Even professional cheerleaders get cancer

Meet  former 76ers Cheerleader Sharon Steidler (the dancer on the right). Hands down, Sharon’s the most talented dancer I’ve ever met. (We were on the 76ers dance team together.) A picture of health, too. Sharon’s story is timely as it relates to this week’s headlines about the Mammogram Storm. In short, the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force reversed previous advice and recommended that women in their 40s not at high risk for breast cancer forgo  mammograms. Basically, the thinking is that the slight benefits of early detection in women in their 40s (risk of dying of cancer drops from 3% to 2.7%) does not outweigh the “costs” defined partly as stress and unnecessary X rays and biopsies. More than half of women ages 40-49 will have a false-positive mammogram during a decade of annual screening leading to additional X-Rays and biopsies.

This debate about whether women should be screened before the age of 50 has been going on since mammograms became all the rage. The Philadelphia Inquirer calls the debate “scientifically unresolvable.” And frankly most doctors interviewed recently say they’ll continue to give referrals for women who want a mammogram. So it’s unclear whether this week’s recommendations will have any long term impact at all.

One thing is clear, however. Some women are outraged, particularly those with a personal story about the benefits of early detection in a young woman. This brings us back to Sharon. Sharon was diagnosed with Stage III Invasive Ductal Carcinoma. Thankfully, she’s doing well today. I asked her to share her story with us well before the recent recommendations were released. I was more interested in helping Sharon find some purpose in her experience while exploring how someone like Sharon (a self-described “non science” person) became well informed and quite articulate about all things “breast cancer”.  Here’s her story.

I met Darlene when we were both members of the Philadelphia 76’ers dance team. Dream Team, if you will. This was way back in 1991!!! Ahh…So much has changed since then! The plot thickens! Since I met Darlene, I have been a professional dancer and background singer for Legends in Concert…Lived many places, including Myrtle Beach, Atlantic City and finally here in Branson Mo. I am single and now work for a chiropractor.
In 2006 I was diagnosed with breast cancer just two weeks after my 39th birthday. I was still working as a dancer in Legends when I found my lump myself. It was actually really strange how I found it. I had been let go from my position in November of 2006. Maybe too old 🙂 It was a blessing in disguise. The company asked me to do two more shows for them in January. While we were rehearsing, I was doing choreography and hit my self in my left breast with a cowboy hat, of all things. I remembered that it hurt a little. I went home that night and did a self exam, and sure enough, felt a lump. It was the size of a pea. I knew that I had to see a doctor before my insurance ceased. When I finally saw a doctor, she told me not to worry. Cancer doesn’t hurt and not to lose any sleep over it. She ordered a mammogram anyway. I had the mammogram and they just kept bringing me back in for more pictures. Finally, they were satisfied and brought me in to discuss the results. They had found a mass that did “not look good”. I had not one but three suspicious areas. Next step: a biopsy.

After a very painful, but necessary biopsy, it “looked like” I had  Stage II Invasive Ductal Carcinoma. No history in the family. I wasn’t even 40. Healthy. At the time, I had not had alcohol nor cigarettes in over a year. Exercised every day. Two shows a day, six days a week.
When I got the call, I honestly was not surprised. I was a little numb, but I knew I had to do something and have a positive attitude. I don’t even think I cried that much. I asked my family and friends to be as supportive and positive as they could.
I finally found out, after a second opinion and a consultation with my doctors in Florida ( I moved to Florida to get treatments at Moffitt Cancer center in Tampa), that this was not going to be easy but do-able.

I still didn’t know what stage it was. The doctors wouldn’t know until they did the surgery. I was given options for various treatments. Bi-lateral mastectomy, single mastectomy, lumpectomy….I chose a bi-lateral mastectomy, with reconstruction and nipple and skin sparing. My doctor was very confident in any of these which was a blessing. He is one of 20 something doctors in the nation that do the nipple and skin sparing (meaning I would still have that, just not the breast tissue) I also had reconstruction started the same day. I had no idea they could do this! I did learn that this type of cancer does not discriminate. Men, women, young and old. There are no answers as of yet as far as I know and I’ve been keeping an eye on this type of news.

My treatment plan included chemotherapy, (8 rounds. Four one drug, or cocktail as they call it, and four of another). The next step was radiation. So amazed by the science of radiation. Not sure how many rounds I had. Since 24 lymph nodes were removed and 12 were cancerous, I had to have radiation. I didn’t have to have as many as we originally had thought. I responded very well to both treatments.

Turns out I had Stage III breast cancer, after everything was said and done. Radiation, like I said was so interesting. I had no idea it was such an exact science. They can pin point the exact area where a person needs to be radiated. They tattoo the areas where the lasers are going to be directed, and the rest is spared. That is why I was able to do skin and nipple sparing. It did damage some of my skin, and I had to have my left implant removed, but this is not the end. I can have another reconstructive surgery in about six months. The reason it did damage me was because I was so thin. I weighed about 110. I do not regret going this route at all. So many people just wanted me to forego the chemo and radiation. I am currently 2 1/2 years out. Just had my 2 1/2 year check up and everything is great!!!. I am still trying to learn and be more literate of the disease. It is hard when you are going through it. I slept so much. But, I’m certainly more appreciative of the scientists who have been working on treatments for years.

My prognosis in my eyes and the eyes of my oncology team is very good. I just had my check up and everything was fine. My tumor markers were perfect. After 3 years, they don’t require blood work unless there is a problem.

This disease has changed my life in a positive way. I am so positive and happy. I went through a heck of a lot, but at the same time, I think my illness made me a better person. Strange, but very true. How would I ever be asked to do something like this without being a survivor. That is the key. I AM A SURVIVOR…Because of science, I am still here…..Think about that. I am not going to leave out God either.

Thank you Darlene for giving me this chance!!! This disease must be eradicated for sure!

Thank YOU, Sharon, for sharing your story with us. GOOOOO Sharon!

If you or someone you know is “young with cancer,” check out this new site: i2y.org (“I’m Too Young For This” sponsored by the Cancer Foundation). I’d like to add a personal note here. My dance teacher and long-time childhood mentor died on her 40th birthday from breast cancer that had not been detected until it spread to her bones. She never had a mammogram. Before her death, she reminded every woman she met to “get a mammogram”. Sharon and my dance teacher, Wendy, experienced radically difference outcomes. It’s important to remember, ending on a high note here–it’s Friday after all!– that less than 7% of women under 40 will be diagnosed with breast cancer (and many of those who are diagnosed will fall into a high risk category).

I view Sharon’s story as one of inspiration. Stage III and I’ll bet $20 she’ll be dancing again soon. You heard it here, folks!