Local women battling cancer share their stories of hope
October 13, 2013
Steamboat Springs — In the middle of the night two winters ago, Carol Chapman woke up with an itch. And when she scratched that itch, Chapman felt a lump in her breast. "I was scared and kept it to myself."
After nine months of wondering and worrying because she didn't have health insurance, Chapman said she had to find out what the lump was, so she went to the Northwest Colorado Visiting Nurse Association clinic in Steamboat Springs.
The staff there did a thorough exam and told Chapman she needed to have a mammogram and an ultrasound done. Chapman was afraid she couldn't afford the tests, but she soon found out that she qualified for care through the Women's Wellness Connection program offered by the VNA.
A biopsy followed, and two days later, Chapman received the news she had been fearing — the lump in her breast was cancer.
"The bottom dropped out for me," said Chapman. "What the hell do I do now?"
It didn't take long for Chapman to find her answer. The oncology team at Yampa Valley Medical Center quickly took over and began setting up the necessary appointments and offering her around-the-clock support.
Chapman said her brother, Mark Sanders, went with her to her first doctor's appointment, and he was reassured by the level of care the local hospital offered.
"He said, 'No one should have to have breast cancer, but if you have to have it, this is the place to have it,'" Chapman said.
Chapman underwent a mastectomy Oct. 19, 2012, and she discovered chemotherapy also was necessary. Her first chemo session was Jan. 8.
"To me, the hardest thing was listening to the drip," Chapman said. "But everybody took care of me. It was something I didn't want to go through, but I got through because of everyone else."
Chapman said the support she received from the team at the hospital and from her co-workers at Steamboat Village Brokers made the difference in her ability to battle cancer. She only missed a day and a half of work during her treatment, and it was the routine of work that kept her sane.
"If you can keep moving, you can get through it," Chapman said. "Everybody enveloped me. The people here wrapped their arms around me. They took care of me. No one should ever have to live through this, but it was a good experience in the long run."
Now on maintenance, Chapman has blood work done and visits the doctor every three months. She's convinced the cancer is gone and not coming back.
"We're done," Chapman said.
A private person, Chapman agreed to speak about her cancer as a way of "giving back" because of the extraordinary care she received during her treatment.
"I want women to know that there are people there (at the YVMC) to help you," Chapman said. "If you're anxious, if you don't have insurance, if you can't pay, they aren't going to let you fall. And don't wait, especially if you live here in the Valley. They're going to take care of you."
And as difficult as the experience was for Chapman, she can still find the good.
"My mother passed away 20 years ago last February. I had an experience then where a hawk came to visit me," Chapman shared. "On the day I found out I had cancer, I went to my brother's house and I took a walk down by the river by myself. I looked up in the sky and there was a hawk. It was floating, making lazy circles in the sky, and I felt like my mom had come back to look after me."
As an emergency room nurse at Yampa Valley Medical Center, Kris Tratiak is cool under pressure, but when she discovered a lump in her right breast during a breast self-exam 4 1/2 years ago, she said she "freaked out."
Tratiak immediately called her doctor and he saw her the same day.
"It's important to just do it rather than wait," Tratiak said.
A week later, Tratiak had a biopsy performed and she found out she had cancer. Because it was a fast-growing form of cancer, Tratiak underwent a lumpectomy the following week.
Chemotherapy also was part of Tratiak's breast cancer treatment. and she completed her chemo at the YVMC Infusion Center.
"I went every three weeks for four rounds," Tratiak said. "I'm a tough Russian girl, and I worked the whole time."
After her chemo, Tratiak went through six weeks of radiation. She went to Edwards Mondays through Fridays and stayed at Jack's Place, a cancer care house associated with Shaw Regional Cancer Center where cancer patients can stay while receiving treatment.
"I considered it my radiation vacation," Tratiak said. "I could go and not have to deal with anything but myself. I went home on weekends."
Thanks to her active lifestyle, her faith and support from her husband and the oncology team at YVMC, Tratiak persevered through treatment and has put cancer in her "past life."
"There's times when I totally forget I had cancer because I'm OK now," Tratiak said.
Dealing with cancer also taught the strong-willed Tratiak that leaning on others for help also is OK.
"I don't like to depend on other people to help me," Tratiak said. "But you have to be willing to let people help you. It's important for friends and family to be allowed to help. Let them."
Tratiak remains a strong advocate for breast self-exams and regular mammograms.
