Lights in the darkness
ASPEN – Cancer affects us all.
In 2010, some 1.5 million Americans will be diagnosed with cancer. Each of these people had parents, children, siblings, friends and co-workers who felt the effects of the disease. Chances are you have been touched by cancer in some way.
But cancer is not necessarily a death sentence. In fact, many cancer survivors are indeed “cancer thrivers”; they say the disease – though horrible from start to finish – changed their lives for the better. This would not necessarily be the case without the support of family, friends, the medical community and, unique to the Roaring Fork Valley, three nonprofit cancer support organizations: Komen Aspen, Pathfinders and the Aspen Cancer Center.
So, on this long Thanksgiving weekend, The Aspen Times decided to share the stories of local cancer survivors and the local organizations that supported them from diagnosis and treatment to recovery and, in many ways, rebirth.
Barbara Newton tells it like it is: “Breast cancer sucks. It’s scary. It’s not all pink and cutesy. I will never forget when they put the needle in the IV to make me go to sleep for surgery. It scared me to death.
“But I recently read an article about how people are trying to make breast cancer fluffy – you know, ‘it made my life better’ and all that. I hate to be trite, but it’s kind of true.”
Newton is one of more than 200,000 women diagnosed with breast cancer in the United States each year. For her, the outcome was positive; she had a mastectomy, learned the cancer had not spread to her lymph nodes, and is now considered cured of the disease.
It was not an easy road, she says, but it was an important one to take.
First, breast cancer changed her life.
“I had worked my tail off for years saving and saving, and what did I have? A gigantic house and bunch of money in my savings account,” says Newton, who lived in California and spent several months each year in Aspen before cancer led her to move full-time to Aspen a couple of years ago. “It sunk in that I could have died, and what did I have? It was time to start really living.”
Second, breast cancer taught her just how important education, screening and early detection really is.
“I had a really lucky, lucky, lucky outcome,” she says, explaining that when, at age 43, a radiologist saw “something a little funny” on her mammogram and said to come back in six months, she did just the opposite. “I knew something wasn’t right; I didn’t want to wait and see on ‘something a little funny.'”
So she followed up immediately and learned she did, in fact, have breast cancer. According to the American Cancer Society, 98 percent of breast cancer patients who are diagnosed early survive for at least five years.
“That’s why I am such an advocate for education, screening, early detection. It saved my life,” says Newton, the newest board member of Komen Aspen, the local affiliate for the Susan G. Komen Foundation, which serves the Roaring Fork Valley, as well as the I-70 corridor from Rifle to Vail.
“Early detection in breast cancer is definitely crucial,” agrees Logan Hood, executive director of Komen Aspen, one of 127 Komen affiliates around the globe. “So our job is to make sure everyone – men and women – learn this; to know what the right steps are to stay healthy.”
Among the services offered by Komen Aspen are education, outreach and no- and low-cost mammography and related screenings. Komen Aspen also raises money – through events like Race for the Cure, Ride for the Cure and, hopefully this winter, Ski for the Cure – for national research and local granting.
“I think people often say, ‘Komen’s so big … they have tons of money’ or they think all of our money goes to some corporate office. But that’s not true,” explains Hood. “The majority of our funds stay right here; each year we grant 75 percent of our net proceeds to local organizations,” including Pathfinders (also profiled in this story).
In fact, Komen Aspen is just one link in the local cancer support network.
“Breast cancer affects women and men, and everyone around them,” says Hood, adding that over the years, Komen Aspen has likely touched the lives of tens of thousands of area residents. “Since we are a small community, we really feel that. Yes, Komen Aspen is part of a large, international organization. But, at the heart of our local affiliate, we are about educating our community, supporting locals diagnosed with breast cancer, and helping the people who care about them. It’s all intertwined.”
Newton agrees: “Cancer doesn’t just affect the person diagnosed. It’s not about saving one person. Everyone who is related to, or a friend of the person diagnosed, is affected. It’s about saving a whole family, a whole network of people.
