MARIETTA - Being diagnosed with breast cancer is no picnic, but it's not necessarily the end of the world either, according to Judy and Mark Wurtzbacher of Devola who recently marked the one-year anniversary of Judy's double mastectomy surgery.
"It's not a death sentence, although that's what a lot of people think when they first get the cancer diagnosis," Mark said.
He recalled the day Judy discovered an unusual growth in her breast.
Photo by Sam Shawver
Breast cancer survivor Judy Wurtzbacher snuggles with an afghan a close friend knitted while she was undergoing treatment for the disease. “She told me with every stitch she said a prayer for me,” Wurtzbacher said.
"It was September last year and we had just come off a vacation at Myrtle Beach," Mark said. "She had just stepped out of the shower and saw something in the mirror."
Judy, who regularly practiced self breast examinations, said she was getting ready for bed and happened to catch sight of a "dimpled" area on her breast.
"I didn't think it was a good sign," she said. "I went to my doctor the next day and she said it could be nothing, but wanted me to have a mammogram to be sure. A few days later I had both a mammogram and ultrasound taken of my breast."
A registered nurse in the pre- and post-operative surgery unit at Marietta Memorial Hospital, Judy said she had received annual mammograms for several years, and was due for another when the dimpled area appeared on her breast.
"The mammogram showed nothing," she said. "But when they did the ultrasound I could see there was something showing up on the screen."
Further tests, based on the ultrasound results, revealed it was cancer.
Mark said a lot of thoughts flooded his mind at the time, but he tried to remain hopeful and stay positive until their fears were confirmed.
"Then it was like a whirlwind. It seems everything happened so fast," he said.
If there was a silver lining it was that the cancer had been discovered at an early stage.
"My doctor said I should be the poster child for breast self-exams because I found it, even though it didn't show up in the mammogram," Judy said. "It's important for women - and men - to do an occasional self-examination of their breasts."
She also believes God played a part in her cancer being diagnosed at such an early stage, because the dimpled area that helped Judy discover the cancer never appeared on her breast again after she began seeking treatment.
"The doctors gave me three options - to have a lumpectomy (removal of the lump only) or to have one or both breasts removed," Judy said.
After consulting with oncologist Dr. Kelli Cawley, oncology surgeon Dr. Rajendra Bhati and cosmetic reconstructive surgeon Dr. Matthew Yoak, she decided to have a double mastectomy.
"I can't say I really had to think about it for long - but I didn't want to have the surgery, then have to worry about the possibility of the cancer returning and needing the surgery all over again," Judy explained.
Mark said his wife did not initially plan to have reconstructive surgery done.
"At first she opted out of that idea," he said. "And I told her it wouldn't matter to me. I would support whatever she decided to do."
As the husband of a cancer patient, Mark said things would have been more difficult for the couple without the ability to talk openly about their feelings.
"I'm pretty lucky - she's such an upbeat person, and in spite of a lot of unknowns we could talk about everything," he said. "If there's anything I would want to tell another husband facing this situation, my main advice would be to stay open and share your feelings, but don't try to push or persuade."
Judy eventually decided to have the reconstructive surgery performed.
"They removed both breasts and the sentinel node (a lymph node that is the first to receive cancer cells)," she said. "Then they put in saline-filled tissue expanders. They were hard, uncomfortable, like a couple of bricks on my chest, and I had to wear them for about six months."
Eventually the expanders were removed and replaced with much more comfortable silicone implants.
"The implants felt a lot better," Judy said.
It was a difficult time, but she said a little humor often made things more bearable.
After the silicone implant surgery, Judy donned a T-shirt that said "Yeah, they're fake - my real ones tried to kill me."
Following her mastectomy, Judy began months of chemotherapy, from November through February, as well as treatment with a drug - herceptin - designed to reduce the estrogen level that was feeding the cancer cells.
"I had the last herceptin treatment (Oct. 1)," she said with a smile.
As she left Marietta Memorial's Strecker Cancer Center, Judy pulled the cord on the brass bell that cancer patients are invited to ring when they've had their last treatment.
Friends, family and Facebook all played a key role as Judy endured the chemotherapy and other trials of her illness.
"The support I've had is amazing. Before the chemo started making my hair fall out, I had my hair dresser and other friends come over and shave my head - then they all put on bald wigs," she said.
"But I felt it was sort of empowering to make the decision to cut off my hair before the therapy caused it to fall out," Judy added.
There were other side effects, too, including a drop in her body's immunity to infection or disease, which meant she could not work at her hospital job during the chemotherapy.
Mark had to be away at work, so she spent many days at home alone.
"That's why a support system of friends is so important," she said. "It's probably the most important part of the recovery process."
Judy shared everything about her experience with friends on Facebook, took hundreds of photos and began keeping a journal.
"I surrounded myself with positive things. I didn't even go onto the Internet to find out more about my cancer," she said.
The smallest kindnesses were magnified and appreciated - a phone call from a friend, an email, or a card in the daily mail.
One friend knitted Judy an afghan to keep her warm.
"She told me with every stitch she said a prayer for me," Judy said.
Her hair is growing back - a little curlier than before, according to Mark - and Judy returned to work at the hospital in June.
"I feel so blessed with the job I have," she said. "I'm able to meet people who are just at the beginning of their own journey, and I can help by sharing my experience with them."
Looking at herself in a mirror at the height of her year-long ordeal, Judy at first thought how awful she looked. But then she leaned forward, flexing her arm muscles in a bodybuilder-like stance.
"I'd been through a lot and had developed some scars - but then realized I'm a warrior," she said.