Something happened when the boys — ages 7, 9 and 11 — learned that their mother had breast cancer. They started to wear pink awareness wristbands. They put pink shoelaces in their shoes. The little gestures meant the world to Andrea as she prepared to face her cancer head-on with a bilateral mastectomy at age 41.
Andrea Bathje’s personal breast cancer awareness campaign is summed up in two dates: Feb. 10, 2010, and Feb. 17, 2011.
If anything is going to hit home the importance of annual mammogram screenings to the women out there who are too scared, too busy or just plain don’t want to go, Bathje thinks it will be her story.
It’s a story of family and faith; a story with a happy ending where a mother gets to watch her children grow up, where best friends can still joke about pushing each other around in wheelchairs in the nursing home, where a husband can wrap his arms around his wife and believe the worst is over.
It’s a story that starts with a passing conversation a year and eight months ago and continues today.
After getting mammograms for two years with no sign of breast cancer or other disease, Bathje, of Rockford, Ill., wondered if she needed to keep going back every year.
She certainly didn’t feel like she had breast cancer. She was an active and healthy mother of three boys ages 7 to 11. And lots of women, Bathje included, recently had heard about a government study recommending that women without unusual breast cancer risks wait until age 50 for regular screenings. Her aunt on her father’s side was a breast cancer survivor, but no one in her immediate family had been diagnosed.
Then came the words that probably saved Bathje’s life.
Talking with a nurse after her perfectly clean 2010 mammogram, Bathje questioned whether she should return to Swedish-American Hospital’s Center for Women the following year.
“I remember she said, ‘You have insurance ... I think unless they prove it otherwise, there really is no reason not to have it,’” Bathje recalled.
Twelve months and one week later, ductal carcinoma in situ, or breast cancer, had invaded Bathje’s left breast. The proof was staring back at her from an X-ray light box.
“The right side was clear,” Bathje said. “The left side ... it looked like someone just took a handful of kosher salt and threw it on it.”
That image would mark the beginning of an intense eight-month journey, not just for Bathje, but also for those around her — her mother, her father, her brother, her best friend, her husband and her boys. Each would play a different role in her breast cancer story. Each would be touched in a different way.
In the end — they consider it the end — they are strangely the same. Their love for one another still fills a room. Most say looking back, they knew all along that Bathje would be one of the lucky ones –– that she would survive. Every now and then, a tear will appear, a reminder of one of the scariest times in their lives.
Bathje had a bilateral mastectomy in March. The cancer was detected early enough that it hadn’t spread to her lymph nodes or chest wall. She decided to have both of her breasts removed even though one of them was cancer-free. This way, Bathje figured, she wouldn’t have to worry about the cancer coming back.
Because the cancer was contained in the breast, and her breasts were removed, Bathje didn’t need radiation treatments. She wouldn’t need chemotherapy or hormones, either. She went home after her surgery and began a painful months-long skin-stretching process so she could get breast implants, which she did in late September.
“The first month was the really scary time. The first month was when we really didn’t know if it had spread or not. I’d be fine during the day, but then at night, I’d just cry myself to sleep,” Bathje said. “Once I woke from the surgery, and they told me that it hadn’t spread into the node, then I knew. That was first time we could feel relieved.
“I know I’m incredibly fortunate ... I get to be here. I get to be a mom ... I’m convinced it’s because I got that mammogram. For those women out there who want to put it off, or they don’t want to go because it hurts or it’s scary, I hope they read this and know that it can save your life.”
Husband ‘is my rock’
When the doctor at Swedish-American Hospital’s Center for Women in Rockford, Ill., told Andrea Bathje that her mammogram revealed a strong chance for cancer, the 41-year-old’s world stopped.
The first person she called was her husband, George, a high school teacher.
“I think I said they’re very concerned. I have no idea what they’re saying. You have to come now,” Andrea said. “I remember I was shaking so bad I couldn’t open my locker where my clothes were so I could get dressed. Someone had to come help me. I couldn’t dial my phone. Someone had to look up the school’s number and call for me.”
George, 40, was at the center in minutes. That’s what rocks do.
“George is my rock,” Andrea said. “He doesn’t worry. He just deals with things.”
The non-worrier that he is, George focused his attention on his wife. If he did worry, he said, it was about how she was feeling and what he could do to ease her worries.
“In the beginning, I knew there was nothing I could do but wait for results. Whatever it is, it is, and we’d deal with it,” George said. “Once we knew what we were dealing with and test results started coming back, I knew she’d be OK. We got a lot of feedback that her chances were very good.”
George was the one to care for Andrea post-surgery. He helped her get up out of bed, fed her, changed her dressings, made sure she took her medication.
“I’ve always known how lucky I am to have him,” Andrea said. “I think about how good he was taking care of me, and I think of the women who have to go through this alone. I know how lucky I am.”
