When I put a call out for breast cancer survivor stories, a blogging friend messaged me about an amazing woman in her life. Meet Cathy Westrich. Diagnosed seventeen years ago, she’s busy keeping up with her granddaughter and living NED. Another great story of long term survival for those looking for one.
Tell us about your diagnosis.
I was diagnosed at 42 years of age and am now 59. My mom was diagnosed when she was 69 (I was then 39 years old ). Mom’s surgeon talked to me about monthly breast self exams and showed me a piece of silicone with a lump explaining the importance of self exam along with mammography (I had already had a baseline at 35 years of age). Fast forward three years, I found a lump doing self examination, went to my physician who ordered up a mammogram and biopsy. I received a letter stating the mammogram was CLEAR the same day the surgeon called to say that the biopsy was positive.
Wow. Imagine if your doctor had only ordered a mammogram. Talk about your reaction to the news.
I had a brother pass away from osteosarcoma when he was 16 and then a mother with a history of breast cancer. I was very scared and wasn’t sure what my future held or how long it would be. My children were 10,13, 15 and 17 so life was very busy and they were old enough to be aware that this was serious. I also felt that I needed to be positive and confident for them.
That kind bravery reminds me so much of Dyanne Dillon’s story. What treatment options were you given?
I had a biopsy, lumpectomy then mastectomy and reconstruction of one breast between May and December of 1996. I had no lymph node involvement and at the time chemotherapy was not a recommended therapy treatment, certainly now it would be standard. I then took tamoxifen for 5 years going through a pseudo menopause only to have to go through it again after finishing up the tamoxifen.
Did you struggle with any of the issues that are common amongst young breast cancer patients?
Fertility was a non-issue as we were finished with our family planning. Certainly sexual health was an issue throughout the time with tamoxifen and my self esteem took a huge hit with self image issues. I currently am in a pretty good place with self image but it has been challenging getting here.
Like Mary Killian’s story, you were diagnosed at a time when there was no internet. Where did you find support?
Initially, I became involved in Race For The Cure first as a volunteer, eventually as the Race Event Coordinator with tremendous support and involvement from family and friends. Through the involvement with the Komen Foundation I met many incredible women and men who have touched my life in so many ways. It’s also been bittersweet as I’ve met so many women who have died way too young from this disease.
I also worked with the American Cancer Society and have always wondered if this career path is a direct link to my cancer journey.
How has having breast cancer impacted the lives of your children?
My first three children are daughters and we have had many conversations about breast health (not so much with my son, our fourth child). My girls are all on their thirties now and it’s interesting to talk about their breast health choices. My second oldest daughter asked me to get genetic testing about 10 years ago. I do not carry the BRCA1 or BRCA2 gene. Their chance is the same as any other young woman out there. I was on pins and needles waiting for the test results, wondering how the conversation would go if I had to tell them I tested positive.
Tell me what breast cancer has taught you.
Breast cancer has taught me to focus on the present and not to take any day for granted. Life is a blessing, be grateful for each day and every event life grants us.
Seventeen years NED is pretty damn great and makes me feel super hopeful for my own future. Do you foresee any roadblocks or ever think about recurrences?
No. Will I someday have a recurrence? Most likely, yes. If and when that happens, I’ll give it my best shot at beating it. Has it been hard, yes. But I survived and I thrive and I continue to be the best I can.