Twenty years later, Santa Rosa breast cancer survivor turns advocate
Nancy Witherell used to be something of a comic for cancer.
Inside she was broken in pieces, a young mother with an aggressive breast cancer made all the more ominous by the fact that she was pregnant when it was discovered. But humor, including antics like painting her bald head pumpkin orange for Halloween and topping it off with a green toilet paper stem - helped her survive a dark time when an early death seemed inevitable.
At one time she even dabbled in stand-up cancer comedy, with a lot of riffs on hair - or lack thereof.
Twenty years later, the Santa Rosa woman looks back on that traumatic time with a more sober perspective, while rejoicing in the rich midlife she never expected to have. After years as an artist, a path cut from her painful walk through cancer, she has a new career as an art placement consultant for medical facilities, senior retirement homes and hospitals, including the new Sutter Santa Rosa Regional Hospital. And she’s planning a 20-year cancer anniversary “glamping party” in the Gold Country with friends and family to celebrate life.
“There’s nothing about cancer that is funny to me any more,” said Witherell, who looks younger than 52, with short girlish curls and brown eyes. “But my life is funny. I have a lot of fun. I have a great time laughing all by myself during the day. My friends would tell you I’m funny, but there’s nothing about cancer that is funny.”
Witherell is happy and grateful to be one of the survivors. Many of the friends she made in the months and early years after her diagnosis, some who took their cancer humor to even greater lengths, didn’t make it.
Witherell, then known as Nancy Bellen, shared her early struggle in a Press Democrat story that ran in 1998 while she was still running for her life. She stepped forward to share what has happened since then in hopes that other women with breast cancer will take heart in her happy ending and know that cancer is not an automatic death sentence.
“People need to know you can live,” she said. “And the people who love you need to know that, too.”
Raise her son
Cancer patients are frequently referred to as fighters. Witherell’s battle objective was surviving to raise her son, who was 3 when her doctor discovered a nickel-sized lump in her breast during a routine prenatal exam. It was Sept. 27, 1996, and she was eight weeks pregnant at the time.
Within a week, the hormone-fueled lump was the size of a golf ball, visible through her skin. After a biopsy showed it was malignant, she terminated the pregnancy to save her life, a decision she describes as “unspeakably difficult” and still difficult today. She and her then-husband Tim Bellen never had a second child.
“I have come to peace with it,” she said. “But it took a very, very long time.”
Ending the pregnancy slowed the cancer. But Witherell, who was only 32 at the time and working as a video and film producer and editor, still faced an uphill battle, including a brutal double punch of radiation and chemotherapy.
Breast cancer in women under 40 is rare, only about 7 percent of the 226,870 cases of invasive breast cancer diagnosed each year in the U.S. Their relative five-year survival rate is lower than for older women, 82 percent compared to 89 percent for women over 40, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Throw in a pregnancy, and survival rates drop even further. And this was 20 years ago. Right after her diagnosis Witherell picked up a library copy of “Dr. Susan Love’s Breast Book,” the bible for breast health. Love’s few paragraphs on young pregnant women with the disease painted a dismal picture.
Witherell attacked the odds with every tool. She participated in clinical trials, including what was then a new approach of undergoing chemotherapy before surgery, which entailed a lumpectomy instead of a mastectomy.
For five years she took the maximum dose of Tamoxifin, which can suppress a cancer recurrence for up to 10 years. She worked as an artist and photographer whose images explored and questioned traditional views of beauty, particularly around breast cancer, and was a leading grassroots advocate for women with breast cancer in Sonoma County.
After 11 years, however, she could no longer bear the constant anxiety and the testing around lesions that kept appearing in her breasts. She had endured more than 60 mammograms and countless MRIs, and lived with the one-in-six chance of a recurrence hanging over her head, a risk she describes as akin to “walking across the street every day without looking for cars.” Witherell finally opted for a double mastectomy and painful breast reconstruction. She was finally liberated from fear, but it was not good on her already faltering marriage.