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Woman struggles to shake fear of relapse


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Frances Vogler is a 20-year survivor of breast cancer.
PHOTO BY SCOTT ROBERSON
Frances Vogler is a 20-year survivor of breast cancer. PHOTO BY SCOTT ROBERSON


The fear returned as she lay on a gurney in the darkened room.

Frances Vogeler had tried to appear brave. Just a few minutes earlier in a waiting room, she had tried to speak to and make friends with everyone there.

But now, the others were gone, and she was alone. The room, where she had to go five days a week for six weeks to receive radiation treatments, had a sick, medicinal smell.

Next to her was a massive piece of equipment that had been aligned to deliver radiation to a precise, tattooed mark on her right breast. Even though she knew it wasn’t likely, she couldn’t help but think about the machine tipping over onto her.

Frances Vogeler

Age

69

Residence

Center Grove area

Date of diagnosis

March 1991

Type of cancer

Stage 1 carcinoma in situ

Treatment

Lumpectomy and radiation

What cancer taught me

To live each day to the fullest.

How cancer has changed me

It has shown me that I am a strong woman.

What I would tell someone who was just diagnosed

There is so much hope. And I will pray for you. And if you need to talk, here’s my telephone number.

But worse than the smell and the cumbersome equipment was the fear. The feeling crept back in during each treatment.

Fear that her life was over.

Fear that the cancer, which had been so small that doctors removed it during a biopsy, would return and spread.

Fear that she would spend the rest of her life asking “what if?”

“I felt like a child, of being afraid of the dark,” Vogeler said.

Twenty years have passed, but the fear remains. When she goes in for her annual mammogram, she feels just as afraid as she did during the radiation treatments.

But over the past two decades, she’s learned how to counter the fear. She can’t make it go away, so she prays and remembers that others are praying for her. She remembers the friends who supported her and cried with her during her diagnosis and the friends she supports and cries with now.

In 1991, Vogeler, then 48, had never had a mammogram. Her doctor never raised the subject, but that year she decided to have the test to see if everything was all right.

No doctor was available to review the mammogram results immediately, so Vogeler was told to go home and that she’d receive a follow-up call in a few days.

She went grocery shopping, but when she got home there was a message telling her to call the doctor’s office.

Someone had seen a spot on the mammogram that they wanted to clarify, so Vogeler was given a second test and then sent to see a surgeon.

“I’ve probably got cancer,” she told herself.

The spot on the mammogram was an unknown calcification, and Vogeler’s surgeon said she had two options. If she waited six months and the mass changed, that would prove it was cancer. If it did nothing, then mostly likely it wasn’t anything.

She chose to wait.

Shortly after her visit with the surgeon, Vogeler and her husband, Charles Vogeler, took a vacation to Florida, but she was concerned about her health the entire time.

When the couple got home, Frances Vogeler called a friend who was a nurse and who took her to get a second opinion.

The new doctor told Vogeler she shouldn’t waste any time and ordered a biopsy, which confirmed the mass was cancer.

The diagnosis was devastating to the mother of four.

Charles Vogeler and Frances Vogeler’s friends told her they were praying for her, words that the practicing Catholic needed to hear, and they regularly visited to see how she was. Shortly after the diagnosis was confirmed, Frances Vogeler called a friend who sat with her in the middle of her living room and cried with her.

“That was such a wonderful gift, to have somebody cry with you,” she said.

The prognosis was good. The mass was small enough that Vogeler’s doctor removed all of the cancerous tissue during the biopsy. Vogeler didn’t need chemotherapy but underwent 30 rounds of radiation treatment over six weeks.

She was thrilled on her last day of radiation treatment, but the fear came back when she went for twice yearly mammogram follow-ups.

“That fear, the vision of the room comes back to me every single time,” she said.

Charles Vogeler could see the concern on his wife’s face during each appointment and in her voice as she asked the doctors if everything was still clear. All he could do was hug her and hold her hand.

“I guess I’m always the optimist. ‘It’s going to be all right, Franny, it’s going to be all right,’” Charles Vogeler said.

For years, Vogeler had about a 45-minute wait between the mammogram and the doctor’s review of the results.

The more time went by, she was convinced the cancer had returned and that the doctors hadn’t come back because they were discussing the best course of treatment.

Sometimes she was shaking when the doctor returned with the results, and recently she found a new doctor where the wait time was cut to about five minutes.

Vogeler doesn’t expect that her fear of the cancer returning will ever go away completely. But during each mammogram, she continues to take comfort in the prayers people offer for her and that she believes God hears. She talks with friends about her anxiety, including one friend who is now battling breast cancer.

Her friend wants to know about her experience, what she was afraid of and how she’s managed it for the past 20 years. Talking with her is cathartic for Vogeler because it provides a fresh perspective.

“It’s not about me anymore, it’s about her. And if I can listen, if I can give an encouraging word, that is very helpful for me. But it’s not about me anymore,” she said.

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