Until recently, Diane Pahl and Rebecca Pettit had never met each other. And yet they shared a bond. Both women are breast cancer survivors.
As of January 2022, there were an estimated 18.1 million cancer survivors in the United States. This represents approximately 5.4% of the population. After receiving diagnosis and treatment for their cancers, Diane and Rebecca became members of this group.
While it’s a group no one wants to become a part of, both Diane and Rebecca have shown remarkable strength, courage and grace navigating the challenges of their diseases and treatments.
As we mark National Cancer Survivors Month this June, Diane and Rebecca share messages of hope and encouragement with their fellow survivors.
In 2013, Diane was taking a relaxing bubble bath when she felt an unfamiliar lump in her breast. She sought care with her primary care physician, who told her it was most likely nothing of concern.
About two months later, however, Diane saw a physician assistant, who thought otherwise and ordered an ultrasound. The ultrasound was inconclusive, which led Diane to seek the care of Dr. Honnie Bermas, a breast surgeon.
Dr. Bermas recommended monitoring the lump every six months. After a few rounds of monitoring, however, Dr. Bermas and Diane together decided it would be best to remove the lump and have it tested.
“To the surprise of both of us, it turned out to be cancer,” Diane says.
Following the diagnosis of her stage 1 breast cancer, Diane underwent a lumpectomy and radiation. She also began taking Tamoxifen, a drug used to treat all stages of hormone receptor-positive breast cancer.
Diane continued to take Tamoxifen, but otherwise life largely went back to normal for her until 2017, when she discovered another lump in the same breast.
This time, Diane received an ultrasound right away, and Dr. Bermas recommended removing the lump for testing. The pathology showed cancer again.
Diane, who lives in the Town of Kaukauna and works as graphic artist/pre-press operator, learned that this time around, she had stage 2B breast cancer. Her treatment included a single mastectomy, chemotherapy, radiation and targeted drug therapies, which she remains on to this day.
Absorbing not one but two cancer diagnoses was tough for Diane. She says she relied on the support of her husband as well as her faith to get through the challenging times.
She also put a lot of faith in Dr. Bermas and her whole cancer care team, which included a cancer navigator. Navigators provide patients all kinds of support, from scheduling visits to attending appointments and taking notes.
“I don’t know what I would have done without Dr. Bermas’ team. They always made me feel so comfortable,” Diane says. “My navigator took care of so much. I could call her any time, day or night, and she would help me out.”
Cancer-free now and more than five years out from her second diagnosis, Diane says she’s doing well. And yet some of the fear never goes away.
“You always have it in the back of your mind, is it going to show up again?” she says.
For Diane, it’s helped to turn some of that fear into action to help others. About eight years ago, she got involved with the American Cancer Society’s annual Making Strides of the Fox Valley breast cancer walk. Through participating, she raises money for research and to support others with breast cancer.
Diane says getting involved has brought her healing, connection and a sense of purpose.
“Even though everybody’s journey is different, there’s some kind of unspoken bond that we share,” she says.
Before she was diagnosed with breast cancer, Rebecca hadn’t thought much about her risk. After all, she’d done her yearly mammograms in the past, and they’d all come back normal.
That changed in April 2022. After undergoing her annual mammogram, she got a call that she would need to come back for more imaging.
Initially, Rebecca wasn’t especially concerned. She knew that it wasn’t uncommon to get called back for additional testing. Of those women who undergo more testing, fewer than 10% receive a cancer diagnosis. Rebecca’s additional imaging, however, led to a biopsy that showed cancer.
“The initial phone call from my navigator, I felt like time stood still,” she says. “I felt like I got punched in the gut. I was devastated.”
Doctors initially thought Rebecca had stage 1 breast cancer. She chose to have a lumpectomy in May 2022. However, after the surgery, doctors learned that the cancer was larger than expected. That led to a stage 2 diagnosis.
Rebecca began a regimen of chemotherapy in June and finished in October. In December of 2022, she chose to have a single mastectomy without reconstruction.
The emotional and physical impact of the mastectomy hit Rebecca hard, but she took solace in the excellent care she received from Dr. Bermas and her team.
“My husband and I were in awe of the care that she showed,” Rebecca says, recounting Dr. Bermas taking the time to answer all her questions and holding her hand in the operating room.
Like Diane, Rebecca, a children’s ministries director at Pathways Church in Appleton, relied on her faith and the support of family and friends to get her through the difficult times. She also found solace in sharing her journey on a CaringBridge page.
“Every one of my CaringBridge entries that I’ve written, I’ve tried to point to joy. There is joy, even in the hardest of circumstances,” she says. “There is always some light.”
As an example, she points to the beauty she saw all around her outside as she was undergoing chemotherapy at ThedaCare Regional Cancer Center in the summer of 2022. The care she received, not just from Dr. Bermas but from all her oncologists, nurses and caregivers, also buoyed her.
“It was a care team like none other I have ever experienced in my life,” she says.
Today, Rebecca is thankful to report that her scans show no evidence of cancer. While she still needs to undergo two additional infusion treatments for her cancer, her focus has now also turned to helping and supporting others.
To her fellow cancer survivors, she offers a message of care and encouragement.
“Even though I found joy in all the moments, it was an extremely difficult journey. I remember just crying and saying, ‘I can’t do this. It’s too much,’” she says. “You’re going to have moments like that, but then you’re also going to have peaks. Keep putting one foot in front of the other.”