Survivors: The Lives and Stories of 3 Brave Women

(This article originally appeared in 2007 in the Pulse/Downtowner, a weekly news-magazine, which is no longer published.)

By Jessie Gridley

CINCINNATI — What defines a woman?

Is it the clothes she wears, the way she styles her hair or the anatomy that makes her significantly different from her polar opposite in the gene pool?

Strip away material garments, whether they’re worn while trying to look professional, a little sexy or those comfy sweatpants that are so welcoming. Shave away the hair, even if those highlights and lowlights look good. Then the breasts, no matter how big or small, they are there. At least until a six-letter word overtakes them with abnormal cells, requiring some women to make life-altering decisions that they never dreamed of.

Without these clothes, the hair and breasts, she is the same woman, maybe an even stronger one than before. Breast cancer survivors with connections and influences throughout Cincinnati affirm what it means to be a woman, especially at the times when they when choose to remove parts of their anatomy to save their own lives.

Laura Pulfer, diagnosed at 42, Gwen Pietzuch, diagnosed at 47, and Tracie Metzger, diagnosed at age 30, are all in remission from breast cancer, but have found ways through their professional and personal strengths to reach out to other women who may be facing the fears and cancer that they still vividly remember.

Power of the pen connects award-winning Enquirer columnist

Small footsteps edged near Laura Pulfer as she made her exit from a book signing for an anthology of her various columns that appeared in the Enquirer.

After warding off cancer in 1990 with a mastectomy, chemotherapy and one heck of a sense of humor, the former Cincinnati Magazine editor and publisher, Laura went to work as the Metro columnist for the Enquirer, which earned her the name Best Columnist in Ohio by both the Associated Press and the Society for Professional Journalists.

Laura turned around and reached her hand out toward the young girl standing behind her, waiting for her time. “I asked her what her name was. She took a hold of my hand and burst into tears,” remembers Laura.

The young girl gathered her emotions to say what she came to say: “My mom had breast cancer and I was so scared that she would die. The whole time she went through chemotherapy and looked so sick. Three days a week, she would bring your column down and she would slap it down in front of me and say ‘see her! She’s still here and I will be too.’”

Laura knew her time with the Enquirer was a privilege, being able to reach so many people three days a week. But that one connected reader, the mother who saw hope with every word that made it onto the page, is enough for Laura to justify her time on staff.
“And I thought, oh my gosh. If I never do another thing in my life, then I’d be happy that this child could look at me and think, ‘well she lived, so maybe my mom will too.’”

Those small differences she could make by splashing a little ink on a topic are what Laura misses the most, even more than shooting her mouth off about politics. “You could just do something that you knew made their lives just a little bit better that day,” says Laura, vibrant with every passing word. Her column, known for its humor-dipped honesty, stirred the pot while Laura was in Cincinnati, covering human interest, politics, stigmas, social issues, etc.

“I’ve made friends in both high and low places, and I think I offended them all at least once. But, they forgave me because my heart was pure,” laughs Laura, whose tone remains cheery despite a shift to talking about the day she received the phone call from her doctor 17 years ago.

“I had this wonderful doctor who delivered my daughter Meg. He was so great, but a nag. He kept saying, ‘You have to get a mammogram.’”

Laura on the other hand, had put off the yearly routine for women over 40 years old for two years. “I thought it kind of pinched. I thought I was busy. And I said, ‘We don’t have any in our family. I’m not gonna get it.’”

Then, her doctor taunted his longtime patient, threatening to withhold her birth control pills until Laura gave in. Soon after, she received the call while working at Cincinnati Magazine. The doctor apologized for the news he was about to share, “They don’t like your mammogram.”

“What do you mean they don’t like it,” questioned the journalist.

He explained that there was a strong possibility that a malignancy was identified and beckoned his patient into the office that same afternoon for further tests. Looking back to that phone call, Laura refers to herself as a “cold fish.”

“The whole time I was sounding normal, I was sitting in my desk chair thinking, I can’t feel my feet. I am so scared I can’t feel my feet.”

After a lumpectomy, chemotherapy and a mastectomy, Laura made her way to recovery surrounded by family, friends and co-workers at Cincinnati Magazine. “I would get my chemo on Friday. I would take every pill they chose to give me and sleep all weekend. Then I would go back to work on Monday.”

Then, Laura’s ornery side came into full bloom, thriving on laughter as part of the medicine that kept her on her feet. “This is the time to do every bad thing I wanted to do,” thought Laura, “Go through the express lane with 14 items, get a tattoo. Now’s the time — Everybody will forgive you for everything. I use to play the most horrendous practical jokes.” This included the talking toilet seat she brought out on occasion.

Now, Laura lives in Bellefontaine, in her own personal heaven with her family, wonderful husband Mike and horse farm nearby.

“I’m so grateful that I lived in Cincinnati because immediately I got really good, leading edge care. The Bethesda North Breast Center (where she sought treatment) is being expanded — they now serve 30,000 women—because they raised enough money to expand the center, their services will be doubled to 60,000 women.”

Pink Ribbon Girls’ co-founder receives Pink Football Award

As a 30-year-old mother of two and wife, Tracie Metzger felt shocked and alone when diagnosed with breast cancer in 2000.

“You think of it more as a post-menopausal kind of disease,” cites Tracie, dressed in a pink top adorned with a jeweled breast cancer awareness ribbon.

