Vicki Anderson, of Stillwater, was driving to pick up her husband on a Friday afternoon when she got the call — she had breast cancer.
“A complete stranger called and gave me the news,” she said.
That was May 23, 2012, and it marked the beginning of a difficult road.
Initially, Anderson had trouble admitting she had cancer.
“The first instinct was to say, ‘No, it couldn’t be, because I don’t have any breast cancer in my family,’” she said.
Anderson had been tempted not even to go in for a second mammogram, because she thought family history was a strong risk indicator. Many share that misconception, she said.
After the call that delivered the news, Anderson received a call from Ashley Umbreit, her care coordinator at Lakeview Health, who would become Anderson’s “lifeline.” As supportive as Umbreit was, she couldn’t prevent Anderson’s descent from disbelief into despair.
“Your mind goes to such a dark place,” Anderson said.
Because the diagnosis came on Friday, treatment planning didn’t start until Monday.
“It was a really long weekend,” she said. “You really rely on your family.”
Anderson had planned to leave on a trip for Amsterdam with one of her daughters that Monday, but she canceled the trip. That wasn’t her highest concern, however.
“My biggest despair when I found out was that I wouldn’t have hair for my daughter’s wedding (in September),” she said.
Her family decided to have a pre-wedding photo shoot in full wedding attire while Anderson still had hair.
“I have such a supportive family,” she said. “I could not ask for a better. … My family was with me for every doctor appointment, everything.”
As she went through treatment, she said, her family and friends supported her faithfully.
Anderson also said many of the nurses at Lakeview were cancer survivors, and they were able to understand and support her in a special way. She had full confidence in the team caring for her.
“I truly think you have to believe in your care team,” she said.
After the initial meeting with doctors following the diagnosis, the treatment began quickly, with surgery happening two days later to remove the tumor and some lymph nodes. Eight weeks of chemotherapy, six-and-a-half weeks of radiation and a year and a half of infusions of medication into the blood followed.
Despite the fear and despair when she first got the news, Anderson didn’t wallow in her desperation.
“I only have a certain amount of energy,” she told herself. “I’m not going to use it to despair or feel sorry for myself.”
Those who knew her could tell, according to Rev. Linda Gesling of First United Methodist Church in Stillwater, where Anderson attends.
“I went to visit her, and what I remember was just how incredibly positive she was,” Gesling said.
Gesling has seen her mother, as well as several friends, battle serious breast cancer and survive. She did her best to support Anderson.
“Part of my message (when I talk to someone with breast cancer) is this is something you can win,” Gesling said. “And my message is always about the support of the church, and we want to be partners with that person in prayers, but also with anything we can do to help out.”
The church and faith helped sustain Anderson through her struggle.
“When you hear (the word cancer), it kind of strips you of so many things, and you discover you need someone’s presence … just feeling that God was there with me,” she said. “Every day was started with a prayer and ended with a prayer.”
Another practice Anderson found helpful was writing each morning.
“I have always been a writer,” said Anderson, a retired teacher who served part of her career as a literacy coach. “Writing was very powerful for me.”
During her illness, the paper became a “vehicle for the emotion,” as well as a means of chronicling how she felt each day after a round of treatment so she’d know what to expect after the next dose.
“That’s the scariest part of treatment,” she said. “You don’t know what’s going to happen.”
Anderson continues the practice of writing daily, but no longer as a coping mechanism. A few weeks ago the port for administering infusions of medication into her blood was removed. As far as doctors can tell, she’s cancer free. And she feels great.
“It’s funny how it comes full circle, because first it’s like disbelief (that I’m done with treatment), but instead of despair it was elation and joy,” she said.
October is National Breast Cancer Awareness Month, and last weekend Anderson walked with her two daughters in the Making Strides Against Breast Cancer event at Lake Nokomis in Minneapolis. They were Team Kick it to the Curb.
Anderson is also participating in a five-year study to help researchers understand more about cancer in order to help prevent her daughters and others from getting the disease.
She encourages her daughters and other women to get the recommended mammograms — that’s how she caught her cancer.
Now that she’s emerged from her nightmare, Anderson says her spirits have never been higher, her family has never been closer, and her faith has never been stronger.
“The lesson cancer taught me was you can live large by celebrating the small,” she said. “Celebrate every day. Find something to celebrate.”
Contact Jonathan Young at [email protected]