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.