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Tonya Priestley and Cheryl Fitzgerald form bond in cancer journey

Photo Credit: TIMES PHOTO: LACEY JACOBY - Tonya Priestly (left) and Cheryl Fitzgerald (right) helped each other survive breast cancer through their friendship and support. The two women met through Sisters for Survivors, an organization Tonya started after her diagnosis. Cheryl Fitzgerald sat in her then 8-year-old son’s room for hours, listening to him breathe. Just listening. Listening. Wondering. Wondering how many more opportunities she would get to put him to bed.

Would she see her 6-year-old daughter, Kendal, graduate from high school? What about college?

When Fitzgerald made an appointment for her overdue mammogram in February 2012, she didn’t think anything of it. She was 44 at the time, and had no cancerous family history to worry about. On the day of her appointment, she wasn’t feeling well, but didn’t want to wait the three weeks to reschedule. That was a Friday. They called her on Monday to tell her she needed to come back in — they didn’t like some things they saw.

“Well, I’ve got to fly to Bend. Can we do it next week?” Fitzgerald asked her doctor. “I’ve got my daughter’s birthday Wednesday, and Thursday I’ve got to fly to Ashland. So can we do it next week?”

Still, she wasn’t worried.

“No, we want to see you tomorrow,” her doctor said.

“Well, I land at 3:45,” said Fitzgerald. “Then we’ll see you at 4:30.”

Per her doctor’s requests, Fitzgerald arrived at 4:30 p.m. the next day for another mammogram and ultrasound. Then her doctor said she wanted to biopsy the suspicious area. Fitzgerald asked if it could wait until the following week, but her doctor insisted it had to happen now. By this point, Fitzgerald was starting to worry. The next day, she got a call while sitting on a couch in her Tualatin home.

“Cheryl, I’m sorry — it’s cancer.”

A few days later, Fitzgerald was in the process of figuring out the next steps when a mutual friend introduced her and Bethany resident Tonya Priestley. A recent breast cancer survivor, Priestley started a nonprofit, Sisters for Survivors, through which she helped women advocate for their best care possible. Though the nonprofit has since ceased operations, it led Priestley to Fitzgerald, and ultimately helped Fitzgerald receive better care than she would have otherwise.

Initially, Fitzgerald’s doctors said all she needed was a lumpectomy. But, through Priestley’s encouragement for a second opinion, she learned a lumpectomy wasn’t the right course for her health after all.

“Knowing that she had just seen one doctor, and knowing that the doctor was just interested in a lumpectomy, that was a little bit of a red flag,” said Priestley, who’d been misdiagnosed in her own cancer journey.

Ever since Priestley’s doctor misread the initial results of a needle biopsy she received at age 38, she has been a strong advocate in seeking additional medical opinions. If she hadn’t, her stage zero cancer may have progressed to something much more aggressive. She wanted to ensure this didn’t happen to Fitzgerald, whose cancer was already in stage two by the time she was diagnosed. For both women, seeking a second opinion was what led to each of their bi-lateral mastectomies, and ultimately to being cancer-free.

Creating a strong bond

Because Priestley caught her cancer so early, she didn’t have to go through chemotherapy. This was not the case, however, for Fitzgerald.

“It was really realizing what mortality is and how we take things for granted,” Fitzgerald said. “After I had my surgery, I had no chest. And after going through chemo, I had no hair. I felt so unfeminine, so unattractive.”

“When you put on your clothes, they don’t look the same — you don’t look the same,” added Priestley. “It’s just crazy. It’s very hard. It’s very hard on the self-esteem.”

Though their journeys were difficult at times, each woman made strides to continue putting their families first and keeping their relationships healthy. Since both have two young children, they were focused on keeping everything as normal as possible for them. Joining the support group Portland Young Survivors was instrumental in reminding them they weren’t alone.

“Your husband doesn’t get it. Your kids don’t get it. Even your girlfriends don’t get it unless they’ve gone through it,” said Fitzgerald. “(Tonya) guided me through the whole process. And then when I was down, she was there to pick me up. That’s why I think having her support is what grew our friendship, because she got what I was saying. And the only person, really, who got what I was saying.”

“I’m grateful for (Cheryl’s) friendship,” said Priestley. “I just am very blessed to have come into contact with some really beautiful women and some beautiful people, and have some great friendships from the journey.”

Years later, both Fitzgerald and Priestley are cancer-free, and have taken steps to help ensure they don’t relapse. They’ve changed their eating habits, and only buy organic foods to keep chemicals out of their diets. Fitzgerald quit her stressful, travel-heavy job to spend more time at home. When Priestley went in for reconstructive surgery, she had the surgeon remove her ovaries to ensure ovarian cancer wouldn’t occur. And, both women have a new appreciation for their lives.

“I am so much more aware,” said Priestley. “I savor the day with my children. I look at my kids, and I just get much more out of the time that I spend with them.”

“It’s really weird. I feel like it’s been a gift,” added Fitzgerald. “This sounds crazy, I wouldn’t wish cancer on anybody. (But) I don’t want to go back to where I was. I wish my body was back to where it was, but I kind of like how I feel like I get more meaning out of life now. So, I feel like that would be the gift for me.”

Managing the pain

Bi-lateral mastectomies are traditionally very painful surgeries. To help deal with this, breast cancer survivors Tonya Priestley and Cheryl Fitzgerald used the ON-Q Pain Relief System.

“After a 9.5-hour surgery, a very extensive, long surgery, I woke up with no pain,” said Priestley. “It was crazy. I felt amazing.”

The system is an alternative to relying on oral pain medication. ON-Q delivers continuous anesthetic directly to the pain site, so patients can avoid some of the side effects that come with narcotics. This was essential for Priestley and Fitzgerald, who have young children.

During surgery, a special catheter is inserted near the pain site, through which the medicine flows for up to five days post surgery from a small, portable pump. Priestley and Fitzgerald think their recoveries would have been much longer and more painful without the system.

For more information, visit myon-q.com.

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