Now 37 and the mother of four children, Tracie has brought attention to the uncommon, younger faces of breast cancer patients through the Pink Ribbon Girls, a support network formed in hopes that young women could meet other women facing similar fears, issues and concerns. Tracie describes the relief when these young women meet to see another young face with a bald head sitting across from them.

These women, as Tracie points out, may have young children or none at all, and fear losing their ability to conceive or ever meeting a partner who can accept their scars.
Rather than advocacy, she explains that the Pink Ribbon Girls address “the personal side of breast cancer.” They seek to spread awareness and connectivity among its members, whose numbers she says have risen above 400 nationally.

Once a member, women can search within the PRG intimate database to find others based on zip code, particular surgeries or treatments and family situations.
Tracie understands how these women might be feeling.

One day Tracie’s daughter Grace stopped nursing out of the blue at nine months.
She explains the ever-changing body of a post-pregnant woman. “Breasts go back to normal … or less than normal,” says Tracie, who found a pea-sized lump during a self-breast exam shortly after Grace stopped nursing. Possibly a clogged milk duct or maybe even nothing at all, Tracie was told to wait things out a bit longer by her physician. “My personality is aggressive and proactive,” she admits, so this answer did not suffice for the 30-year-old, who had had a benign lump removed six years prior.

“Never a thought of cancer,” says Tracie, who admits wanting the lump removed partly out of discomfort. She lay in recovery from her routine lumpectomy, thinking that it was all over. Her sister had just given birth the night before a few floors up, leaving her anxious to join the celebrations. Her husband, Ray, was a resident physician and had many of his hours consumed by the hospital.

Dr. Karen Columbus’ approaching figure was blurry, as Tracie had to remove her contact lenses before surgery. The lumpectomy had revealed a malignancy. “Malignant or benign, which is bad?” Tracie recalls her confusion. Then, she broke down, “How can I have breast cancer?”

The coming months were difficult, with two young children still in diapers and her husband trying to balance his medical career. “He kind of became the mom. I just couldn’t do it,” Tracie says. Six months of chemotherapy and then 10 weeks of radiation awaited when, as she says, a switch was flicked. “I just kicked into fighter mode. What else can you do?”

Then, halfway through chemotherapy, another lump was found in her armpit—luckily benign (the good kind). “When this happened, it was enough for me to say ‘why am I keeping these breasts?’”

Visions of horrendous scars went through her mind, but in the end she recalls her double mastectomy as “the best decision we ever made.” Reconstructive surgery gives breast cancer survivors like Tracie, a chance to regain part of what they lose to breast cancer. “Breast don’t define you—but are part of being a woman,” says Tracie, who will help calm others’ fears of a mastectomy by giving them a chance to see how reconstructive surgery can help.

With October being breast cancer awareness month, Tracie’s calendar is full of events and fundraisers. She will be a symbol for women throughout Cincinnati as the winner of the 2007 Pink Football Award from the Marvin Lewis Community Fund. Her story also will be told in a book, “Voices of Breast Cancer: The Healing Companion: Stories for Courage, Comfort and Strength,” releasing this month.

Queen Latifah and Ellen Degeneres mimic self-breast exams over their clothing on the TV buzzing in the background of Tracie’s living room as she explains the importance of monthly self-breast exams. “You’ll know when something is different or new,” says the survivor.

Think pink: For more information on the Pink Ribbon Girls, visit www.pinkribbongirls.org.

Genetics link Gwen to her cancer

Scars don’t always remind the wearer of pain.

Blessings—that is what Gwen Pietzuch sees when she looks into a mirror and sees the scars that linger next to her reconstructed breasts. Tears well up in the corners of Gwen’s blue eyes, until one finally tips the scale, causing a stream to roll down her cheek. “It wasn’t a bad experience—not a great one—but such a life-changing experience for the better. It gives you more of an appreciation for life and not to take things for granted,” shares Gwen, now 52, wiping away her tears.

Gwen, diagnosed at age 47, attributes her personal strength to her strong faith and the support she received from friends, family and her “rock” and husband Ed. Now, five years later, Gwen serves as a board member and treasurer for the Breast Cancer Alliance of Greater Cincinnati, which is committed to making breast cancer issues a top priority in the public and private sectors through advocacy, education and communication.
Recently, Gwen helped organize a motorcycle fundraiser with BCA, Ride to Live-Live to Ride, which drew about 175 motorcycles. “These people were the most generous group of people I have ever met,” exclaims Gwen.

The Wall of Hope was rolled out for the BCA fundraiser, stretching over ten feet with about 150 photos of breast cancer survivors. Gwen has yet to tack her photo onto the wall, but plans to now that she’s tackled a form of breast cancer in 2002 attributed to a genetic mutation. “I should have known it was not great news,” says Gwen, recalling her Sept. 11, 2002, reexamination date after a routine mammogram that showed reason for concern. Blood was drawn and Gwen was recommended by her oncologist to participate in a study, since her mother had died from a form of cancer that originated in her fallopian tubes when Gwen was only 26 years old.

A mutation was found on her BRCA2 gene that increases her chances of having a reoccurrence and ovarian cancer. In April 2003, she had her last chemo treatment and at her request had her double mastectomy, reconstructive surgery and hysterectomy all in one surgery. “I wanted to get it done and over with,” Gwen says, regret-free of her final decision.

People approach Gwen all the time, asking her to speak to friends dealing with breast cancer. “It’s so difficult when you can talk to someone,” says Gwen, who will pick up the phone anytime encouragement or a listening ear is needed.

Visit the Breast Cancer Alliance of Greater Cincinnati at www.bcacincy.org.

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