Twenty years later, Santa Rosa breast cancer survivor turns advocate

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Special Coverage: Breast Cancer Awareness

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.

Special Coverage: Breast Cancer Awareness

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.

Maximum dose

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.

“It was clear to me my primary commitment was to raise my son,” she said of each tough decision in her journey to recovery.

The effort paid off. Now almost 24, Wiley graduated this year from Chico State University and is living and working with his father, a television cameraman, in Southern California. A musician, he dreams of writing music. Now Witherell has an empty nest and is ready to put the disease behind her.

Sisterhood of knowing

Her relationships with fellow survivors are no longer just about the disease. In fact, she said, it rarely comes up. But these friends have a sisterhood of knowing, having faced death.

“At the end of the day, what matters is we’re here and we got to raise our kids. So we don’t complain about small things,” she said. “It’s not that we don’t have compassion for people who do complain about small things. We simply choose not to.”

Friend, fellow survivor and artist Jennifer Hirshfield said she and Witherell share a common mantra. Whenever something great happens, they quip, “This is a lot more fun than getting Adriamycin Cytoxan (a common chemo drug combination) put in our arm.”

The greatest new thing that has happened to Witherell is her career as a consultant, buying healing art and placing it in medical centers, senior living facilities and hospitals.

Her clients include Spring Lake Village, the senior retirement community in Santa Rosa, and Howard Memorial Hospital in Willits.

Her most significant client to date is the new Sutter Santa Rosa Hospital, where Witherell placed 364 paintings, photographs, etched glass and giclées by 29 artists, all local. Each piece was painstakingly selected and thoughtfully placed in just the right location of the 183,000-square-foot hospital to calm, soothe, comfort or distract patients and their families in an environment that, by its very purpose, can be scary.

“They let me do this. Who gets to do this? It’s like the Museum of Modern Art. How cool is that?” she said, brimming with enthusiasm on a recent walk through the hospital next to the Luther Burbank Center in north Santa Rosa.

There is art in every patient room, in little traveled hallways and even behind the information desk at the entrance. A giant vintage WPA-style mural by Martha Wade depicts historic scenes of the old hospital with patients, doctors, interns and families, greeting visitors as they step off the elevator onto the second floor. Another Martha Wade mural of giant poppies blooms behind the counter of the hospital’s upstairs bistro, subtly mimicking the building’s undulating portico roof outside the windows.

A huge polytriptych of Sonoma County landscapes by Healdsburg’s Alexander Harris lines a downstairs hallway and appears strikingly illuminated from the road at night through wide plate glass windows.

Ease transition

One task for Witherell was using art to ease employees through the stressful transition from the old hospital, where many had worked for years, to the gleaming new medical facility of Highway 101. She enlisted Healdsburg artist Sargam Griffin, who asked employees to submit words and symbols representing healing and compassion, then wove them into a dreamlike canvas.

In coming up with a plan, Witherell drew on her expertise and connections as an artist, as well as her personal experience in hospitals as a patient and a fearful parent on vigil. After surviving cancer and helping countless other women navigate the ordeal, Witherell found herself watching Wiley fight for his own life when he fell from his skateboard at 14, slamming his head on the cement and suffering a life-threatening traumatic brain injury. He spent a month in Santa Rosa Memorial Hospital only weeks after Witherell’s double mastectomy.

“I’m the true believer for art and healing,” she said. “I know it matters in hospitals and medical buildings. Wherever it is, art is essential.”

She remembers back in 1997 bringing a painting into the hospital room of a close friend who also had a pregnancy-related cancer diagnosis.

“It was a pastel that my mother-in-law had done and had been hanging on the wall of our home before I brought it to her. It was a woman looking out the window into an expanse,” Witherell said. “I was the model for the woman.”

When the friend was transferred to UCSF Medical Center, Witherell rode along in the ambulance, her friend clutching the canvas to place in her new room.

There is a whole psychology behind the selection of art in a hospital setting that goes far beyond aesthetics and interior design. She found herself clashing with some hospital employees who wanted the art to give the hospital the feeling of a spa, with vineyards and other idyllic Wine Country scenes.

“You’re not in a spa,” she said in a tone both soft and fierce. “If you’re a patient in these beds, it can be terrifying.” Research shows that the right kind of art for the sick can help “reduce fear and pain.”

“Patients prefer nature scenes and representational images as opposed to stylized or abstract art,” Witherell said. “Nature scenes are therapeutically beneficial, due to their large depth of field. The most vulnerable patients benefit from symmetry, clarity and color.”

In the labor and delivery waiting room, she commissioned Wade to do whimsical murals of Sonoma County egrets, evocative of storks without being cutesy or looking like a traditionally nursery.

“I wanted something fun and playful for children waiting for their siblings to be born,” she said. The pieces are so compelling that children have begun peeling at them, requiring a repair.

Witherell also determined patients want a focal point. So she brought in a landscape, with a companion piece that focused on just a single element in the bigger canvas as a target for visual concentration, particularly for women in labor.

Word spread quickly within the local art community about Sutter’s interest in acquiring an extensive collection. Witherell set up an office and spent months examining submissions and interviewing artists.

