Survivor's story: Becky Rutzen celebrates her own victory over cancer at Relay for Life
WORTHINGTON -- Procrastination. Denial. Fear.
All three were motivating factors for Becky Rutzen when she initially chose to ignore the lump she found in her breast in 2002.
"I actually found a lump four months before I went to a doctor," she admitted. "I had other health problems at the time, and I could only deal with one crisis at a time. ... I procrastinated, and it didn't go away. I kept it to myself. I didn't tell my husband, I didn't tell my kids, I didn't tell anyone I worked with. I didn't want to tell anyone until I knew what it was. I didn't want anyone to panic until I knew what we'd be dealing with. So finally, it was I guess I'd better see a doctor."
Becky now knows that her fears were well deserved -- the lump was indeed breast cancer.
"They sent me to Sioux Falls for a mammogram and diagnostic ultrasound," she recalled. "Both tests came back that there was a definite lump there and, from the looks of it, they said it did look cancerous. They were pretty sure. They told me that I had to have a biopsy, and those tests came back positive for cancer. At first, it's like it's happening to someone else."
Becky and her husband, Randy, have been married for 33 years and have three children -- two boys and a girl -- and two granddaughters and two grandsons. She is employed part-time as a receptionist at Worthington Regional Hospital.
"My family -- they were mad that I didn't go to the doctor sooner," Becky said, "and they were in shock, too."
Although she was initially reluctant to admit how bad it was, Becky finally had to tell her family that it was a Stage 3 cancer.
"My best friend had just lost her mom to cancer," remembered Becky's daughter, Tina Anderson of Worthington. "I knew if it was Stage 3 that Stage 4 was terminal. ... When she told me, she just stood there with a straight face. I kept asking her, 'What stage is it?' and I remember her saying, 'Stage 3,' and that's when I broke down."
Becky put her faith -- and her life -- in the hands of her doctors.
"The surgeon I saw was one of the best doctors I've ever met," she praised. "He's a general surgeon, but he specializes in breast cancer, and he took the time to totally explain it. My first consultation was an hour to two hours long. He didn't rush things. He made sure you understood the total diagnosis and discussed all the surgical options. ... He made you feel like he understood what you were going through. He told me, 'You're going to get a whole lot sicker before you get better.' He also told me, 'I'm going to take care of you,' and he meant it. It wasn't just words out of his mouth."
The surgeon's first recommendation was a lumpectomy, just removing the cancerous mass.
"But then I would also have a sentinel node biopsy, to see if the cancer had spread," Becky explained. "So I had surgery the day before Thanksgiving, and the lymph nodes were positive and they had to be all removed. When we went back to get the pathology report, there weren't any clear margins, so we discussed other options and decided a mastectomy was best, so I had that the day after Christmas. ... It put a damper on the holidays that year."
"But it could have been worse," added Tina.
Becky said losing her breast was "devastating. People don't understand. Until I accept it, you can't expect others to understand, to accept it. There is no other alternative as long as you have cancer cells in you."
But the removal of the breast wasn't the end of it. Because of her medical experience, Becky knew that treatment was in store -- both chemotherapy and radiation -- to ensure that the cancer was eradicated from her body.
"I saw the oncologist on Jan. 26, and he said that, because of the stage, 'the sooner you start chemo, the better you'll be,'" she related. "On Feb. 3, I had a port-a-cath inserted for the chemotherapy and went to oncology for treatment. Some of the drugs I had to take were some of the strongest because of the stage."
Becky endured six months of chemotherapy, and although she wasn't as sick as other patients she observed, the treatment was no picnic.
"At first, there were two drugs given every three weeks for 12 weeks. Those were bad, oh, they were bad," she remembered. "Three weeks to the day after I started, my hair fell out. I had bought a wig, which almost looked like my natural hair, but nothing prepares you for the day when you go in to wash your hair and it's all gone. That was the toughest of the side effects. It's just so hard to look in the mirror and it's all gone."
"You had a nice wig, though, Mom," inserted Tina.
"When you lose your hair, everybody knows," continued Becky about the evidence that she had cancer. "It's no longer my secret or just something an elite few know. All of a sudden, the whole world knows.
"There are two (side effects) that the doctors can't do anything about -- the hair loss and the chemo fatigue," Becky added. "You are literally so tired that you can't do anything. You sleep for 16 hours and wake up and want to go back to bed."
Throughout the process, Becky was bolstered by the presence of family and friends.
"I never went alone," she said. "I couldn't drive, so someone would drive me over, but they didn't just drop me off. There was always someone to sit with me. That helped more than anyone could know. I always had someone with me, and that wasn't the case with a lot of people sitting there."
The Rutzen family threw a "no-more-chemo" party when that phase of treatment was concluded, but for Becky, the toughest part was yet to come. She had radiation every day for six weeks, traveling again to Sioux Falls for each session.
"The radiation was last, and it was the worst," she said. "Your skin just peels off in layers. There's a salve they can give you, but nothing else they can do."
In the end, however, it was worth it. Although she was never declared "cancer free," all the tests, to this day, show no indication that the cancer has returned. Becky does have a constant reminder of her ordeal, suffering from a condition called lymphodema.
"The lymph nodes on the side where I had the mastectomy -- what's left don't work," she said. "I have to wear a compression sleeve, because, without it, my arm can swell uncontrollably. I can't fight infections, so I have to be really careful."
Along with fellow breast cancer survivor Sandy Ponto, Becky will serve as an honorary chairwoman for the 10th annual Nobles County American Cancer Society Relay for Life event Friday at the Nobles County Fairgrounds in Worthington and will take part in the Cancer Survivor Recognition Walk. In her honor, daughter Tina will head up the Maurice's Relay for Life Team and will circle the track throughout the night and into the next morning.
"It's not so much for those who lost the battle, more for those surviving," she said.
With a few years passed since her own battle with cancer, Becky can reflect on how her life was impacted by the dread disease and how grateful she is just to be alive.
"You get cancer, and you meet more nice people," she said with a laugh. "I had really good doctors, and my friends and family were wonderful. There are people out there who really help people get through it.
"It has changed my priorities. There were certain priorities that I had before that don't seem to be that important. It does change your life in that way. You do change your priorities. Nothing is taken for granted. You live one day at a time -- just be glad you can wake up and be there for that day."