"If you find something, it's better to get it checked," Tratiak said. "So many women feel something and then go into denial.
"Don't be afraid of what it's going to be because it's not going to make it go away."
Eva Stewart considers herself one of the lucky ones because her breast cancer was discovered early.
On Oct. 17, 2012, Stewart had her annual mammogram and she said everything looked good. Then two days before Christmas, Stewart was laying in bed doing a breast self-exam and felt a "gnarly lump."
"I knew right away," Stewart said. "Breasts are bumpy, lumpy places, but I could tell it was a cancer bump. It was very hard and irregular."
Stewart went to Yampa Valley Medical's Cancer Care Center and had a diagnostic mammogram and ultrasound done. A biopsy followed, and Stewart was diagnosed with Stage 1 breast cancer during the first week of the new year.
Because it was an aggressive form of cancer, Stewart underwent six weeks of radiation at Swedish Hospital in Denver.
"I packed up my two cats and headed to Denver," Stewart said. "It ended up being my first summer vacation in 30 years."
Stewart was accompanied to radiation daily by her 6-year-old grandchild who lives in Denver. Her 10-year-old and 13-year-old grandchildren from Steamboat joined her for three of the six weeks.
"They loved radiation because of the elevators and the automatic doors," said Stewart. "They drank hot chocolate and did jigsaw puzzles." And with radiation done by 10 a.m., Stewart and her grandchildren spent the rest of the day shopping, going out to eat and swimming at the pool.
"It was fun and ended up being a nice thing," Stewart said.
The radiation treatment was followed up by eight rounds of chemo that eventually claimed her hair. She now sports a short "Mia Farrow" haircut and is grateful for the care she received from Jan Fritz and Terry Chapman, her nurse navigators at the local Cancer Care center.
"The team they have here in Steamboat is awesome," Stewart said. "They give you their cellphone numbers, and they're always there. If I was laying at home, feeling terrible, I could call them. Or if I was crying because my hair was falling out, they offered me wigs and bandanas and hats. They were just incredible."
In her very public role as the front desk clerk at the Steamboat Post Office, Stewart also was blessed with an outpouring of support from the community.
"People tell me they're praying for me. They've given me gift certificates, they bring me soup and there have even been anonymous cash donations."
As Stewart continues to heal, she is focused on reclaiming normalcy in her life and getting stronger. She also has advice for other women.
"I don't know what causes cancer, but I can just advise people to be good to yourself, do self-checks, get mammograms. And the big thing is to catch it early.
"Right now, I'm just enjoying my grandkids and having fun," Stewart added. "Life is short."
Counting her blessings is one way Cheri Race copes with her Stage 4 breast cancer diagnosis.
"I have the attitude that no matter what the outcome, I've been blessed," Race said. "If I live, I'm blessed, but if I die, I'm blessed, too, because I know where I'm going."
The Craig resident, who receives chemotherapy treatments at Yampa Valley Medical Center's Infusion Center every 21 days, has been responding well to treatment and is doing much better than doctors expected, considering she also suffers from lupus, a chronic, autoimmune disease.
Race has been living with Stage 4 breast cancer since she was re-diagnosed on May 31, 2009, after being cancer free for four years. Two weeks before she received the news that her cancer had returned and metastasized, Race's husband lost his job and they found themselves without health insurance.
"Jan Fritz and Dr. (Allen) Cohn and all of them at Yampa Valley Medical Center were fantastic," Race said. "They helped me get medications through the pharmaceutical companies, and after I started treatment again, my husband got hired on at Twentymile. There's been one blessing after another."
Race is a firm believer in the importance of mammograms and breast self-exams. And she advises women to trust their instincts.
"If you feel there is something wrong, check it out," Race said. "I had a clean mammogram six months before I found the lump myself. If I hadn't found it, it would have been much worse in six more months."
Race also sings the praises of the oncology team at YVMC, who Race said are available 24/7 if needed.
"They don't make you feel like a patient," Race said, "they make you feel like you're part of a family."
Another source of strength for Race is her relationship with her six grandchildren. She and her husband take them camping, rock hounding and fishing whenever they have the chance. And during those trips, Race is teaching her family members how to live.
"I want them to know that no matter what life has dealt you, you can always find the good," Race said. "I want them to know that their grandmother may have cancer but cancer doesn't have their grandmother.
"I's not going to wrap myself in bubble wrap and sit on the couch," Race added. "I have cancer but I'm not going to stop living."