“That’s why what Komen Aspen does is so important. Education and early detection; it’s all about trusting yourself and that’s what Komen teaches. I am a perfect, living example of why that’s so huge.”
Adrienne Schladerer is hard-core – she works hard and plays hard. So when it came to fighting a rare form of stage IV lymphoma, Schladerer did what she does best, she fought hard.
“I’m not going to say it’s been easy,” says Schladerer, who has been in remission since September 2009 after four months of grueling chemotherapy followed by a stem-cell transplant in July 2009. “But let’s just say that one year ago Thanksgiving, after everything I’d been through, I went out and skied five top-to-bottom runs on Aspen – and I’ve never looked back.”
In some ways, Schladerer’s whole cancer experience is a blur. Her diagnosis, she says, “came out the clear blue sky.” In perfect health (or so she thought), the then 62-year-old was working 50 hours a week, skiing five days a week in early 2009 when she had a routine colonoscopy. What happened next was anything but routine, as she learned she was a very sick woman.
“Well, I freaked out. And then I went into total denial; I am never sick, so there is no way I could have such an awful cancer diagnosis,” says Schladerer, serving up a latte in the Mountain Chalet Aspen, where she works as conference and events manager. “So what did I do? I went cat-skiing.”
An avid skier, Schladerer had planned a cat-skiing trip to Canada with “a group of nine guys a lot younger than me, and I wasn’t going to miss it.” And she didn’t. But when she returned to Aspen, the other shoe dropped.
“Reality finally set in … I was off to Denver for chemo 24-hours a day, seven days a week; three weeks on, one week off,” she recalls. “Basically, they just poisoned me. And that’s when all hell started to break loose.”
It’s also when Pathfinders for Cancer stepped in. A nonprofit support program for cancer patients, caregivers, family members and the community, Pathfinders focuses “on the social, emotional and spiritual issues that accompany a cancer diagnosis.”
“We are there from the beginning of diagnosis on,” says Pathfinders executive director Liz Means, explaining how the organization caters to the body, mind and spirit of those it serves. “We are a place to call, a place to find out what the next step is. We make sure you’re taken care of, that your family is taken care of. You know, the nuts and bolts of living.”
For Schladerer, who lived alone in Aspen with her dog and was becoming weaker by the day, the organization and its volunteers – called Pathfinders Angels – became her family. The “nuts and bolts” they provided included much-needed food, financial advice and assistance, and, perhaps most important, companionship as Schladerer traveled down the long road of diagnosis, treatment and, thankfully, recovery.
“I was all alone and my whole world was changing,” says Schladerer, vividly sharing how she went from being a vibrant, athletic woman to a 90-pound version of her former self. “Besides feeling just really, really bad, I was starting to panic. I am not sure how I would have made it through without Pathfinders and Ashley (Schladerer’s volunteer “angel” throughout her cancer experience).
And that, according to Means, is a lot of what Pathfinders is all about.
“When you’re having a panic attack in the middle of the night, you call us. We can help,” she says, referring to the organization’s “Seven Pillars of Personal Recovery” philosophy for coping with the stresses of cancer and other life-threatening illnesses. “We understand all the issues that cancer can bring up. Of course we all have issues, but when you have cancer, they either go on the back burner or come forward. We understand everyone – patients, caregivers, family, friends – handle cancer differently and we try to approach our work from this perspective.”
For Schladerer, the program worked, in large part, because of this approach.
“They know what you’re going through, but more than that, they really respect who you are as you go through it,” she says. “I’ve always been on my own … never needed anybody’s help. They got this, and they knew not to baby me to death.”
But Pathfinders did have such a great impact on Schladerer’s life that she has chosen to give back. She still attends support meetings, offering those in the room her advice, empathy and the strength to fight.
“Cancer stole my life for a while,” she says. “But I got it back. I can share this. Knowledge is power.”
