Two years ago, breast cancer took Carol Belles' hair, eyelashes, fingernails and toenails.
Last year, a rare and aggressive form of breast cancer rendered Mandi Reddig too sick to work for nearly a year.
But their individual battles also brought Carol and Mandi an unexpected blessing: A kindred spirit with whom to share the journey.
'I got through it with prayer'
Carol, now 75, was diagnosed with invasive lobular breast cancer in May 2011 after a routine mammogram showed a lump in her right breast. Diagnostic tests showed the cancer had spread to 23 lymph glands.
“We were just devastated,” says Carol, whose husband of 57 years, Don, and two grown children were with her when she got the news from Patty Tenofsky, MD, a breast care specialist and surgeon at Via Christi Clinic.
Then, drawing upon the strength of her faith, Carol went to work to map out her plan of care with Dr. Tenofsky and Terri Leschuk, her nurse navigator.
First, Carol underwent six rounds of chemotherapy under the care of Seth Page, MD, an oncologist with Cancer Center of Kansas. In October 2011, Dr. Tenofsky performed a double mastectomy and removed nearly two dozen of Carol’s lymph nodes. The following month, Carol began receiving outpatient radiation treatments under the care of Jon Anders, MD, a radiation oncologist with the Via Christi Cancer Center.
"I got through it all with prayer," says Carol, who received the last of her 30 treatments on Dec. 31, 2011, and immediately began a five-year regimen of estrogen-reducing hormones.
After Carol’s recovery, she was asked by a long-time friend and fellow cancer survivor, veterinarian Greg Bogue, to pray for a young woman who had just been diagnosed with breast cancer.
That young woman was Mandi.
Rare, Aggressive Breast Cancer
In January 2012, Mandi, was experiencing some tenderness and noticed some skin changes in her left breast. She did a self-exam and found a small lump.
The next day, she went to see her primary care physician. Because Mandi had no family history of breast cancer, her doctor said it most likely was a fluid-filled cyst but ordered an ultrasound to make sure. Mandi, who was going out of town on business, asked that it be scheduled at the end of the month.
But over the next 10 days, Mandi’s “little spot” spread like wildfire, making about a third of her breast red, hot, swollen, and dimpled like an orange peel.
An ultrasound, mammogram and other diagnostic testing at Via Christi Clinic revealed that she had a rare, aggressive form of breast cancer.
"I felt like I'd been hit by a bus," says Mandi. She was reassured, however, by Dr. Tenofsky's calm demeanor and by the fact that the inflammatory breast cancer had been caught before reaching an advanced stage.
Mandi had just started chemotherapy when her dachshund hurt her back. When her veterinarian, Dr. Bogue, found out about Mandi’s cancer, he told her about the cancer support group at his church and asked Carol to pray for Mandi.
Praying it forward
Not long after, Carol met Mandi at the support group and quickly figured out she was the woman for whom she’d been praying, that they both were patients of Dr. Tenofsky’s and Dr. Page’s.
Mandi, now 37, says Carol was a godsend, faithfully calling and encouraging her when she was too sick to leave her house.
“It meant so much to have someone to talk to who understood what I was going through, who had survived and was praying for me,” says Mandi.
After her initial round of chemotherapy, Mandi underwent a single mastectomy and radiation therapy, then continued with more chemotherapy, which she finished on Feb. 14. Mandi’s oncologist says her blood work “looks stellar.”
In May, Carol heard the words every cancer patient longs to hear: "No evidence of disease."
But for now, she’s just taking life one day at a time, enjoying her son and daughter, four grandchildren and four great-grandchildren — and Mandi.
Carol and Mandi continue to attend the support group where they met, providing hope for others whose journey is only beginning.
“What started out as the end of the world was full of hidden blessings,” Mandi says of her friendship with Carol and other cancer survivors. “I have a much more positive outlook on life.”