“When I bought all the art for these rooms, the hospital wasn’t built. I literally had to imagine it,” she said. It took six weeks to unpack the art from storage, laying it out in the right rooms and then having it professionally hung.

“She was fantastic. She was extremely collaborative,” Lisa Amador, executive director of development for Sutter Santa Rosa, said of Witherell’s approach. “She listened to the employees who are working with patients. Every single department was considered for the patient and their family members and what would be needed to heal.”

Made art of cards

It’s a kind of art consulting that came naturally to Witherell. During the dark days of her own treatment, she also turned to art for healing.

“I was laying on my side on my couch, looking at all these cards people had sent me. I was thinking, ‘Oh my God. I’m going to put them in a box, and it’s going to depress the hell out of me.’”

About the same time, she was watching a news segment about a family that took a box of melted glass and silverware, all that was left of their home after the Oakland Hills fire, and turned it into a mosaic table for their new home. It gave her the idea of creating a collage of her cards, with their supportive and healing messages, set on a red background and in the shape of a heart. She hoped it would help Wiley “remember the balancing force of Mom’s art during that terrifying time.”

“Art was my way out,” she recalled. “The art freed me.”

Witherell grew up in Healdsburg and spent her early years in television and film production work before she was drawn to art as part of her own healing. From collage, she moved to photography. Others took notice.

She was one of 75 artists selected by the Susan G. Komen Foundation in 1997 to participate in the Art.Rage.Us exhibit and book that featured art and writing by women with breast cancer. Three of her pieces were selected, including a short, uplifting video documentary of her journey through the disease.

“Hey Mommy did you make a wish?” became a moving part of her presentations as she became an advocate, campaigning in the community for better and more integrated services for women with breast cancer.

A copy of that heart collage occupies a wall of Sutter’s Women’s Health Center, home to The Breast Care Center, an integration of services to improve the diagnosis and treatment of breast cancer. Witherell, along with Dr. Amy Shaw, struggled to create it in Santa Rosa in the wake of her own bewildering experience trying to navigate a byzantine medical system while in a highly vulnerable state physically and emotionally.

Witherell started in the late 1990s by putting together a booklet of doctors, specialists and other services, to collate key information in one place for patients. But she knew more was needed, particularly better diagnostics and more specialists closer to home.

The first center opened in 2004, and it raised the bar for breast care throughout the community, Shaw said, prompting other providers to step up with their own variations.

“None of this would have been possible without her voice,” Shaw said. “Doctors are important. We have information, and we have data. We see a solution and want to go toward that. But what really creates change is recognizing how all these decisions impact individuals. Nancy became that individual.

“So whatever decision was being made by administrators, by doctors to help support this, Nancy was the person they had to reckon with. She stuck her neck out, and she stuck her body out to say this is what happened to me.”

Serendipitously, it was through the Women’s Health Center that Witherell came to her new consulting career. Needing to make a living after her divorce, she took classes to become an ultrasound technician and found herself interning at the Women’s Health Center. At the time, the clinic was preparing to move to a new facility on Airway Drive, and the new manager asked around for someone to procure art for the space.

Someone suggested Witherell, “the intern.” Her experience as both patient and artist and her deep connection to the facility made her an ideal person for the task.

Reset identity

Much has happened since that traumatic breast cancer diagnosis in September 1996. She describes it as like having her life stripped, like the way she used to “degauss” old video tapes in her producing days, magnetically removing all the data.

“I had a life until I was 32, and then I got degaussed,” she said with a wry smile. “It’s not that it changed me fundamentally. But it reset who I am.”

Her life has been rocky but rich.

Witherell became a founding member of the Sutter of Santa Rosa Breast Care Advisory Council, launching in her own living room. Her dogged efforts earned her an award from Community Catalyst, a national nonprofit advocacy group working to improve the health care system.

Meanwhile, she pursued her own art photography, selling and appearing in numerous exhibits while also raising funds and awareness for breast cancer research.

The breast cancer warrior became an adventurer for the cause, climbing Mt. Fuji in Japan, trekking the Wind River Range in Wyoming, white water rafting down the Salmon River in Idaho, biking the Coast Trail in Oregon.

She joined the AmazonHeart Adventures for Breast Cancer Survivors, riding Harley motorcycles with other women diagnosed with cancer under 40. On one trip, she got to ride down the western coast of Australia raising money for the cause.

Witherell has largely stepped away from activism and is living contentedly in Santa Rosa with a new life partner, Betty Andrews, who has been her best friend and support for 16 years. “When I started thinking about the back end of my life and how I wanted it to be different,” she said, “it got down to, who do I want to talk to at the end of the day?”

The two have a cute wood-paneled teardrop trailer christened “Butter Side Up” that Witherell built with her sister Donna and her stepfather Chuck Stewart. They are in Nevada City this weekend for a glamping gathering of 15-20 family and friends to celebrate two decades of life beyond cancer.

“Maybe this 20-year celebration is kind of a graduation,” said her friend, Stacey Kerr, a physician with whom Witherell makes regular walks around Spring Lake. “It’s a way of her saying, ‘Yeah, I’m a survivor. But I’m a lot of other things, too.’”

You can reach Staff Writer Meg McConahey at meg.mcconahey@pressdemocrat.com or 521-5204. On Twitter @megmcconahey.

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