Written by Dorothy Bliskey & Photography by Travis Pohl of E&M Photography
“You never know how strong you are until being strong is the only choice you have.”
This April, at age 43, Kellie Ruedinger was diagnosed with breast cancer. In December she will complete the final stage of a seven-month treatment plan that has given her a new lease on life.
Her diagnosis was an early stage of breast cancer known as Ductal Carcinoma in situ where cancer cells have not spread outside the breast’s milk ducts. Since there were two lumps in two separate areas of the same breast, the physician recommended removal of the breast rather than a lumpectomy.
A double mastectomy was chosen by Kellie and her husband Dennis to lessen her chances of the cancer returning to either breast. The surgery took place in May. Her prognosis for a complete recovery is excellent, and no chemotherapy or radiation will be required.
Learning in a phone call from the doctor that she had breast cancer wasn’t really a shock to Kellie. She says she was expecting it because the multiple mammograms and biopsy processes pointed in that direction.
“I felt that it was an early detection,” Kellie said. “But then worry set in and I thought the longer I wait for surgery, what happens if it jumps around my body?”
“My husband’s and family’s reaction was nothing but love and support. They did everything they could to take on this fight and knew that what I needed to move forward was positive thoughts,” Kellie said.
As a third grade teacher in the Oshkosh Area School District, Kellie found that telling her students and her own children she had cancer was one of the toughest parts of the process.
To inform her third graders, Kellie sent a letter home to parents, explaining the situation and asking that they discuss it with their child. “When the students returned to my classroom the next morning they were all so sweet. Some cried, others made cards and planned little presentations throughout the week,” Kellie said. “They asked questions and really worked hard during the final days leading up to my surgery. On my last day they wore pink and we celebrated with a pizza party.”
Telling her own children Preston,14, and Delaney, 10, was also difficult. “Both kids knew that I had a mammogram earlier and was going for a second look,” Kellie said. “We distracted our youngest by having her go with grandma and grandpa after school. “Meanwhile, we told our oldest that it was cancer and that it would need to be removed. He reacted very quietly, and after further contemplation, he asked questions.”
“Our daughter was told while she was with her grandparents, and she handled it much better than we thought. Both were very inquisitive about the next part of the process.”
Looking back, Kellie’s likelihood of getting breast cancer was greater due to a maternal grandmother and aunt who had it. In addition, because she was detected to have dense breasts, Kellie was advised by her physician to begin having routine mammograms at age 39. Faithfully each year she made her appointment.
This year’s mammogram revealed a suspicious 3 millimeter lump in her breast. A follow-up mammogram four days later — this time using the latest high-tech 3-D mammography — revealed an additional 1.5 centimeter growth. Subsequent biopsies confirmed she had cancer.
In August Kellie had the implant surgery portion of her treatment plan – a surgery that gave her two silicone-filled breasts that replicate those she once had naturally. In December, the final step of the breast reconstruction process concludes. “My breasts will be a size smaller than before, so that’s a positive too,” Kellie said.
“For me the double mastectomy was the right choice. It helped me with my peace of mind,” Kellie said. “There is no second guessing if there may be some cancer in the other breast. In this difficult time, it offered me comfort to know that I was going to have new breasts that would continue to build my body image and strength as a woman.”
The ability to share her story and connect with people, along with all the support she received from family and friends, has helped Kellie move through her cancer journey. “The support of my husband, my uber-driver in-laws and the rest of my family and friends has been amazing.”
A quote that I have identified with throughout this process is: “You never know how strong you are until being strong is the only choice you have.”
Kellie feels her mother, who unfortunately has passed away, may have helped her through the process. “My diagnosis occurred around the six-year anniversary of my mother’s early death from lung cancer,” Kellie said. “I feel she had a hand in my diagnosis. She led me to the early detection so I could live on to watch over our family and be a positive light.”