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Bayer Scapes

My Journey of Transformation through Breast Cancer

By Lisa Tecklenburg, Vice President and General Manager, US Pain/Cardio, Consumer Health Division, Bayer

6 weeks before diagnosis

Cancer isn’t a stranger to anyone. We’ve all known someone who has gone through it or is going through it. Saying it’s not easy is an understatement, and explaining your experience seems somewhat impossible.

My story, like many people‘s, is one of transformation. There‘s a quote from a movie that I think about often when considering my experience, “Don’t forget to notice the collateral beauty.“ In the midst of a truly terrible experience, there is often incidental beauty and even unexpected joy. I found cancer widened my view, in the sense that I experienced great pain, struggle, fear and the unexpected dark sides to certain people close to me. That was all very real, but what was also real was the even greater love, hope, joy, and unexpected — even unnecessary — sacrifices of my family and my friends. I’m so grateful for all the people who helped me and my wish is to pay it forward.

“Rockin’ a bad hair day”

All is lost

On November 30, 2016, my doctor called me with the news: “I’m sorry; you have advanced stage breast cancer.“ I was 35 and healthy. I just finished my third Ironman and had narrowly missed qualifying for the world championships in Kona. Life was good until that day when I knew for sure that my body had betrayed me. I was told I’d likely never swim again, which meant I would never again compete in an Ironman race, and that I’d never even feel the same.

Work

Do I share this or do I hide it? It’s scary to share at work what you‘re going through. What if people don’t think you can do your job? What if you can’t? Who will judge you? Who will step up to help and support you?

Napping post an epic powder day at Alta with my Brother Brian

I chose to share my news about what was going on and to continue in my role. It’s a personal decision, but for me working was my escape. It was the one place where I could think hard enough to remove thoughts of cancer from my mind.

I came into work in bald glory, spiced up with earrings and necklaces everyday. This taught me to let people handle their struggles in their own way, not my way. Some people cheered for me, and that was helpful and inspiring! Many people shared with me who in their family was going through the same thing. I loved that. I loved being able to show up and smile and give a sense to others that maybe their family members could be okay on chemo and other treatment. This inspired me to smile and push through the hard days, try to have fun and do normal things (skiing) during treatment and ignore anyone who said silly things that were likely unintentionally hurtful.

Bald really is beautiful

Shaving my head for the first time with my dad

I was soooo scared to lose my hair! I loooved my long blond straight hair. For my first drug, only 87% of people lose their hair. I only lost about half of mine and got to keep my eyelashes and eyebrows. It also was a time when buzz cuts were very in so sometimes people would say things like, “That’s an extreme haircut, do you like it?“ My response was always, “Yes, but it’s the most expensive haircut I’ve ever had.“

The greatest part of being bald is how easy showering is. Fixing your hair takes no time at all, and when you feel awful, a quick getting ready routine is beyond helpful.

My hair did this on its own!

On the flip side, my hair grew back thicker, darker and curly. I have no idea how to style it and it’s been an adventure all along the way. Someday I may figure it out. :)

Everything can be funny

Humor was my greatest medicine. I laughed at everything, especially my bald head. Chemo is scary for many reasons including the drugs and the whole unknown to a serious medical experience. I sat next to other patients getting chemo, which made it even scarier. You’d hear the alarms go off and it started to immediately make you feel nauseous. So I would tell funny stories to everyone and try to make it easier. My goal was to make everyone in the hospital laugh. I realized this was likely the hardest time for everyone. It’s not easy for the healthcare professionals either. They have to deliver bad news and see people at their worst all the time. Sometimes I didn’t know how they would go home happy after what they would see everyday.

Telling jokes to my sister Sandy for my last chemo treatment

Turning points

Six weeks into 20 weeks of chemo, my tumor shrank 91%. I decided a party was in order! In all my bald-is-beautiful-glory, I sat down next to a boy I’d never met. His name was Eric. He told me his dad was diagnosed with breast cancer at the same time I was, and we chatted all night. When he left, he asked his friend if it would be weird if he tried to get my number. His friend said, “No; you’re going to marry her.“ Well, sure enough, just like a Hallmark movie, Eric and I got married about a year later and just nine days after my last surgery.

Through 20 weeks of Chemo and 34 doses of radiation and six surgeries, I tried to stay active and in some sort of shape. However, by the end of chemo, I couldn’t run a mile. I was unable to move my arm enough to swim. I took more than twice as long to ride 50 miles for charity with many breaks. But, one day at a time, I just kept going.

On August 18, I was declared cancer free, and it was time to “get back to normal.“ I had a little more muscle and I was significantly less sick but I still had two surgeies to get through before I could really start training.

Ironman one year post treatment? Are you crazy?

I wanted to try to do an Ironman again. I got a special reconstruction surgery that would allow me to swim. I loved having doctors who cared about what I wanted to do. But the recovery from chemo, radiation and six surgeries is HARD, and there’s ongoing treatment. People always ask, “So do you feel great now?“ Here’s the real deal…NO WAY!

Many of the people who helped me thrive! Shelley, Emmy, Natalie, Welela, Sarah, Stephen, Kate, Addie, Laurel, Tara, Eric, Brian, Nikki

Ongoing treatment is hard. Side effects are less than awesome. (Google them if you want to know!) However, I grew up believing I could do hard things and that I could find a way to overcome challenges, so I had to try.

I started to train in April 2018 and had one year before Ironman Texas, where I would invite all of my MD Anderson Cancer Center healthcare professionals to come. I just wanted to finish, and that would be hard enough. Training was harder than it had ever been, but I just kept going. I considered this race to be not just for me, but for everyone who helped me, inspired me and fought for me. I needed to show them that their sacrifice was important. On April 27, 2019 I completed my fastest Ironman and qualified for world championships in Kona. So the accomplishment was so much bigger than me!

Kona Qualified with Eric!

The story is never over

I don’t know what the future holds, but courage comes one day at a time. My family, friends, and even people I’d never met gave me courage and hope that I didn’t think I had. For that, I am grateful and as strange as it sounds, I wouldn’t trade it to not have had cancer. In the same vein, though, cancer can go the other way and not everyone’s experience will mirror my own. Cancer has taken many, and there are others who are still fighting with metastatic disease. It’s hard and it’s sad. But hope and love can help us overcome challenges.

I’m grateful to work for a company that is focused on Science for a Better Life and has made, and continues to make, big investments in the fight against cancer. Together we can have more fulfilling journeys and notice the incidental beauty of this great world.

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