Cancer shaped Relay co-chair

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, June 27, 2006

By Kari Lucin, staff writer

Mandy Grzybowski wasn’t too worried when she found a pea-sized lump in her breast during one of her monthly self-examinations. She was pregnant and only 32, so she waited until she had her daughter Elise and finished breast-feeding before she had it checked out.

The lump was breast cancer.

&8220;It was sort of surprising. Even my husband said &8216;Well, it’s probably nothing but you need to get it checked out,’&8221; Mandy said. &8220;Your chances of getting breast cancer when you’re 30, it’s some astronomically small number.&8221;

Her daughter Elise was just four months old when she started chemotherapy. She also had two young sons, Scott, 6, and Keith, 3. Her husband, John, a doctor, started doing most of the housework and his sister Alissa Grzybowski even came to help out on days Mandy had chemo.

&8220;It wasn’t easy, but we survived,&8221; Mandy said. &8220;They have a lot of anti-nausea medicines to help you not feel like you’re going to throw up all the time. I didn’t feel good, and I don’t want to do it again, but it wasn’t as bad as I thought it was going to be.&8221;

She had to go in for chemotherapy every two weeks, and got shots to keep her white blood cell count up so that her immune system would be able to cope. Once, Mandy spent six days in the hospital because of a pneumothorax, a bit of air in a place between her lung and the rest of her chest. She even had to take steroids.

&8220;I felt like my jaw was clenched all the time,&8221; Mandy said, recalling how the steroids made her feel.

After four months of chemotherapy, she started two months of radiation treatments.

&8220;That wasn’t too bad,&8221; Mandy said. &8220;The worst part about radiation is, you have to sit with your hands up over your head, and my arms would fall asleep every time. And you have to lay really still.&8221;

She spent the time praying for people going through cancer treatments. And she still has the tiny tattoos the doctors used to line up her body for radiation.

Though Mandy decided to have a lumpectomy and keep her breast, she also decided to have a hysterectomy, a controversial surgery that removed her uterus.

&8220;John and I often joke that I’m not technically a girl anymore because I don’t have any of the equipment,&8221; Mandy said. &8220;I guess I was kind of lucky in that I was able to have a choice, that I was able to have a lumpectomy instead of a mastectomy. And a lot of women now opt for reconstruction.&8221;

She wasn’t bothered much by losing her hair, and when it started falling out she had her head shaved, like many other cancer patients.

&8220;I guess the one thing that really bothers me now is that, now that I’m done with treatment, people seem to kind of expect me to forget about it and move on. You’re done with chemo, you’re done with everything, just live your life,&8221; Mandy said. &8220;And living your life is what I’m doing. It’s just sort of hard. Every ache and pain brings anxiety.&8221;

These days, John, a family practice doctor at the Albert Lea Medical Center, still does plenty of work around the house. Mandy is still a stay-at-home mom, and her kids still pray for her every night before they go to bed.

&8220;They say &8216;Please let mom be cured,’ which is really cute,&8221; Mandy said.

She learned a lot from her experience.

&8220;I always tell people, make sure that you take help when it’s offered. Always try, too, to make sure that you understand everything that the doctors and nurses are talking to you about, be very involved in your care. Make sure you stick up for yourself because you’re your best advocate,&8221; Mandy said.

She recommends that family members of cancer patients take as much time off as possible to focus on the person going through treatment as well as on themselves, keeping supportive but relaxed as possible.

Now Mandy gets blood tests every four months to make sure she doesn’t develop leukemia as a side effect of her chemotherapy. She also gets chest X-rays every year as well as a mammogram, a breast MRI and a bone scan.

&8220;I almost have osteoporosis,&8221; Mandy said. &8220;That’s from the effects of the chemo and the medication I take. I have to drink plenty of milk, but I’m also starting to take this medication that’s supposed to increase bone density. Weightlifting is supposed to be helpful, so I try to exercise a bit.&8221;

She was still going through treatment when she first participated in the American Cancer Society Relay for Life, and was still completely bald. Last year was the first year she camped out at the Relay, staying overnight with her sister.

This year Mandy is one of two honorary cochairs of the Freeborn County Relay for Life, and she’ll be helping with advertising and media events and talking about her experience with cancer at the event on Aug. 11.

&8220;I just think that people should appreciate every single day,&8221; Mandy said. &8220;Be nice to other people, because you just never know what tomorrow will bring for you or that other person.&8221;