‘IT TAKES AN ARMY’

Mandy Wessel wishes she had to worry only about the normal, everyday stresses of life.

Paying bills, working and taking care of her busy family are not activities the 36-year-old takes for granted these days. That’s because during the past couple of years, Wessel hasn’t had the luxury of normal. She has been fighting for her life.

Last month, Wessel was diagnosed with cervical cancer. Receiving the news wasn’t like hitting a speed bump, it was like smashing head-on into a brick wall, she said. But the news also was familiar. In January, Wessel wrapped up her treatment for breast cancer.

The two cancers are not related, Wessel said, so the treatment plans are radically different. But she’s hoping for the same outcome the second time around — to be able to walk away cancer free.

In November 2013, Wessel learned she had Stage 3 breast cancer at the age of 34.

She had discovered a lump on her own, she said.

At first, she played off the small knot, thinking it was nothing to worry about and it would go away on its own. But after two weeks and no change, Wessel decided it was time to visit her family doctor.

Her physician ordered a diagnostic mammogram and an ultrasound.

Even though she’s much younger than the typical age women start getting regular mammograms, Wessel said, she already had one in 2011 because that’s when her mother was diagnosed with breast cancer.

“Hers was like Stage 0,” Wessel said. “She didn’t have to have any treatments or anything.”

‘We regrouped’

Wessel’s mammogram was clear then. But the results of the second mammogram two years later weren’t good.“They did a biopsy, too, but they were pretty confident already from the mammogram that it was cancer,” she said.Finding out you have cancer is the hardest part, she said.

“And the waiting,” she said. “Waiting for test results, waiting to find out what you have to do. But once we had a plan, we regrouped, and you just get stronger at that point, I think.”

She was supported by her husband, Eric; their two children, Lillie, now 12, and Lincoln, 6; her mother, Laura Hackman; other family members; and lots of friends, who came together to form Team Mandy. As a result, Wessel said, she was able to find strength within herself that she didn’t even know she was capable of.

“I always say I don’t know how people do it by themselves because it takes an army, really,” she said. “It makes all the difference to have that support.”

The first step of treatment was a bilateral mastectomy, or surgical removal of both breasts, which she had done in December 2013. Doctors removed 15 lymph nodes during the procedure, seven of which were positive for cancer, and placed a port in her chest to deliver chemotherapy medicine.

“It was a nine-hour surgery,” she said. “It was supposed to be four, but that was before they realized the cancer was in my lymph nodes, too.”

‘A blow to everybody’

At that point, Wessel and her family thought her cancer was Stage 1, possibly Stage 2.“I woke up from surgery Stage 3,” she said. “That was a blow to everybody.”After a few weeks of recovery, Wessel was feeling better. Then in January 2014, she began chemo. She had to complete six treatments every three weeks. Each treatment lasted seven to eight hours.

With people coming and going, Wessel said, the time actually went by fast most days. Her family and friends would come and sit with her, playing games, talking and keeping her entertained.

She then went through some targeted infusion therapies every three weeks for a year, one called Herceptin, which stops the growth and multiplication of breast cancer cells and can activate the immune system to kill cancer cells.

“I did pretty well with chemo, really,” she said. “I mean, I was tired, and I lost my hair.”

Now fighting cervical cancer, she was happy to learn she wouldn’t go bald again because of the type of chemotherapy she is receiving.

“There are some (drugs) that make you sicker than others, some that make your hair fall out, and some that don’t,” she said.

She has completed her third chemo treatment this time around. The first treatment made her nauseous, but she felt she sailed through the second and third ones. On top of chemotherapy, she undergoes radiation treatments five days a week.

“With the breast cancer, I didn’t do radiation until I was done with chemo,” she said. “I did 28 radiation treatments starting in June 2014 and ending in July.”

Radiation, she said, is pretty much painless but awkward and confining.

“They do all these measurements and make a mold for you to lay in, and then there’s just a machine that goes around you. It’s kind of like an X-ray machine, and it sends the external radiation beams into your body,” she said.

