Regular Mammograms: Because everyone deserves a lifetime
"I can't believe this is happening," Renee Brotz remembers thinking in 2004 when a needle-core biopsy revealed breast cancer. However, the evidence was right there. Her doctor had lined up all of her mammograms and pointed out when things began to change during the past two years. "They'd been keeping an eye on [a change in a milk duct]. It really wasn't cancer at first," she says. "But, they know what to watch for, and it had progressed into cancer."
In the midst of her confusion and fear, Brotz realized that the mammogram had been her life line. This pivotal moment made her a firm believer that getting regular mammograms saves lives.
Facing a nightmare
No one really expects a routine mammogram to reveal trouble but, there she was, facing a woman's worst nightmare. Numb with the news and struggling to understand, Brotz began to make plans. With the support of her husband Joe and doctors at her UnitedHealthcare network clinic in Sheboygan, Wisc., she assessed her options, including a lumpectomy that removes only the tumor from the breast. Although a practical option for many women, Brotz felt it was impractical for her. She, decided instead to have a mastectomy because, she "wanted to make sure the cancer was all gone."
Brotz's relationship with her husband, already close, became dearer. His unflagging support brought her comfort and a source of strength during her ordeal. "He went out of his way to understand all procedures and how I felt each step of the way," she says.
The bond between the two has grown as a result. "I remember one night sitting in my living room and I thought to myself, "I hope I make it because I do not want Joe to be sitting here alone doing the things we usually do together."
The entire tumor was removed during the surgery. Her oncologist determined that intravenous chemotherapy was not necessary in Brotz's case, which buoyed her spirits and gave her faith that she'd be OK. "[My doctor] gave me the most hope when he told me I wouldn't need chemotherapy," she says. "I think that was a slight turning point for me."
Instead of chemo, she has taken Tamoxifen since the mastectomy. Tamoxifen reduces the potential for a recurrence as well as the possibility of cancer occurring in her other breast. Reconstruction was begun the same day she had the mastectomy. She underwent a series of procedures and reconstruction was completed over the next few months.
Before surgery, Brotz had lost 20 pounds, in part, due to stress. The weight loss was something she hoped to retain, so she began to scrutinize her exercise program and diet. Since the mastectomy, she has kicked up her exercise routine a notch, maintained the weight loss and improved her diet even more.
Brotz exercises daily on her treadmill or bicycle and plays tennis with her husband two or three times a week. Fresh fruits, vegetables and whole grains dominate their diet. She uses myuhc.com, Conditions A to Z, to research nutrition, exercise and health topics to continue to improve her health.
In addition to dietary and exercise changes, Brotz's brush with cancer has changed her outlook. She doesn't stress over little things anymore. She also tries to maintain a slower pace. "If something goes wrong, oh well, there are worse things that could happen," has become her new philosophy.
Co-workers at Northland Plastics, where Brotz is a payroll and human resources manager, rallied to her side. They pitched in to keep her job flowing in her three-week absence.
"My co-workers were wonderful and understanding. They had a party the day before my surgery and made me an afghan and got me a new bathrobe," she says. "When I returned they gave me a charm bracelet to which I continue to add charms. Some also visited and brought meals to the house during my recovery." In turn, Brotz sent bagels and cream cheese to her co-workers in gratitude for the work they did in her absence.
Friends and family also rallied to her side to cheer her on, take her to doctor appointments and keep her spirits up. "I am still trusting God and taking it day by day, and things are getting much better as my oncologist said they would," she says. With each day she is cancer-free, her confidence in a full recovery grows.
A major highlight in her healing came in 2007. She and Joe participated in the Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer 3-Day walk. They trained together and raised funds for months before the event. Event coordinators chose Brotz to bear the HOPE flag for the opening ceremonies, an honor that moved her deeply. "[Joe and I] both had tears in our eyes at the closing ceremony," she recalls.
The event was the climax of her summer and she plans to do it again in 2010. At that time she will be symptom-free for more than five years.
The three-day walk was cathartic. Brotz was able to talk with fellow survivors and share their experiences. "It's probably the only place where I could talk about [breast cancer] for three full days," she says. "Because those who haven't [had cancer] or aren't real interested don't want to hear about it."
Brotz's experience has made her a fervent advocate of annual mammograms. She points to her own situation as an example. "The doctors had been watching me for two years already," she says. If I had missed getting a mammogram the year [the milk duct] became cancerous, things could have been a lot worse."
Brotz says, the experience has made her stronger, healthier and more compassionate. "Breast cancer was a negative that turned into a positive."