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Dr. Cynthia Wilcox-Rittgers celebrates her 60th birthday this month, a milestone of monumental significance for the 10-year breast cancer survivor.

She was diagnosed a few months before her 50th birthday, after her doctor discovered a pea-sized lump in her breast during an annual examination. A biopsy showed it was cancerous.

“It just changed my view of turning 50,” the Rohnert Park resident said. “I really grieved for a while. I didn’t know I would even survive 10 years.”

A retired clinical psychologist, Wilcox-Rittgers still had a full-time private practice in Petaluma when she was diagnosed. With decades of experience helping clients through personal struggles, she knew one thing with great certainty: Breast cancer would not prevent her from making a difference for others.

“I suffered so much that I wanted to turn it into something good,” she said.

Everything she endured, she reasoned, would deepen her understanding of the devastation of a cancer diagnosis and all that follows. She’d already lost her mother to cancer, and had no place in her busy life for the arduous treatments that were to come.

“It’s a traumatic, shocking moment,” Wilcox-Rittgers said of being diagnosed. “That moment and the month that follows. It’s the shock of it.”

With Stage 2, Grade 2, progesterone-positive invasive ductal carcinoma, Wilcox-Rittgers endured a series of treatments to give her the best outcome for survival and longevity.

She went through four months of chemotherapy that left her “extremely ill;” had a lumpectomy to remove her tumor (with a large area of her breast taken), followed by then-experimental reconstructive surgery; plus more than 30 sessions of daily radiation.

Her treatment plan also included taking an aromatase inhibitor for five years to block the aromatase enzyme from making estrogen. She still gets testosterone implants. “It helps increase the quality of my life.”

Wilcox-Rittgers found hope and inspiration among others battling breast cancer.

She attended the American Cancer Society’s Relay for Life when she was still so ill she wasn’t certain she could walk the entire Survivors’ Lap around the high school track. Bald, and decked out in pink attire, she pushed through; a decade later, Relay for Life is a tradition that continues to empower her.

She’s raised money for cancer research and patient services through “Cynthia’s Village Team,” a group of friends and relatives who’ve supported the Relay for Life campaign for a decade. She’s been an inspirational speaker and credits other survivors with giving her a sense of optimism.

“It helped me with my healing,” she said. “It was the first time I realized you could survive this and, through other women, find hope.”

Wilcox-Rittgers also facilitated breast cancer support groups sponsored by the Women’s Cancer Awareness Group in Petaluma for several years, providing a safe and nurturing environment for women to express their feelings, gain coping skills and discover resources.

She found that as women became comfortable and embraced within the group and told their stories, they often “fell apart” and shared feelings of anxiety and depression.

“Then you start to see them slowly transforming,” she said. “Then they’re helping others. That was part of the cycle that was wonderful.”

She was nominated for a “Woman of the Year” award for her work, a recognition from the Women’s Cancer Awareness Group.

Wilcox-Rittgers is grateful for her 10 years of survivorship, but acknowledges there have been significant side effects to her cancer treatments. Some are ongoing, like the “chemo brain” that sometimes leaves her with cognitive struggles, like momentary memory loss as she tries to recall common words or phrases.

She’s endured hair loss, weight gain, skin changes, scarring, body-temperature fluctuations, extreme fatigue, nausea, lymphedema, dental problems, restriction of movement and severe joint pain, some issues complicated by a preexisting chronic medical condition.

She also shares struggles with something many find too awkward or embarrassing to address — changes in intimacy and sexual function.

“We can have sex on all the TV shows but we can’t talk about sexual health.”

Partners are impacted, sometimes uncertain how to approach such a sensitive subject. The impacts can be ongoing and far-reaching, she said.

“It’s the whole family, like a bomb hit your whole house. Even the dog,” she said. “Everybody is affected, not just the woman. Everybody copes with cancer differently, and every woman is affected differently.”

She endorses an integrative treatment model that emphasizes every patient’s need for compassion, empathy, dignity and respect — something of universal importance for physical and psychological health and healing.

Wilcox-Rittgers credits the care provided by the Cancer Survivorship Program in Santa Rosa and its nationally recognized medical director, Dr. Amy Shaw, “the kind of doctor every doctor should be.”

Some of Wilcox-Rittger’s own experiences were less than acceptable, like changing into a drape for treatments and then being directed to sit in a public waiting room to be called in for sessions.

When she expressed her concerns and discomfort, she was invited to wait in a restroom. She ultimately consulted with a social worker to pursue changes in protocol.

Even as Wilcox-Rittgers was ill and fatigued, “I had to fight to be treated with respect and dignity,” she said. “I’ve had to advocate over and over and over again.”

She found the strength to fight not just for herself, but for every patient who would follow her. She wants women to recognize they deserve a standard of care that’s sometimes overlooked.

“You’re not just a breast or a set of breasts. You need to be treated as a whole person. This is where the medical system is still lacking,” she said.

In her support work with breast cancer patients, she’s discovered a sisterhood deepened by shared experiences. Today, in her private work as a women’s wellness coach and support and education group facilitator, she continues to bring empathy and understanding to her clients, and the advocacy skills from her journey with breast cancer.

“By being a psychologist, there was a place to take my lessons and be of service,” she said. “I thought if I can get through this, I can turn it into something to help other cancer patients.”

One thing typical of many women with breast cancer is a sense of derailment. The diagnosis gets in the way of everyday tasks, milestones, responsibilities and plans. Wilcox-Rittgers was newly diagnosed and racing from an initial medical appointment that made her late to her son Nick’s high school graduation, a memory still upsetting to her.

“I got there late. I didn’t see him walk out,” she said. “This is what we women go through. There’s no room for it in our lives. It’s very challenging.”

As her 60th birthday approaches on Oct. 18, she’s looking forward to some relaxing time with her husband, Terry, a marriage and family therapist and clinical services manager in San Mateo County.

“It feels like a profound moment, turning 60 and 10 years of survivorship,” she said. “It’s a time of reflection for me.”

Wilcox-Rittgers considers herself “privileged” to help other women struggling with breast cancer.

“No woman should have to go through a cancer journey alone,” she said. “I’m here to say you can get through it.”

For more information, call 707-364-2170 or visit womenswellnessservices.org

Contact Towns Correspondent Dianne Reber Hart at sonomatowns@gmail.com

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