Wendi Rigler believes she is very lucky.
While she was diagnosed with breast cancer last year, she was lucky enough to find the cancer early. A doctor's hunch led to a prompt diagnosis and treatment. She has suffered few side effects from treatments.
But perhaps what makes Rigler particularly lucky is her robust support system of family, friends and coworkers. This support system helped her to maintain a positive attitude throughout treatment. This positive attitude is just one reason that Rigler will receive a "Courage Award" from the Carbon-Tamaqua chapter of the American Cancer Society during this weekend's annual telethon on Blue Ridge Communications and Service Electric.
The 33rd annual telethon will be held at Penn's Peak in Jim Thorpe from noon to midnight on Saturday and Sunday. The Courage Awards will be presented at approximately 7 p.m. on Sunday.
When Rigler scheduled a mammogram in June of last year at Breast Health Services, Lehigh Valley Health Networks, she was expecting a routine test and a clean bill of health. Instead, one week later she was called back for a needle biopsy to rule out problems with a small, pea-sized lump on her mammogram. Her doctor assured her that he was "99 percent sure that everything was fine," she said, but wanted to be cautious.
On June 28, just four days after her 50th birthday, she would learn that the biopsy revealed ductal carcinoma, a common type of breast cancer that is highly treatable.
"I met with a surgeon the next day, and had everything scheduled for July," said Rigler. Doctors recommended a lumpectomy, in which the cancerous tissue is removed but much of the breast is saved.
Before surgery, doctors ordered a follow-up biopsy and additional testing. These tests would reveal a second incidence of cancer in the same breast. This second site was HER2 positive, a more aggressive type of cancer that occurs in 20 percent of breast cancer patients. A lumpectomy would no longer be an option. Doctors now recommended a mastectomy, in which the entire breast is removed.
She immediately told family, friends and co-workers about the diagnosis. The weeks between diagnosis and the mastectomy was a difficult time, and she tried to stay busy to keep her mind off of the diagnosis. Still, Rigler was optimistic that things could only get better.
"The hardest part of being diagnosed with cancer is that you don't feel ill. Once you have the surgery, then you can start recovery," she said.
Before leaving for surgery, Rigler told co-workers that she would be back to work soon and living life as normal as possible. Just three weeks later, she would walk in the Susan G. Komen Race for the Cure in Wilkes-Barre. She returned to her job as an assistant director at KinderCare in Reading one month after her mastectomy.
While she was back at work, her cancer treatments continued. She would undergo chemotherapy from September to December and then start a course of 34 radiation treatments in Allentown early this year. Her typical schedule included leaving Tamaqua at 6:30 a.m. for radiation treatment in Allentown, then driving to Reading for a 9 a.m. work day. She drove approximately 105 miles round trip each day to undergo radiation treatment before work.
Her last radiation treatment will be this week, and she's just starting to picture what life will be like without a daily dose of doctors, medication and actively dealing with cancer.
"I'm doing really well so far. Everyone tells me that I have a positive attitude, but I also have a huge support system," she said. "My family has always been very close." During her cancer treatments she enjoyed weekly phone calls and emails from family members and co-workers, who helped her to stay positive and focus on the bigger picture.
"I didn't have to always think about the fact that I have cancer, that I was having surgery," she said. "It is what it is. You can't change that fact that you have cancer, so you just deal with it. My strength comes from the support of the people behind me."
Her doctors and nurses now believe that her positive attitude may have influenced her recovery, paving a smoother road for her during a tough treatment schedule.
"I told them from the beginning that I wasn't going to get sick," she said, referring to the nausea, rashes and burns that many chemotherapy and radiation patients endure. To her medical team's surprise, she successfully finished both chemotherapy and radiation with no problems. "My attitude from the beginning was that this is what I have to do to get better."
While she was also confident that losing her hair would be easy to deal with, she had doubts when the first clump of hair fell out. Instead of crying, she called her hair dresser that day. They would take charge of the situation, they decided, and shaved her head a few hours later.
Rigler was honored to learn that she was one of two recipients of the Courage Award this year. Still, she knows that she is just one of many courageous cancer patients in our area, and hopes that the award and annual telethon on Blue Ridge Communications can further raise awareness of cancer and help to find a cure.
"I'm accepting this award for a lot of people, not just for me," she said, noting that she currently knows five friends or family members undergoing cancer treatment, including a close cousin who also has breast cancer. Her sister-in-law was also diagnosed with acute leukemia on the day of her mastectomy.
"It's just unreal, when you think about how many people's lives have been touched by cancer," she added. "We have to look toward a cure."
She also thanked her family and friends, including her parents Jim and Jean George, for being her strength during the past year, and her medical team for finding her cancer in its early stages and treating it so promptly.
"I have to give the people at Lehigh Valley (Health Network) kudos. I haven't met a medical person there who wasn't wonderful," says Rigler.
After completing her last radiation sessions, she is now looking forward to a day that doctors will declare her cancer-free. Until that time, she hopes to inspire others undergoing cancer treatment and continue to live each day to the fullest.
"It's still a fight," she says of her diagnosis. "It makes you realize how strong you can be."