Mary Lou VanZandt

Mary Lou VanZandt is the 2019 honorary survivor for the Ottumwa Susan G. Komen Race for the Cure May 11 in Ottumwa Park.

OTTUMWA — Mary Lou VanZandt knew what to do when she noticed a small lump in her breast in late 2016.

“It was just a little lump, maybe the size of a BB,” she said. Still, she scheduled a mammogram and was checked that November. The results came back negative.

However, six months later, the lump continued to grow. She called back and got set up for an ultrasound and biopsy.

“That’s when I found out I had stage 3 [breast cancer],” said VanZandt, the 2019 honorary survivor for Ottumwa’s Susan G. Komen Race for the Cure.

After her May 2017 diagnosis, she decided to have genetic testing done and tested positive for the BRCA 1 gene. That led VanZandt to the decision to have a mastectomy and oophorectomy, a procedure to remove the ovaries, as well as to begin chemotherapy as the cancer had already spread to multiple lymph nodes.

“People with BRCAs tend to get ovarian cancer as well,” she said. “I went through all of that to avoid getting ovarian cancer. The positive thing about that is my family all got tested for the gene.”

As a result, VanZandt’s baby sister went in for a mammogram after testing positive for the gene. It turned out she was in the beginning stages of breast cancer. The early detection led to quick treatment. “She’s cancer-free now,” VanZandt said.

All of this was, in a way, surprising to her. She said there is a history of ovarian and prostate cancer in her family, but not breast cancer. “I didn’t even worry about breast cancer,” she said. “This is why I’m trying to spread awareness, because it can happen to anybody.”

In October 2017, VanZandt was declared cancer-free. “The doctor told me to go on and live my life, so I did,” she said. “I had still been working toward my associates’ degree during treatment, so I continued with that and graduated in May 2018.”

A week after graduation, new symptoms began appearing. She experienced severe headaches and pressure and was having trouble speaking. A mass was discovered in her brain as the fast-growing, aggressive and invasive cancer had metastasized to her brain.

That’s when she had her first brain surgery, followed up by three rounds of radiation and two types of oral chemotherapy.

“It came back in my brain and spinal cord, so I had to have a second brain surgery,” VanZandt said. “Now I’m trying a new chemo by infusion.” She said although the cancer has spread to several bones, it is stable in her brain.

“I’ve only had one infusion,” she said Friday of her new treatment. Her second infusion, which is likely coming next week, was delayed by a platelet and blood transfusion. “My labs are starting to look better,” she added.”

VanZandt’s message through all of this is hope. The doctors at the Chicago Cancer Center continue to tell her not to worry and not to be discouraged. “They’re so good at keeping your hopes up,” she said.

She credits the cancer center with helping her through the situation. While many cancers can be treated at a local or university hospital, VanZandt said there are some types that need the specialization of a cancer center.

“You can do a lot more testing at a cancer center because they have all the equipment. Cancers are different. Some you have to go to where they specialize in cancer.”

But VanZandt isn’t stopping with simply fighting her cancer. She said she wants to start a support group for people with all cancers, not just breast cancer.

“There’s so many more types out there,” she said. “I just want to be able to help people.”

With her role as honorary survivor at the May 11 race in Ottumwa Park, she hopes to be able to do just that. “I feel like I’ll be able to speak to people and let them know they’re not alone.”

And for those with a new diagnosis, Van Zandt’s advice is fairly simple: “What helps me is I pray a lot.”

She also said not to be afraid to go back and get second or third opinions about treatment options before beginning one.

“I went in blindfolded. I didn’t know anything,” she said. “Just be strong and don’t give up. There’s just too many treatments out there to give up.”

Features Editor Tracy Goldizen can be reached via email at tgoldizen@ottumwacourier.com or followed on Twitter @CourierTracy.

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Tracy Goldizen is the Courier's magazine editor, leading production of "Ottumwa Life," the award-winning "Business People" and the Courier's other magazine offerings. She began work with the Courier on the copy desk.