Sons proudly wear pink to support mom
With three sons and no daughters, Andrea Bathje had given up on pink. Her boys are more the play outside, scraped-knee kind.
But something happened when the boys — ages 7, 9 and 11 — learned that their mother had breast cancer. They started to wear pink awareness wristbands. They put pink shoelaces in their shoes. The little gestures meant the world to Andrea as she prepared to face her cancer head-on with a bilateral mastectomy at age 41.
To the boys, the color had come to represent their mom and her courageous fight.
During the past year, the Bathje boys — Ben, 7, Jack, 9, and Cole, 11 — grew up in ways that most people would expect from sons worried about their mother.
They stayed quiet when told. They picked up their rooms. They vacuumed and carried laundry baskets up and down stairs. They let out the dog. They gave more hugs.
“Cancer is a disease, and it’s one of the most dangerous,” Cole said. “I know that it kills people ... That was the scariest part.”
“I was scared,” Jack added. “We knew that if it spread, you can’t cure it.”
Because the fear of their mom dying only loomed for a short time, Cole and his brothers spent most of the past eight months worried about their mother’s recovery and the amount of pain she was experiencing.
Cole stepped up with chores. Jack spent more time nestled next to his mom on the couch. And Ben, he just tried “to be good.”
Andrea fondly recalls one of her favorite things said to her before her surgery in March. The words of encouragement came from her youngest son, Ben.
“You have to come back because Dad doesn’t know how to make the Cream of Wheat,” Ben said.
“I just thought that was so sweet,” Andrea said. “It’s true ... I put the butter and the sugar and the chocolate in it.”
Mom could tell something was terribly wrong
Cindy Jensen-Toews may not have been the first one to be told that her daughter’s mammogram results showed strong signs of breast cancer, but like mothers do, she sensed it.
“She called and asked me to pick up the boys from school. She said they asked her to do more films ... I don’t know. It was something in her voice ... I was instantly worried,” said Jensen-Toews, 64, of Rockford, Ill. “I could tell she was worried.”
She likes to rave about her daughter more than worry about her. Her daughter is the one who bakes delicious cookies, the one who was born with the most beautiful hair, the one with the impeccable taste who makes jewelry. Not the one with breast cancer.
For Jensen-Toews, who faced a near-death experience in 1995 and 1996 when she was diagnosed with a rare liver disease and underwent three liver transplants, her daughter had been through enough.
“She was so young when I divorced,” she said. “It was a big thing. She had to go through that. She had to go through almost losing me ... I thought if I could just do three livers all over again to take this away from her, I would ... To be honest, I wanted to puke for days.”
Unlike others, Jensen-Toews said she immediately thought the worst and thought it again and again in the month between Andrea’s diagnosis and surgery.
“To me, the natural thing to think was that this is very serious, but I also learned from what I went through that your mental state is huge,” she said.
The family always was close, she said, but drew closer that month and the months that followed.
“When you go through something like this, you see a side of life no one else gets to see,” she said. “I know because I went through it. You see this support system come together for you, and it’s amazing ... and humbling.”
Best friends until the end, when they’re old and gray
Everyone has that certain someone in their life that they can call any time of the night or day if they need to talk, cry, joke or vent.
For Andrea Bathje, that person is her sister-in-law, Cindi Jensen.
Jensen, 40, first met Andrea when they were about 14 years old and attended Our Savior’s Lutheran Church in Rockford, Ill. The two became fast friends and as inseparable as teenage girls can be.
Cindi quickly became part of the family. Andrea jokes that Cindi was her sister long before her brother, David, married her in 1996.
Cindi isn’t one to dwell on the negatives or what-ifs, Andrea said. As an oncology nurse, she was not only a valuable resource throughout Andrea’s battle with breast cancer –– she brought the right attitude, too.
“Having Cindi there for me was so important because she knew what was going on from a technical side, but she was my friend, too,” Andrea said.
Cindi, whose cousin was fighting breast cancer at the same time, said the initial news floored her.
“I just kept saying, ‘What are you talking about?’” Cindi said. “Then, I went into, ‘No, no. Wait. Let’s just wait and see. Don’t get ahead of yourself.’ ... But I knew the possibilities. Inside, I was scared.”
David, Andrea’s brother and Cindi’s husband, said that’s how most of the family was: scared but hopeful.
“If anyone knows my sister, then they know how strong-willed she is,” David said. “She was determined to beat it.”
Today, Andrea jokes about how Cindi still is on the hook to push her down the hall in a wheelchair in the nursing home.
“Before that, we’re going to be those ladies in the convertible with the big sunglasses,” Andrea said. “I saw a couple old ladies like that the other day, and I thought, ‘That’s us.’ I wish I had a camera.”
Reach staff writer Corina Curry at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read more on her blogor follow her on Twitter.