Pain does one of two things to you, it either drives you or it destroys you. Not everyone can rise up and turn adversity into advantage. But if you really dig down deep, listen to your heart and dive head first into the will to survive, you might just surprise yourself.
I am Mark Brodinsky and this is The Sunday Series.
The Sunday Series (57): Strong Enough
This was not going to be Beth Ritter’s fate, because she’s not the tough one. This is why Beth believed God chose her sister Leslie as the person in the family who was diagnosed with breast cancer, because she could handle it. Because it happened to Leslie and she pulled through it, Beth had no reason to worry. No one up above had plans for her, it was settled, because Beth knew she would never be as tough as her sister.
Still, it doesn’t mean you don’t take precautions. It doesn’t mean despite how strongly you believe it can’t happen to you, that it won’t happen to you. So you still go for mammograms, and do self-exams because it’s the right thing, it’s just what women should do. Protect the breasts.
Until there is that moment that it doesn’t feel right. The self-exam seems a little off, or so you are convinced. Though sometimes your mind plays tricks and its easy to convince yourself something is wrong, even if it’s not. For Beth, this was the moment, and she wanted a professional opinion and some testing as to why her left breast felt just a little “off”. She went to the doctor, he ordered a mammogram and because of family history, ordered a sonogram as well…but nothing. The doctor told Beth, “not to worry, see you in six months.”
That was 2009. May of this year will be six years since the double mastectomy.
It wasn’t alright. Beth’s fears were realized. Within two months of the exam that showed “nothing”, during her self-exam Beth noticed her left breast became inverted, drawing into itself because the invader was in the nipple duct and now the doctors immediately knew it was cancer. Beth says, “if you don’t take things into your own hands, literally, it can change everything. If my breast hadn’t changed I would have waited six months from my last exam. The cancer was already between stage 2 and 3 and all the cells were ready to launch, had it been much longer it would have spread much further than it did.”
The recommendation was to have the left breast removed. The decision to go with a double mastectomy and have both breasts removed was Beth’s. “I didn’t want it to show up again”, she says. “I didn’t want to go through it again. I had a friend who had to do that. She just got her hair back after the chemotherapy treatments, just started to feel like herself and all of a sudden something felt weird in her other breast. She had to go through it all over again, it was really difficult.
Beth had both breasts removed two weeks after the diagnosis, but she says it seemed like the longest two weeks ever. Diagnosed in April of 2009, her breasts were removed in May and then chemotherapy treatments began — with a twist. Beth says, “I had to inject myself in the stomach shortly after every chemo treatment with a white cell booster – I could have had it done at the hospital, but it I would have meant I had to drive back each time to do it and it was too far from my home. I had six rounds of standard chemo treatments and 18 rounds of another chemo wonder drug.
But Beth says it was all worth it, because in the end its all about survival. “My doctor basically told me give me a year of your life and I will give you the rest of yours.”
Sometimes there are still the pangs of loss Beth feels, to which any breast cancer survivor can relate. “There are times I wish I kept one, once in a while, both”, she says. “My husband and I have felt that. When I had the mastectomy, not only did I lose both breasts, but Ron did too, no matter what they are replaced with you give up feeling and sensitivity. But I would do it 100 times over to be here to live.”
Beth also says her husband was incredibly loving during the tough time and never wavered, even a moment, in how he felt about me. Her sister Leslie, who lives in California, came back to Maryland to be with Beth. “She didn’t believe me when I talked to her on the phone that I was OK”, says Beth. “She couldn’t believe I couldn’t be this positive and be OK, she needed to see it for herself and she was amazed I really was all of those things.”
And there was the unwavering support from Beth’s best friend Dawn Lichty. “Dawn went to every chemotherapy treatment with me. I remember the morning I woke up and there was hair all over my pillow. I called Dawn and said bring your razor. She lived 30 minutes way, but she was there in 15…barefoot and in her pajamas. She took me outside and buzzed everything off my head. I just felt empowered and felt like I was taking control and not let anything control me.”
With the surgery and chemo in the rear view mirror and the breast implants a success, (Beth says despite it all she now has a “nice rack”. In fact she tells those who are close to her and comfortable enough to hear it, “I used to be a low C, but now I’m a high C.”), Beth turned her attention to finding a way to give back. The result of that desire: a yearly craft show which began in the winter of 2010 at Richardson Farms in Baltimore County, Maryland. Beth says, “when I was working there I noticed when the Christmas trees came out of the greenhouse after the holidays, nothing else went in there. I went to a conference to listen to someone speak about turning nothing into something and it inspired me. I love crafts, I knew we could heat the greenhouse and not only would it benefit the vendors, but also bring business to the farm at a time when it’s not busy.”
The first craft show in 2010 was a huge success, with an estimated 3,000 people coming to the farm for crafts, great food and the opportunity to give back. Each year the team that puts the show together chooses a different charity to which to give donations, from cancer organizations to the Helping Up Mission to the Wounded Warriors. This year its the Kidney Foundation of Maryland, (http://www.kidneymd.org/). Beth says the Executive Chef at the farm as well as one of the vendors and her mother just had kidney transplants. In choosing the charity the committee wants the farm and the vendors to be part of promoting the cause as well as talking about it and having connections.
Connection is a word which has defined Beth Ritter since the ordeal with breast cancer began. Her connection with her faith, her connection with her positive power to survive, her connection with others going through the same battle against the beast. “To say it’s not really fair is not the right word, your options are really, really not great, but you hope ultimately you get your life. It’s a roll of the dice, not everyone makes it. I know in my heart I did everything I could and the rest is up to God and I relied on him heavily to get me through everything, it was a huge part of what helped me. I wonder sometimes why I got healthy and others didn’t. There were people I met who didn’t make it. So I’ve tried to make my life count and make a difference for other people with everything – my friendships and my relationship with myself – and give back in some way and leave not a legacy, but do something positive and be a survivor who turned it into something bigger than me.
Beth has figured it out. Living a life of meaning. If you can find a cause, a purpose bigger than yourself and use it to lift others up, you are creating a life of significance. In the end it’s what humans can do best, if they only tap into their potential. Sometimes it takes a health scare, a life event, a wake-up call, and sometimes you reach the realization on your own, because you know in your heart it’s the right thing to do. Whatever the reason, people like Beth want to share to help others and to share what they have learned.
Beth says, “I guess the biggest thing I want women to know is if you feel or see any change of any kind in your breast, it doesn’t have to be a lump or a discharge, any subtle change, then talk to your doctor and listen to that inner voice that is telling you something isn’t right, because the self-exam saved my life. I thought my sister was the strong one and that is why God let her have this, (breast cancer), but I am pretty strong too. You don’t know your own strength until you are faced with something you might not survive. It’s not romantic, or an epiphany, cancer challenged my faith and in a lot of ways it strengthened my faith. I would not have gotten through it with the same grace and courage without that faith.
The fact is I am stronger than I thought I was.”
Until next time, thanks for taking the time.
(The Craft Show at Richardson Farms continues today February 8th, from 10am to 4pm, 5900 Ebeneezer Road, (http://www.richardsonfarms.net/)
See Beth Ritter’s story on ABC2, (http://www.abc2news.com/news/region/baltimore-county/2-good-2-be-true-breast-cancer-survivor-organizes-annual-craft-show-for-charity)
Mark Brodinsky, Author, Emmy-Winner, Blogger, Speaker, Financial Services
Get the book about my wife’s own battle against breast cancer: The #1 Amazon Best-Seller: It Takes 2. Surviving Breast Cancer: A Spouse’s Story
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