Written by Jaimee Green
Inside her tastefully decorated office, the magnitude of how one breast cancer survivor has been affected by the disease is evident everywhere you look. Photos of loved ones wearing pink at awareness events and relays sit on shelves. Pink butterflies rest flightless on walls. A metalworks art piece shaped into a pink ribbon and voluptuous bronze bra occupies the top of a file cabinet. A patchwork quilt hangs with motivational ‘cancer cannot’ messages. A hanging wooden picture reminds whoever reads it to “Live, Laugh, Love.”
While breast cancer affected Deb Wagner in the most personal way, she made sure it didn’t win. Her strong support system, faith and determination to fight the disease helped to make her the even stronger individual she is today. Most importantly, it helped make her cancer free.
Wagner was diagnosed with breast cancer in April 2008 following a routine mammogram and follow-up ultrasound.
“At first, everything looked fine, but when the X-ray technician ran his wand across my breasts he found something between them. The radiologist didn’t like what he saw so they performed a biopsy and the test results showed it was malignant,” Wagner said. Immediately, she was scheduled for a lumpectomy.
“When I first found out about the cancer, I cried and cried because I thought every cancer patient died. I had to develop the mindset that I was going to beat this,” she said.
Following surgery, Wagner was on her way to recovery and had four weeks of strong chemotherapy to undergo. Everything went fine. Next, she underwent a milder dose of chemo that proved to be the biggest challenge of all.
“Every treatment I had gave me an infection and I had to constantly be sent to Billings. My lungs and kidneys got infections and finally we had to stop the treatments altogether because they were afraid it would affect my heart next,” she recalled.
Losing all of her hair was also a very traumatic experience. But, because she wanted to stay in control rather than to be controlled by the cancer, she chose to have her hair shaved off by her son-in-law.
“I was devastated. It was so difficult for me to accept. But the people who were with me tried to make it as pleasant as possible. We went wig shopping in Billings and had a hat party,” she recalled.
One of the most difficult aspects of her recovery was getting through what is often referred to as chemo-brain.
“Your brain gets fuzzy and you say things that don’t quite make sense. I was so scared because I thought I was going crazy and I didn’t want to tell my loved ones about it,” she remembered.
It was this doubt and frustration that caused her to seek out the help of fellow cancer patients who could identify with her feelings and experiences.
“When cancer survivors talk to cancer patients, it really lets them know people do survive and go on with their lives. Otherwise you just see other sick people being treated and wonder if you are going to live,” she said.
The relationships she developed with those cancer survivors inspired her to become a counselor for cancer patients once she recovered.
Through it all, her family and friends supported her. They were her cheering crowd, sitting in waiting rooms and caring for her at home. She recalls a time when she was really sick in bed and her grandson, Kolton, came in and lay beside her.
“He asked me if I wanted him to hold me because whenever I held him it made him feel better,” she recalled.
The communities both where she lived, in Poplar, and grew up, near Culbertson, also helped give her tremendous support through words of encouragement and fundraising efforts. She remembers Cal Steppler, a family friend, telling her over dinner one night that she was a country girl, she was tough, and she was going to make it.
“You have to buck up and dig deep to find that inner strength you have to have if you are going to beat this disease,” Wagner added.
Having always been independent and something of a professed workaholic, it was difficult for Wagner to ask for help and miss work. To get back to her normal routine following her recovery, she went back to work as soon as possible. Through it all she tried to stay upbeat and keep her family’s spirits up.
“The caretakers of anyone who is sick go through hell and back watching their loved ones deteriorate and go through the pain of everything,” she said.
Wagner, like other cancer survivors, celebrates two birthdays each year — one representing the day she was born and one representing the day she officially beat breast cancer.
Today, she has been in remission for nearly five years and has scratched a lot of things off of the bucket list she started following her recovery. Ride a mechanical bull in Texas - done. Take the grandkids to see the ocean - done. Play in the mud - every spring. Make many more memories - every opportunity she gets. Live life to the fullest - every day.
“I would have never made it without the medical professionals who treated and cared for me, my angels in heaven and my support group. I call them my angels on Earth. They were my family, friends and co-workers,” she said.