survival rates were for her particular cancer.
She chose to do her chemotherapy and follow-up appointments in Minneapolis, but daily radiation treatments and a weekly infusion were done in Sioux Falls, S.D.
Mitz had been randomly selected to receive a drug called Herceptin, which was administered by a weekly infusion for a year.
The Herceptin proved to be successful -- the trial ended early, and Herceptin is now used in the treatment of HER2/neu breast cancers.
"I was chosen to be part of that clinical trial, which made me feel like I had just won the lottery," Mitz claimed. "I was so lucky."
During the diagnosis and treatment of her breast cancer, Mitz and Larry had the difficult task of telling their 12-year-old daughter what was happening, even when they didn't know what the outcome would be.
"We tried to be very open with her, but I don't know if, at that age, she realized the seriousness of it," Mitz said.
Like many people who are diagnosed with an illness, Mitz learned the lingo of her disease, but was still surprised at the side effects of chemotherapy and radiation.
She knew she would very likely lose her hair, but was disconcerted to find that meant her eyebrows and eyelashes, also.
She vividly remembers standing on the deck of her home in the spring and tossing the hair that had fallen out to the wind.
She knew the birds would use it for building nests.
She began wearing a wig -- something that had its own pitfalls and adventures.
"I had to be careful about baking, and singed my 'bangs' more than once," she admitted with a laugh. "On windy days I worried about having to chase the thing across a parking lot. But tossing on a wig in the morning made it easier to get ready for the day, and it was easy to wash my hair. I also had lots of 'no hair' days."
As for feeling self-conscious about her new "do," that didn't last long.
People she had known for ages would give her a quizzical look and ask, "Did you get a haircut?"
Fighting breast cancer took an emotional and physical toll on Mitz, but also taught her several things about herself.
"You find strength you didn't know you had," she admitted. "You value life so much more, and there is a new, deeper meaning to everything."
She also acknowledged that she feels guilty at times for surviving, when so many others, including her own sister, did not.
She balances anxiety over recurrence with the lucky feeling she had when she was chosen for the clinical trial.
Ten years later, she finds she is more introspective than she used to be, and maybe more reserved, but it's also easier for her to put herself into another's situation and understand what they are going through.
At first, when life seemed to be going back to normal, she just wanted to put everything behind her and move on, but she's now more willing to talk about her experiences.
"I've just gotten to a point where I'll wear my pink survivor shirt out in public," she said.
While on the road to recovery, she wanted to be herself, not "a cancer survivor," but now says the further away she gets from that time, the less she worries about people knowing what happened.
Mitz said she has never felt self-conscious about losing a breast to cancer, because most people could look at her these days and never know.
And she never allowed herself to throw a "pity party" after she was diagnosed, or while going through chemo and radiation.
"I never had to look very far to find someone who had a worse situation than I did," she said.
Her advice to anyone battling cancer or any other disease is to be as informed as possible and to try and find a doctor with whom a connection can be forged -- the relationship she had with her oncologist was very important, she said.
She also recommends bringing a companion to each and every doctor appointment, whether it is a spouse or a good friend.
"It's always good to have a second set of ears," she advised. "And if you don't understand something, ask questions. And keep asking until you do understand."
She attributes her 10-year survival to her oncologist and his course of treatment, her husband and daughter, a positive attitude and God, who has kept her in his healing hands.
As for battling sickness during the treatment phase, Mitz said she headed straight for comfort food -- mashed potatoes or peanut butter toast.