In 1999, life changed for Christine Atwell when she was diagnosed with breast cancer.
In 2012, after thinking she was cancer-free, her life took another turn, when she was diagnosed with metastatic stage-four breast cancer in her bones.
The Hancock County Relay for Life Committee has chosen Atwell as this year's honorary ambassador. The Relay is being held from 6-10 p.m. on Friday, June 21, in Garner.
In 1999, Atwell was 31 years old when she was first diagnosed with breast cancer.
After undergoing a mastectomy, Atwell said she thought she was cancer-free and resumed life as normal until her cancer came back in 2012.
This time it was metastatic, stage-four breast cancer in her bones, which means it will never go away and she will have to have treatment for the rest of her life.
“That was heart-wrenching,” Atwell said. “I didn’t know what it meant when they said, ‘Okay, it’s metastatic, it’s in your bones.’ I’m like, okay, does that mean I have six months to live? I was very scared and heart-wrenching.”
Atwell said she later figured out there were multiple treatment options available and her doctors didn’t give her a timeline on how much time she had remaining.
Atwell said the cancer mostly stays in her bones, but occasionally it spreads outside the bones, so Atwell has to go through various treatments to make the cancer outside her bones go away, she said.
Because cancer adapts to the medication she takes, Atwell said she has to change her treatment schedule every six months.
“I’ve mostly done pills or shots,” she said. “I’ve had to do one round of IV [chemotherapy], and right now I’m on my last round of pills, and then I’ll have to go on IV chemo from here on out. So I have to have treatment until the day I pass away.”
Atwell said cancer is taxing emotionally, mentally and financially and it was difficult for her and her family to adjust in the beginning, but now it has become a way of life for them.
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“The kids kind of do their things and my husband and I just kind of do our thing. We try and enjoy each moment. We don’t put off for tomorrow something we can do today. We like to do vacations and fun things when we can,” she said.
Atwell is married to Lance Atwell and together they have two daughters, who are 12 and 14 years old.
Because of her physical disabilities from the treatment, such as drop foot and some issues with muscles in her right leg, her family helps out around the house with chores such as dishes and laundry.
She also looks for support from a metastatic cancer Facebook group, which gives her encouragement and advice on how to deal with the treatment side effects, as well as getting some hats, wigs and makeup classes through the American Cancer Society.
“All the research that [ACS does] has helped me tremendously,” she said. “Without all the different medications – I go through it every six months – without all of that, I wouldn’t be here today probably.”
The cancer also affected her work life, making her more tired with less stamina, requiring her to take a lot of time off of work, using her sick and vacation time for appointments.
“Sometimes I have to go weekly to appointments in either Albert Lea or Rochester, so I spent a lot of time – all my treatments are through Mayo Clinic – on the road going to appointments, whether it’s for treatment or just for check-ups in between,” Atwell said. “So for a while I was going every week. Now I’m on an every two week regiment.”
Before she had cancer, Atwell worked at North Iowa Area Community College Pappajohn Center as an administrative assistant.
At the time of her second diagnosis, Atwell was working at Waldorf College in academic achievement, working with students who had learning disabilities and making sure they had the necessary accommodations for their classes.
Atwell said she had to quit her job with the return of her cancer to spend more time with her family and to figure out what treatment to undergo. Eventually she went back to work.
Now Atwell works as the community education program manager in the NIACC - Garner office.
“I’m thankful I can still work full time and keep up with that,” she said. “I try to look at a positive in everything. I just try to live life like normal and do what I normally do.”