Perfect timing: Rhonda Olsen's breast cancer journey
Timing is everything. We hear this so often that it’s cliché. For Rhonda Olson, however, there’s nothing cliché about it. According to her oncologist, her stage 1 grade 2 breast cancer was found at the perfect time.
“One month sooner, and it may not have shown up on the mammogram,” Rhonda explains. “One or two months later and it would have had time to grow and possibly spread. It was such perfect timing that my doctor asked if I believe in God and divine intervention. I absolutely do!”
Rhonda—mother of two, grandmother of one, and wife of a pediatrician—has been an active person her whole life. Prior to her cancer diagnosis, she did yoga and Pilates at the gym, went on long walks with her two big bernedoodles, did gardening and yard work, and rode horses. With no family history of cancer and a very healthy lifestyle, she never thought it would happen to her. Even when she was called back to the Women’s Imaging Center at EIRMC for a second mammogram, she still wasn’t worried.
“I’d been called back before, but then they wanted to do a biopsy. That was new,” recalls Rhonda. “I love the people at the imaging center. As soon as you walk in there, you’re welcomed. They are always smiling, very hands on and encouraging. You just know you are being taken care of.
“The radiologist talked to me through the whole procedure. He said it was very suspicious and he was pretty sure the test would come back with a cancer diagnosis. He showed it to me on the monitor. Not having to wait to get confirmation made a big difference. And it was cancer—invasive lobular carcinoma.”
Rhonda’s family, friends, and faith helped her get through the difficult journey she was about to embark upon. Not wanting to live her life worrying that the cancer might come back or grow in the other breast, she opted to have a bilateral mastectomy. Her surgery was in January, just two days before her birthday.
“Yup. Christmas was ruined by the diagnosis, and I got a mastectomy for my birthday. But two days after my birthday, I got the news that my lymph nodes were clear; the cancer hadn’t spread. That was the first time I cried. At that point I knew I wouldn’t need chemo or radiation.”
After surgery, Rhonda went to the Idaho Cancer Center at EIRMC to discuss options for further treatment with hormone suppressing medications. Her 23-year-old son went with her for every appointment.
“Everyone treated my son as an adult. They asked him if he had questions and answered all of his questions. They gave him a hug and reassured him that they’d take good care of me, not to worry. Everyone at the cancer center is amazing. It’s a smaller clinic, but it’s very personable.”
Most women who undergo a single or bilateral mastectomy choose to have breast reconstruction. There are a number of options for that, and Rhonda chose to have a DIEP flap procedure, where abdominal skin and fat as well as small veins and arteries from the legs are used to create new breasts. It’s a 10-hour micro surgery that required Rhonda to stay in the ICU for 3 days and avoid moving her upper body for weeks.
Rhonda still has one more surgery to go and will continue with medications and follow-up visits to the cancer center. Though her journey is not over, she recognizes the blessings and miracles she has experienced.
“God put people in my path when I needed them. My surgical nurse was a breast cancer survivor. She was supportive and encouraging, promising me that my new normal would be great and I’d be fine. My nurse at the cancer center, Denise, is also a survivor. She comes into the waiting room, gives me a hug, asks how things are going, always has a compliment for me, and she tells me she has been thinking about me and praying for me. Many people were praying for me. I felt surrounded by peace. It was very comforting and sustaining.
“A dear friend who survived stage 4 melanoma was a huge spiritual inspiration for me. Her faith in God is amazing. She sent me Bible verses and texts almost every day. One friend took my dogs for two weeks so that I wouldn’t have to worry about them jumping on me. Other friends have brought flowers, meals, or bags of books. Friends have even done my gardening, weeding, and harvesting. My son has driven me everywhere, taken me to all my appointments, and has kept up the yard. With all that help, I feel like I’ve been able to maintain a fairly normal life.
“I’m also thankful to have a doctor husband to take care of me and record everything and tend my dressings. How do other people get through this kind of recovery without a doctor husband?”
Little by little, Rhonda is getting back to her active lifestyle; she’s able to walk seven miles now and just started range-of-motion exercises. Her doctor’s orders of “don’t overdo it” are hard to follow. By New Year 2023, she’s hoping her life will no longer be consumed by tests, treatments, and recovery, and she’s really anxious to get back on a horse.
Like so many other breast cancer survivors, Rhonda encourages women to get their annual mammograms and do self-checks so that problems can be found early. Her best advice for those who do get breast cancer: “Make sure you get your support team together because you won’t be able to do it on your own. I’m used to caring for others—being the caregiver, not being taken care of. That’s been hard. But I’m grateful for all those people God put in my path.”
Photo courtesy of Post Register.