MANKATO — The radiation, which was already Plan C to begin with, was working, but it was damaging her skin and was extremely painful. She still had several weeks of radiation left and needed to decide whether to take a break or, as her doctors suggested, keep going through the pain.
Then she had a vision.
She saw herself in a pink boxing ring. She was in one corner. Breast cancer was in the other. “It didn’t have a shape, it was just this black malevolent mass coming toward me,” Saunders said.
Fists up, she prepared to fight.
“Then, I got really pissed,” she said. “I went from being sad and crying, poor me, to thinking, ‘F-you, cancer. If it’s gonna be you or me, it’s gonna be me! Give me everything you’ve got, bring it on, because I’m gonna kick your ass!”
That was in 2011. Today, after surgery, after beating not only breast cancer but also skin cancer, she’s become an evangelist for the strength of the human spirit. She’s healthy. She’s happy. And she loves to wear pink.
Pink sweatshirt, pink sweat pants, pink Crocs, pink ribbon pin, pink earrings and necklace.
She feels lucky to be here. She’s proud to be a survivor. And she wants the world to know.
She also wants the world to know she’s not ashamed of the fact that she’s without one of her breasts.
“I liked having two breasts, but I’m fine with having one,” Said Saunders, 44. “I don’t wear a prosthesis, I don’t wear a bra. I want people to know I have one breast. I wear tight shirts so people see me and know. This is my badge.”
Saunders’ goal isn’t just to make people smile. She’s also starting up a support group for survivors of breast cancer and their friends and family. She said she’s been through a lot, and she believes she’s ready to help others see the same kind of success she’s had.
She found her breast cancer in 2010, but by then she was already an old pro at mentally dealing with a deadly disease. In the summer of 2000 a patch of dry skin on her heel showed up that ultimately would be diagnosed as squamous cell carcinoma, a relatively rare form of skin cancer.
She dealt with that steadily for 10 years. And then she more bad news.
In 2010 she experienced soreness in her right breast. Her partner discovered a lump, and she booked an appointment right away.
After a biopsy, her worst fears were confirmed.
“I started shaking, I started crying,” she said.
Her Mankato doctor, while not being able to say exactly what type of cancer this was recommended surgery immediately. But Saunders’ partner said no.
“She said, ‘If you don’t know what type of cancer she has, how do you know surgery is the best way to handle this?’” Saunders recalled.
They left their Mankato doctor and Saunders pursued care from the people who had treating her skin cancer, the University of Minnesota at Fairview. Doctors there diagnosed her cancer at papillary inflammatory breast cancer, and told her it needed to treated immediately. It had metastasized to her lymph nodes.
But what was different about this diagnosis was this: they said it couldn’t be removed, at least not right away. To cut into this tumor, Saunders recalls being told, would cause the tumor to spread rapidly. Instead, they created a treatment plan that was aggressive in the hopes that it would shrink the mass.
Her first attempt at chemotherapy went badly. The drugs made her dangerously lethargic. So they decided to try radiation.
It was among her last options. And while she was never told this directly, given the research she did and questions she had gotten answers to, she figured she had about a month to live.
The plan was 12 weeks of radiation. At the mid-way point, she had that vision with the pink boxing ring. She pressed on, and by the end, the cancer was depleted enough to where it was safer for doctors to remove the tumor.
On surgery day, she prepared. Wearing pink lipstick and holding a sign that said, “So long Mimi,” the pet name she’d given her breast.
When she awoke, she said, she felt energized.
“I looked down my gown, the nurses paused, they seemed nervous,” she said. “And I said, ‘Oh my God, my tattoo is still there!”
The tattoo, which looks like a mask, was the first of many she’s gotten since, and it was special to her.
The surgery got everything, and today she’s a walking testimonial for the value of fighting through it. And since her breast cancer surgery, she’s also had surgery to remove cancer from her foot. That, too, was successful, and today she’s cancer free.
Saunders wants to start up a breast cancer support group
“Every single person I’ve talked to has been a survivor or knows someone who has had it,” she said.
She said she attended support groups specifically for breast cancer in the Twin Cities, and feels the need for one in Mankato is great.
It will be called Cheryl the Hope, a play on the words “share all the hope,” and in honor of the grandmother of group co-founder Hayden Northrup.
The group will meet weekly, with the first and third Tuesdays of the month reserved for survivors only, and the second and fourth Tuesdays being open to all