Stories of Hope
Breast Cancer Survivor Finds Her Voice
Article date: March 20, 2003
Filled with emotions, I edged toward the survivor tent. I asked for a pink bandana and wore it on my belt loop and admitted in the safety of a huge crowd that I had survived breast cancer.
On a clear summer evening at a waterside yacht club in Stamford, Connecticut the lessons and hardships of a four-year-long cancer experience all came together for Elizabeth April-Fritz. This petite mother of two nervously shared her story with a large audience gathered to kick-off a Making Strides Against Breast Cancer event. By the end of her talk, she had a standing ovation and the conviction that her story could bring strength and hope to others affected by cancer.
"It was invigorating. The idea that I touched people was just great," remembers April-Fritz. Together with her sisters and parents, she went on to raise more than $6,000 at the Making Strides walk (an American Cancer Society event).
April-Fritz didn't come by her hopeful, appreciate-each-day feelings easily. She tells people it took three battles with breast cancer for her to "get it." In March 1998, at age 38, she found a lump in her right breast. She had a lumpectomy with the removal of a few lymph nodes, and tried to put the experience behind her.
"It was a big secret. I was vain and embarrassed. I went with the least aggressive chemo because I absolutely did not want to lose my hair," she explained. "This is a small town," she added, referring to her hometown, Pound Ridge, New York. A few months later at her first Making Strides walk she began to let down her guard. She saw women wearing bright pink bandanas and edged toward the survivor's tent with mixed emotions.
"I asked for a pink bandana and wore it on my belt loop and admitted in the safety of a huge crowd that I had survived breast cancer." Owning up to being a survivor was the beginning of a healing process.
Don't Uncork the Wine Yet
The two-year check up came, and April-Fritz was sure she'd be celebrating with wine later in the evening after getting a clean bill of health. But her doctor found a suspicious lump under her right arm; then an ultrasound scan showed a new mass in her right breast. Surgery removed the lumps and April-Fritz began strong chemotherapy this time.
Her sister, Suzi April, convinced her to shave her head before tufts of hair began falling out. So just before her 41st birthday, she went with the bald look. Wigs weren't her style, "…so every outfit from April until September was oh-so coordinated to make sure the do rags matched the rest."
April-Fritz joined a weekly cancer support group on her sister's recommendation. "She just said, 'You're doing this!'" says April-Fritz. She drew strength from hearing other people's stories—a strength that helped her decide whether to have a double mastectomy. Doctors told her the surgery could help prevent the disease from coming back again in some situations, but her disease was not an exact fit, so the choice was up to her.
"The hardest part about this illness is the fear of not being around for my children," April-Fritz explained. "I want to grow my children. I really want to be here." Daughters Kyra and Julia were, respectively, 8 years old and 3 years old, when their mother was first diagnosed. "Every time they get their feet on the ground, the rug is pulled out from under them," she said.
April-Fritz went ahead with the double mastectomy for any protection it might offer from a return of the cancer. And she began to "get it" — to slow down and enjoy the little things. "How fortunate for me to live every day with a sense of appreciation," she now explains. She agreed to speak at the kick-off meeting for Making Strides.
"Haven't I Done EVERYTHING Recommended?"
The inspiring speech April-Fritz gave that summer evening in Stamford, Connecticut had another amazing, infuriating, "why-me?" chapter. Two of three phases of breast reconstruction were finished, when the doctor found another malignant mass. From April-Fritz's speech:
"The reality of the possibility of being diagnosed with cancer again is simply too unbelievable to imagine. I mean, haven't I done everything recommended? …I have a lot of living left to do."
The mass was removed and scans showed April-Fritz had no other signs of cancer. But the team of doctors explained that cancer appeared to be a chronic disease for her and it would return. Since then, regular treatments with trastuzumab (Herceptin) and letrozole (Femara) have kept April-Fritz healthy, along with love, family, and an exploration of alternative healing practices.
A massage therapist gently suggested she stop talking about "fighting" cancer and think about "dancing with cancer."
"I realize now it (cancer) is beside me each and every day," said April-Fritz. But while she accepts the disease, she intends to live a long, full life. "I believe my beautiful daughters deserve to have their mom on this earth, mothering them from this side, standing firmly and full of health. I look forward to being a grandmother to their beautiful children one day."
April-Fritz gathered her courage and spoke to a crowd of 4,000 people at last fall's Making Strides walk, explaining her plans to raise more money to fight breast cancer. "And God willing, I will see you all next year full of the spirit and healthy life that I pray for every day."