Means agrees that, in many ways, the reason Pathfinders is so successful – its hope is to expand and share its model of support across the country – is this very personal approach to surviving, and thriving, through cancer.
“Our hope is that the people we work with come out of cancer better than when they went in,” she says. “We are future-looking … whether someone is terminal or not, why not start living? That’s what we help people – cancer patients, their caregivers, the people they leave behind – do.”
Peter Kelley is an athlete, and he wasn’t going to let cancer change that. In fact, he wasn’t going to let cancer change anything about his active lifestyle.
“I was not going to miss out on anything, so I just never quit living my life,” says Kelley, a 35-year local who was diagnosed with stage III non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma in November 2008 and is now in remission. “I’m just a knuckle-head who said ‘I’m not going to give in to this cancer. Yes, it’s a minor – OK, major- inconvenience, but…”
One driving factor in Kelley’s determination to stay strong: a long-planned bike tour through the Dolomites with his wife, Sue, the following summer.
“I had spent 20-plus years cycling to get to the point where I could excel at this trip, and now I was as weak as I had ever been,” recalls Kelley. “But we completed the tour and rode in the 9,000 person Maratona Cyclosportif, me placing 58th in my age group, if I remember correctly.”
An avid biker, skier and outdoorsman, Kelley was strong going into cancer. It’s a fact he is quick to link to his transformation from cancer survivor to cancer “thriver.”
“Being strong physically really made a difference in thriving through cancer,” says Kelley, who underwent four months of chemotherapy at Aspen Valley Hospital, and was “one sick pup” as a result. “You’re scared, you’re nervous, you don’t what’s going to happen, so to be physically strong is really important. Or at least it was for me.”
Riggs Klika, founder of The Cancer Survivor Center, located in The Aspen Club, agrees.
“The nuts and bolts of being healthy – exercise, nutrition – are so important to coming out of cancer better than you went in,” he says, explaining how his organization offers “scientifically based fitness programming, nutritional guidance, mental health services and one-on-one coaching. “You have doctors, nurses, the medical side of things; you have support groups like Pathfinders; and then there is us.
“We are the other part of the equation for cancer patients and survivors.”
This philosophy meshed perfectly with Kelley’s approach to beating cancer.
“Because of the type of person I am, I told everyone about my cancer,” says Kelley, a real estate broker with Coldwell Banker, who credits everyone from his wife and daughter to the nurses at AVH for helping in his recovery. “I went anywhere and everywhere for support.”
“When you reach out, it’s amazing what comes back to you. Everyone has a cancer story. Everyone is affected by cancer.”
Among those affected by cancer who influenced Kelley was Lance Armstrong, who has also worked with Klika and The Cancer Survivor Center, and whom Kelley knows personally.
“He is an inspiration,” says Kelley, who has set a fundraising goal of $35,000 by year’s end for Armstrong’s Ride for the Roses, an annual event in Austin, Texas, hosted by the LiveStrong organization. “At times, when I was really sick and didn’t want to do something, my wife would say, ‘What would Lance do?'”
Of course getting back to full-strength wasn’t easy.
“When I finally got out of chemo, Riggs got me back on the [bicycle] trainer,” recalls Kelley. “It was hard, and basically I had no excuse. I couldn’t play the cancer card anymore.”
In this respect, Kelley was like many of The Cancer Survivor Center’s clients.
“When we meet cancer patients, they are often scared and confused. They are in the trenches and, sometimes, there is not a lot of hope,” says Klika, adding that the Center has a long-range plan of franchising its program and philosophy so other communities can benefit from their approach to helping cancer survivors thrive. “What we do is try to help them understand what they need to do to get healthy and stay healthy.
“We provide that information and that motivation and, hopefully, give them the tools they need to continue on the path to a healthy future.”
According to Kelley, it is a path that can change a person’s entire cancer experience.
“For me, cancer was an amazing experience,” he says. “I learned so much and, honestly, am a better person for it.”
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