Anna Mehl lives in Champaign with her husband Mark Althouse and 9-year-old daughter, Dara. Anna works as a program coordinator with Online & Continuing Education at the University of Illinois. First diagnosed with breast cancer at 37 and re-diagnosed at 42, she has been cancer-free since 2009. Anna is an active member of the Young Survival Coalition’s Champaign-Urbana affiliate, which will be hosting a one-day symposium of educational and fun sessions focusing on the needs and issues of young women facing breast cancer on Saturday, Nov. 3.
See why we think Anna Mehl is a Chambana Mom to Know.
Q: How has breast cancer impacted your life?
A: I used to question my purpose in life, but today I understand that life is a gift and age is a privilege. And I am grateful to be here – even with wrinkles coming on and other aging changes! I was first diagnosed with very early-stage breast cancer at age 37 in 2005 when my daughter was 2 years old. My prognosis was great with low odds of recurrence. I felt like I had beat cancer because I did everything right – cycling during and after treatment, eating right and taking care of myself. But, four years later at age 42, the cancer had recurred in the original site. I was completely shocked and angry. More frightening, a larger mass was revealed in another area deep on the other side – this turned out to be pre-cancerous. I chose the most aggressive action possible – a bilateral mastectomy. Chemo and radiation were not needed as I was early stage. After slogging through the surgery, I was mad and sad for a while. And part of me thought “why try to be healthy if this could still happen again.”
I have a wonderful, supportive husband, Mark. His strength and belief in me pulled me through my negativity. Breast cancer has taught me that there are some things in life I am completely powerless over. Being cancer free today is not because I fought harder than anyone else or because my prayers to be cured were answered. I have lost dear friends who loved life more than me and had a much stronger desire to live. The fact I am cancer free now is strictly about early intervention, medical technology and the luck of the draw. The best I can do is try to live a good life and do my best to be good to myself and others, because I don’t know what will happen next.
Q: How is your health today?
A: I have been cancer free for three-and-a-half years. I’m still working out some of the post-surgery muscular issues and adjusting to my new body image. I wish I could exercise more, but what the heck, I think all busy moms wish that, right?
Q: Why did you get involved with YSC?
A: The first time I was diagnosed there was no local affiliate. Also, I felt I didn’t really need the extra support. However, I met one of our affiliate founders, Leslie Hammersmith, at a baby shower for a mutual friend just weeks before I was re-diagnosed. Our meeting was serendipitous, because when I received news about the second diagnosis, Leslie and the women of YSC were there for me. It helped so much to have them to talk to before I had my surgery. The support they provided while I waited for my pathology report after surgery was a life saver. I was so afraid, but they had walked the path before me so I knew I could do it too. They told me everything I could expect along the way. It was much easier facing it with them than alone. That’s when I decided I wanted to be there for others and became part of YSC.
Q: Please tell us about the symposium, who should attend, and what you hope the results will be.
A: The You Are Not Alone Symposium (YANA) will be on Nov. 3 at Parkland College. It will be a full day of educational and fun sessions focusing on the needs and issues of young women facing breast cancer. Registration is open to newly diagnosed young women, thrivers of any age, health care professionals, women dealing with high cancer risk, caregivers and anyone seeking connections and support for dealing with breast cancer. The program features keynotes by nationally recognized Nutritionist Dr. Jim Painter and Para Olympian Anjali Forber-Pratt.
Topics include nutrition, genetics, talking with your children about your diagnosis, sexuality and survivor, living with metastatic disease, supportive therapy to enhance wellness and more. Also, local physicians will be speaking at the “Q&A with Oncologists” after lunch. This day is purely educational and the $10 registration fee is to cover lunch costs.
Q: We haven’t written too much about Breast Cancer Awareness Month because of Pink Fatigue. What is Pink Fatigue and how can we be mindful of it?
A: Thanks for your sensitivity to this issue. My concern with overdoing Pinktober and other “Pink” awareness activities is that it can trivialize the disease and desensitize the general public about how serious and life-threatening breast cancer can be. The fight is NOT about saving breasts, it’s about saving womens lives. I feel some activities are focused on breasts not on the importance of the lives of the women they are attached to! Also, there is always the concern that corporations are capitalizing on the public interest and fear about the disease.
That being said – I want everyone to know that I am a beneficiary of increased awareness and research money raised by such campaigns. For this I am deeply grateful. My grandmother died at 39 with the disease before the technology and awareness existed. Had it not been for early detection (twice) and proper treatment, I would not be alive. I still wear a pink ribbon on certain days. I do it for myself because I earned it, but I also do it to honor those who have gone before me and are still fighting, or who did not survive. Most importantly, there’s always a chance the pink ribbon on my lapel will start a conversation that will help another woman who is about to be diagnosed. I encourage everyone to continue to support legitimate fundraising and awareness. Please know it does make a difference.
Q: What does it mean to you to be a survivor?
A: I am fortunate to be a “survivor.” This implies I am on the “other side” of the disease. But in truth, all survivors are still “fighters”. We live with the fear and the reality of recurrence. The average age of diagnosis for breast cancer is 61. When you are diagnosed in your 30’s, you have 40 or 50 years ahead to worry about whether or not the disease will come back. At age 61, you’ve seen your children grow and may even have met your grandchildren. But a woman diagnosed at 35 does not have the benefit of age and the experience of being present for all of those important milestones in her children’s lives. I see moms with children older than mine and I think to myself: “Will I still be here when Dara turns 13, or when she graduates from High School or …(fill in the blank).” Recurrence, even for someone who was early stage like me, is a constant worry. The women of YSC are there for each other through this type of thing and we support those among us who are still fighting.
Q: Has breast cancer affected your parenting? If so, how?
A: The breast cancer experience has clarified my sense of purpose. I know exactly where I need to be – present for my daughter and my husband. I was re-diagnosed right before Dara’s 6th birthday and I am very up front with her about the cancer and mastectomies. We speak openly about the fact breast cancer and other diseases are a risk. We also discuss the fact that bad things happen to good people. I’ve tried to impress upon her the importance of helping others and being part of the community around her – friends, people from our Temple and others who love us and who will help carry us through hard times. She’s super strong and enthusiastic about life. My hope for her is that technology will advance so she does not have to face this disease. And, if she does have to, she will not be alone; she will be surrounded by a circle of support.
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