The gamble, the injured heart and fears for her children |

The gamble, the injured heart and fears for her children

Becky Bosshart
Appeal Staff Writer
Cathleen Allison/Nevada Appeal Breast cancer survivor Penny Russell and her husband, Pete, have dinner with their kids, Kimmi, 13, at rear, Kyle, 15, and Melissa, 9.

When Penny Russell drops off her son and his friends at school, or takes the children to a 4-H event, she goes without her fake breast and wig.

When her own brown hair started to grow back after six months of chemotherapy treatments, she left the “too hairy” wig in a closet beside the “uncomfortable fake boob.”

“You stop worrying about people staring at you, or what you’re going to look like – who cares?” Russell said. “Being more comfortable outweighs everything else.”

The scar curves down toward her armpit on the left side of her chest. At first she didn’t look at it.

“It’s not half as shocking as you’d think,” she said during a visit this week with her Carson City oncologist. “When you talk about losing your life, a breast doesn’t seem to matter as much.”

Russell got the wig and the prosthetic from the Cancer Resource Center, where she also learned how to be a survivor. She met Ann Proffitt a week after her diagnosis, which was on Oct. 14, 2005.

“I was in a panic state, the type of panic you get when you’re running away from something,” Russell said. “I had a racing heart beat. I hadn’t slept in three to four days.”

She spent three hours with Proffitt, founder of the Cancer Resource Center, who is a 14-year breast cancer survivor.

“The very first thing we introduce them to is survivorship because most people don’t know that,” Proffitt said Wednesday. “What you believe is, if you are diagnosed with cancer, you are going to die. Survivorship is not stressed as well or as much as the death issue. I may also share with them the fact that they are talking with a survivor, and that everyone on my staff is a survivor.”

Today, Russell and other cancer survivors will tour the new resource center in the Carson Tahoe Cancer Center. Russell will use the resource center as she continues her recovery.

The $12 million cancer center represents the first time in Carson City that treatment and intensive informational counseling will be done under the same roof.

“All they have to do is walk across the hall or walk upstairs,” Proffitt said. “We can instantly get our hands on them and introduce them to survivorship.”

Living to laugh

The 45-year-old Douglas County woman is starting to understand the concept of survivorship. Russell looks like the average soccer mom with her stylish boy hair cut, tennis shoes and sweats.

She has concerns that most mothers share. Russell wants desperately to drop a few pounds. She gained 20 pounds over four months because of the steroid treatments and inactivity. Her oncologist tells her she’ll have cancer whether she’s skinny or overweight – a comment that makes her chuckle.

Russell is the laugh track to her own life. Her chuckles come from deep down in her throat and bubble out into the world. She laughs at the long wait in the oncologist’s office. She laughs at the months spent in her “clean room” at home.

Russell calls herself scatterbrained, a condition brought on by the effects of “chemo brain.” She forgets where she’s driving or what she needs to ask her doctor. This week she used a yellow sticky note with trigger words like “flu shot” and “check breast.”

“This is not something you sign up for,” Russell said one evening at home with the family. “It just happens to you and you have to roll with it.”

She found out this week that the chemotherapy forced her into menopause. She and her husband hadn’t planned on having more children after 15-year-old Kyle, 13-year-old Kimmi and 9-year-old Melissa. Russell said she’s more scared about whether she’s going to live, not about hot flashes.

In the back of Russell’s mind is concern for her daughters. Russell’s grandmother and two of her sisters died of breast cancer.

“It’s rampant in the women on my dad’s side of the family,” Russell said.

“I’m not that worried about it,” said Kimmi, an eighth-grader at Carson Valley Middle School. “I know it could happen.”

What saves cancer patients, also hurts them. One of the medications she started to take after the chemotherapy caused two of her heart chambers to swell up, leading to a valve leak.

“It’s like sitting at the gambling table and throwing the dice,” she said. “I’d rather live with the heart problems than not live.”

About two months ago they learned that Russell’s 85-year-old mother, Caroyl, has terminal cancer. Doctors treating her in Vacaville, Calif., don’t even know where the cancer originated from, suspicions are that it’s ovarian. It’s already spread.

“The whole time I’ve been fighting it, it’s been growing inside her,” Russell said. “She’s in complete denial. But that’s OK because she’s getting treatment.”

Once things calm down, she wants to volunteer at the resource center because of how much it helped her.

It may be awhile. Russell’s oncologist wants to start her back on Herceptin, which caused her heart problem. The drug is used on women with advanced cancer, whose tumors have too much of a certain protein. About 20 percent of breast cancer patients have these types of tumors, which tend to grow faster and are more likely to reoccur, according to the National Cancer Institute.

“I have mixed emotions,” she said, about starting the treatment again. “It’s what I wanted, but it’s stressful to go through.”

When you have cancer, days are lost in treatment, she said. Your schedule begins to revolve around the appointments.

It’s a gamble she’s willing to make.

“I’m gambling more if I’m not doing anything. I’ve got three kids at home.”

• Contact reporter Becky Bosshart at or 881-1212.