‘Let that go’

When she had radiation for her breast cancer, Wessel said, she had some skin burning because of the sensitive area.She finished her treatment for breast cancer this past January. Her treatments for cervical cancer are going much more quickly because she is able to do both chemo and radiation at the same time. But that doesn’t make having cancer a second time any better, she said.Wessel said she felt more anger when she was diagnosed with cervical cancer last month.

“I was like, ‘Really? I have to do this again?’ You feel like you’re being punished for something,” she said. “But you have to let that go.”

Before the second diagnosis, Wessel was trying to get a full hysterectomy as a preventive measure. But insurance determined it wasn’t medically necessary, so doctors decided to just remove her ovaries because there’s a strong connection between ovarian cancer and breast cancer.

During the procedure Sept. 25, doctors decided to check her uterus and cervix to make sure everything was OK. That’s when they saw something suspicious, Wessel said.

She said they thought it might be dysplasia, where abnormal cell growth occurs on the surface lining of the cervix. Doctors took some samples but decided not to continue with removing her ovaries at that time.

“I really didn’t think at that point it was cancer; but a couple of days later, we found out it was actually cervical cancer,” she said.

At first, doctors thought it was likely Stage 1, and a radical hysterectomy would take care of it, she said. She was sent to a specialist in Indianapolis, who determined the cancer was actually Stage 2B and had spread outside the cervix a little. Surgery was not an option.

‘You have to be strong’

Instead, it was to be 25 treatments or five weeks of radiation and five chemo treatments once a week. After that is complete, she will go back to Indianapolis for five internal radiation treatments.“And then I should be done,” she said. “It’s a lot faster treatment plan, and then my follow-ups are just scans and blood work.”Wessel said the biggest obstacle for people to overcome when dealing with cancer is being able to stay positive because even though the disease physically attacks the body it also can destroy your mind.

“I think the mental aspect of it is the biggest part,” she said. “It affects you the most mentally; and mentally, you have to be strong or you won’t be able to get through the physical part.”

Even through all the bad, Wessel said, there’s a lot of good that has come from her battles with cancer.

“I’ve made so many friends that I would never have met had I not had this happen,” she said.

She also said she is appreciative of the doctors, nurses and specialists on her team and all of those who work at the Don and Dana Myers Cancer Center in Seymour.

“This place is wonderful,” she said.

Having cancer has undoubtedly changed her, but in ways she didn’t realize it would.

“Cancer has always been one of my biggest fears. I think it is for a lot of people,” she said. “You always think, ‘There’s no way I could go through it, the chemo and the radiation,’ but you can. You don’t have a choice. It changes your faith, the way you look at life. So there are good things that come out of it.”

‘Trust your gut’

By staying positive and leaning on family and friends, Wessel said, anything is possible. She also said it’s important to educate yourself on what’s going on with your body.“Trust your doctors, but trust your gut more because there’s a lot of decisions to be made. Sometimes, you just have to go with what feels right,” she said.

Although it can be overwhelming to have to make those choices, Wessel said, it also can make you stronger.

“I embraced those decisions,” she said. “You feel like you have no control over what’s going on, so those decisions were kind of empowering to me because I felt like I was having a say in what was going on.”

Along with being a self-advocate, it’s important to do your own research from credible sources, she said.

“A lot of times, there are different routes for different types of cancer,” she said. “I actually found a medicine myself that way and pushed the doctors to get it.”

Now, Wessel just wants to get back to the point in her life where she can worry about the little things again.

“I hope that continues to be the worries for most people because if that’s what you’re worried about, it means you’re healthy,” she said.

Cancer makes you look at life differently and appreciate things differently, she said.

“You realize how much you want to be doing those things and how much you want those normal stresses of life back,” she said.

Author photo
January Rutherford is a reporter for The (Seymour) Tribune. She can be reached at jrutherford@tribtown.com or 812-523-7069.