Breasts for life: a mother’s gamble

Cindy Ratekin was at her son’s Little League game when she got the call about the lump in her breast.

It wasn’t good news.

Not only was the lump cancer, it was a fast-moving, invasive variety. She listened to the doctor, handed the phone to her husband, and stared off into the distance for a while. Everything was surreal, she said.

“How could this have happened?” she thought, watching her 11-year-old son, oblivious to the new threat to his mother’s life, happily playing baseball. “I’m only 47 years old. I don’t drink, I don’t smoke. I’ve been a vegetarian for 15 years. I’ve done everything right.”

Ratekin had never considered the possibility that the lump the doctors found in her breast at a routine mammography last June could have been cancer. Even after they asked her to come in for a second look at it, she assumed that it was nothing. After all, she’d had clean mammographies every year for the past seven years. She was healthy and active, hadn’t felt even vaguely sick.

She assumed then that the tiny lump they saw close to her chest wall was some sort of cyst. In fact, she was so unconcerned that she didn’t bother to tell her husband about her doctor’s request that she come back.

She did tell him, though, when a doctor called and asked her to come in for a biopsy. Lying on the table with a long biopsy needle stuck into her breast, her husband at her side, she asked the doctor how the lump looked.

“It doesn’t look good,” he said. That was all she needed to hear.

Ratekin, who normally glows with buoyancy, got the news several days later that her tumor, which was so small it couldn’t be felt by anyone, was not only malignant, but also invasive.

All of a sudden, she was making decisions she never thought she’d face: Instead of using the year-long sabbatical she’d just started to write about child development, she read books about cancer and chemo and surgery and alternative treatments.

At first, her oncologist recommended four rounds of chemotherapy and the option of a double mastectomy—the removal of both her breasts. Ratekin hoped to avoid the more invasive radiation therapy, so she opted for the mastectomy. Like so many things about the treatment she’d soon endure, it didn’t go as planned.

As soon as she woke up from the surgery, her husband, Gary, gave her the most devastating news of all: The cancer had already spread to her lymph nodes. Giving up her breasts had been all for nothing. Ratekin can’t help but cry when she remembers it now.

“That’s when my whole world fell apart,” she said. “I expected it to be nothing, and then I expected that it would be encapsulated and easily taken out. But none of that happened. It was just terrible. I don’t know how else to explain it.”

PROGNOSIS: VIGILANCE After a routine mammogram detected a tiny, malignant tumor near Cindy Ratekin’s chest wall last June, she endured several months of grueling chemotherapy and radiation. She feels fine now, but doctors will never consider her “cured.”

photo by Tom Angel

Almost immediately, Ratekin began a brutal schedule of chemo. She was constantly tired. She lost her hair and started wearing a wig—mainly to ease the fears of her children, a 14-year-old girl and a 12-year-old boy. She was sick for months but managed to get through seven of the treatments before they almost killed her.

After the second-to-last treatment, she developed a staph infection in one of her injection sites that her battered immune system simply couldn’t recover from. She almost died from the ensuing systemwide infection and wasn’t strong enough to take the last rounds of chemo.

Ratekin had always done things by the book. She’s organized and efficient and is proud to finish what she starts—and it was these characteristics that made her feel like a failure for not being able to hold up for the treatment. Somewhere, she said, she knows that it’s irrational for her to blame herself for her battered body’s breakdown, but she can’t help it.

“This cancer, it just keeps you off balance,” she said. “I’ve always thought of myself as a strong person, but I just got so sick. … I’ve heard of other women who’ve gone though chemo, and people will say, ‘Well, it didn’t affect them at all, they just went back to work.’ I was just devastated that I didn’t handle it better.”

Ratekin started the radiation therapy she hoped to avoid in March. It was a brutal treatment schedule, she remembers—she went every day for several weeks. Her skin burned and blistered, and although she started suffering from panic attacks, she didn’t get as sick as she had with the chemo.

Ratekin admits to feeling angry about her cancer. She’s found herself unable to get involved in breast cancer awareness activities, and although she knows that she can’t control the disease, she can’t help but wonder what she did to get it. She has kids to raise, she says with tears in her eyes, kids who have taken their mother’s illness even harder than she and her husband have.

“My son says stuff like, ‘I remember when you would wake me up in the morning and your hair would be wet and it would smell so good,'” Ratekin said. “Well, now I have no hair, so what do I say to that?”

Still, Ratekin is as tough as they come. She’s also kept her sense of humor—something that has helped her through a long and terrifying ordeal. Her parents live in town—in fact, her mother accompanied her to each and every one of her chemo and radiation appointments—along with much of her extended family. They have been great, she said.

So has her husband of 15 years, Gary. One day, she came home and found that he’d planted 17 trees along the front of their Paradise home—one for every week of chemo and radiation therapy she endured. She cries when she remembers finding them.

“He gives me reasons to live,” she said, laughing through the tears. “And sometimes, he just tells me that I better not leave him alone with these kids!”

Explaining her illness to her children, along with comforting them through it, has been the hardest part about having cancer, Ratekin said.

“They want me to promise them that it will never come back, that I will never be sick again. But I can’t promise them that. But I also can’t promise them that I won’t get into a car accident. There are just no guarantees. … All I can tell them is that I’m not afraid to die, and I think somehow that helped them.”

Ratekin, who is the director of the Child Development Lab at Chico State University, went back to work in August. She’s still taking oral chemo (she’ll be taking the drugs for five years) and admits to bouts of self-pity and anger. But she also feels “totally healthy"—although she knows that her doctors will never consider her completely recovered. Life has started to return to normal. She’s back at work, which gives her something to keep her busy and her kids a sense that their mom is going to be OK. Her hair is growing back, albeit lighter and curlier than it was before.

Life goes on, she said.

“I’ve found that there is so much to be thankful for," she said. "I’m just glad I’m still here."