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Resilience and Strength: Sole Burner Honorary Survivor Shares Her Story

Last updated: May 9, 2024

Anne Sowers knows better than many how much life can change in a short period of time. In the space of two years, she and her family moved from California to Wisconsin, her mom was diagnosed with brain cancer, and Anne learned she had breast cancer.

All of that is only the abridged version of Anne’s story. In the midst of the pandemic in 2020, she gave birth to her second son after experiencing her first breast cancer scare in 2019. This all took place against the backdrop of continuing to grieve her father. Fifteen years ago, Anne’s dad developed appendix cancer that led to colon cancer and claimed his life.

Despite living through adversity no one should have to face, today Anne enjoys a brighter future thanks to paying attention to her body and advocating for her health. On Saturday, May 11, 2024, Anne will speak as the Honorary Survivor at the annual Sole Burner 5K Run-Walk. She’ll join fellow survivors and advocates to raise funds for cancer care and research.

Celebration and Sorrow

Anne’s flurry of change began in 2022, when she moved across country with her husband and two young sons. A new job opportunity for her husband brought the family to the Fox Valley.

“We fell in love with Wisconsin. It’s beautiful,” Anne says.

Not long after the move, though, tragedy struck when Anne’s mom was diagnosed with glioblastoma, a form of brain cancer. Anne made several trips back to California, all as she and her husband cared for their boys and acclimated to life in a new state.

Amid all that, Anne began to have renewed worries about her own health. A few years prior, she’d experienced a scare with a lump she’d felt in her right breast.

“Even though I wasn’t yet 40 at that time, it was on my mind to be watching myself,” Anne says.

The mass Anne found in her right breast in 2019 was not cancer. In fall 2022, however, a new concern had emerged.

Anne had just weaned her second son from breastfeeding when she detected a mass in her left breast. The anatomy and hormonal changes that come with nursing made it difficult for her to determine whether what she felt was normal.

“It scared the daylights out of me,” she says. “What was it? How long had it been there?”

Anne made an appointment with her OB-GYN. He wasn’t concerned but noted that she was due for a screening and recommended Anne proceed with that.

Less than two weeks later, Anne underwent a mammogram. She soon received a call back that led to additional imaging and then a biopsy. Two days later, Anne received a call confirming her breast cancer diagnosis.

At just 42 years old, Anne found herself facing cancer at the same time her mom was.

“The timing of that, I’ll never understand,” she says. “I didn’t want my mom to have to worry about me while she was going through her own battle.”

Choosing Genetic Testing

Though her parents both had cancer, Anne chalked it up to bad luck. After all, her dad worked a stressful job and led a mostly sedentary lifestyle. Her mom had smoked for 50 years. Nevertheless, after Anne received her diagnosis, she chose to pursue genetic testing. It revealed that she had genetic mutation that was tied to her cancer and her dad’s.

“That helped me wrap my mind around things,” she says.

Finding out the news also helped Anne’s siblings. Her sister and two brothers could choose to get tested and make proactive decisions about their health.

Because of the genetic mutation, Anne’s breast surgeon, Dr. Katherine DeAngeli, recommended she undergo a double mastectomy. The news was difficult to absorb, but Anne was relieved to find out her treatment would likely lead to cure.

“In my mind, cancer meant that people went away,” she says. “I had to reframe that for myself and for my family. To see somebody beating it has been refreshing.”

Anne learned she had early-stage lobular breast cancer, versus ductal. It’s less common and less likely than other forms of breast cancer to cause a firm or distinct breast lump. In Anne’s case, she felt more of a wedge-shaped mass than a round lump.

Chemotherapy and then radiation followed Anne’s surgery. The time brought its share of challenges and sorrows — most of all Anne’s mom’s death in August 2023.

Anne also had to navigate the demands of parenting while ill. That included fielding some tough questions from her older son, who struggled to make sense of his mom’s illness alongside his grandmother’s. Anne and her husband answered with honesty and reassurance.

“With luck, we just proceeded as if things were as normal as possible,” Anne says. “Mommy was just tired, and Mommy was resting more than she normally would.”

Hope Through Treatment

Living through cancer is never easy, but Anne says she’s grateful for the care she received through her surgeon and ThedaCare Cancer Care.

“We’ve loved our time in Wisconsin and have never regretted coming here,” Anne says. “The care I got here and the ThedaCare team were so different from our experiences with the medical establishment and industry in California. It’s more personalized here. I felt so cared for.”

Anne, a dedicated yoga practitioner, reader, and writer, says she especially appreciated working with her physical therapist, Karla. She helped Anne work through range of motion challenges as well as the aches and pains that come with carrying added stress.

“I credit her a lot with helping me get through everything so well,” she says of Karla.

Anne says she also appreciated that she could keep her hair during treatment thanks to the chemo cold cap system.

“It was important to me to look like myself,” she says. “Cancer has taken enough from me.”

Today, Anne has completed all her chemo and radiation treatments and started hormone therapy and maintenance medication.

The experience has changed her perspective.

“It’s rooted me fully in the day to day,” Anne says. “Not that I don’t still look forward and have plans and hopes and dreams. I do, more than ever. But I’m very much aware of the exquisiteness of every moment: the birds singing outside in the morning and my kids’ laughter.”

Looking Ahead

Anne offers words of wisdom and encouragement to other women and fellow cancer survivors.

“Anything abnormal, get it checked, even if it doesn’t feel like a round lump or hard pebble,” Anne says of her advice to other women. “I found it myself, and if I hadn’t pushed and gotten in right away … who knows?”

To other survivors, she offers words of care: “All my love. Big hugs. We did it. We’re warriors. Whatever else comes in the future, we’ll handle it. We’ll figure it out.”

As the Sole Burner approaches, Anne savors the sweetness of this moment.

“A year ago, I was so tired. I was in the middle of my treatment, and I had to sit down while I was brushing my teeth. The fact that I can do a 5K now, even walking, I never would have committed to it or fully thought about it a year ago,” she says. “I can’t wait to get out there and say hello to Appleton and the ThedaCare family and thank them for choosing me for this honor. It feels great to be recognized.”

Tags: breast cancer cancer survivorship genetic mutation genetic testing Sole Burner women’s health

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