DeAnn Barr's eyes sweep over the panorama of her lush, park-like backyard.
"There was a time when I would have felt I had to clean up these leaves," she says. Now, it's not as high on her priority list. "That's what cancer will do for you," she notes wryly.
Barr knows all too well about breast cancer's ability to redefine a well-ordered life. She was diagnosed when she was 40 years old, in the fall of 2008. Two years later, as she talks about her experience, it's clear how emotionally excruciating and physically wrenching it was.
Equally clear is that her journey to becoming a cancer survivor has ignited a passion to educate and assist other women as they confront breast cancer, although Barr remarks, "I don't want to give cancer credit for anything."
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The disease certainly gets no credit for Barr's deep-seated values of service to her country, her community and her family. Raised on a mantra of "service before self," she and her husband, Roger, went into the Air Force after they graduated from college. Barr left active duty in 1996 when the first of her four children was born. Since 1997, she has worked in public affairs for the Kansas Air National Guard while juggling family activities, church and involvement in her community.
"I've always been the good girl, the rule follower," she says. "I'm a healthy eater. I had no risk factors." So when her cancer was diagnosed, she recalls thinking, "I don't deserve this."
It almost didn't get diagnosed at all.
'A ton of bricks'
Barr thought getting a mammogram was a waste of time. Her doctor had recommended she begin getting them at age 40.
"I was irritated," she recalls. "It was fall. I had just ended a Guard tour. The first thing on my list was to clean up my backyard."
She considered canceling the appointment, but things she'd read and heard about breast cancer made her change her mind.
The initial mammogram resulted in a callback. It came in the form of an ordinary letter: "It doesn't warn you that you are about to be hit by a ton of bricks," Barr says. The results of the second exam led to a biopsy, then a phone call, during which Barr was told she had breast cancer.
She was diagnosed with ductal carcinoma in situ (DCIS), a type of breast cancer that forms in the milk ducts. The cancer was present in only one breast, but a mastectomy was required.
"The phone call came at one o'clock and I had kids to pick up at school at 3," she says. "I decided I needed a plan by then, because I wasn't telling anybody I had cancer until I had a plan." Two hours later, Barr had identified, contacted, and scheduled a consultation with a surgeon. She remembers, "My life was on a scrap piece of paper."
Despite the fact that Barr describes herself as a "basket case" after her diagnosis, she tried to continue a normal routine for the sake of her children. "My diagnosis was on a Tuesday. What do you do on Wednesday? You go to the zoo!"
But her children had to be told about her cancer. Barr remembers that she and her husband shared the news with them. "We all cried and then we went to a school music performance."
Having to tell others about her cancer was one of the most difficult parts of coping with the disease. "Telling another woman about breast cancer is like punching her in the gut," she says, "because it's every woman's worst fear."
Barr's surgery and recovery occurred around Thanksgiving of 2008. Due to the noninvasive nature of her cancer and her excellent prognosis, she had much to be thankful for. "That Christmas Day," she recalls, "I was like Ebenezer Scrooge except I didn't run through the neighborhood in my nightie."
Choices and challenges related to breast reconstruction following her mastectomy presented Barr with a host of new problems. She opted for a procedure that involved gradually expanding her remaining chest tissue to form a pocket for a breast implant. You might think it would be a simple solution. You would be wrong.
"They can't make the new breast look like the old one," she says. "And I was 40 years old and had nursed four kids — so do I really want them to make it look like that?"
She was also concerned that her remaining breast might develop DCIS. Implants can interfere with what a mammogram is able to detect in breast tissue. If Barr got an implant in her healthy breast to match the reconstructed breast, she worried that a future cancer might be concealed.
And yet, being comfortable with what she saw in the mirror each morning was crucial to her mental and emotional health. The right decision, Barr resolved, was a second mastectomy. Her insurance company balked at covering the cost, which necessitated a long appeal process. She eventually prevailed, and recalls tearfully, "We went out to eat to celebrate. What does it mean when you're celebrating that you 'won' a second mastectomy?"
Today, Barr's prognosis is excellent. There is a very slight chance that some of her remaining chest tissue or lymph nodes might someday show signs of precancerous change, but regular exams and monitoring should curtail any significant risk.
She admits that she feels some survivor's guilt about her good fortune. Many survivors have to endure chemotherapy and radiation as part of their treatment. She feels "blessed to have had lucky cells."
And she knows the importance of giving back. She's an energetic organizer and participant in the Komen Wichita Race for the Cure. Last year, she fielded the organization's largest race team. Her team for this year's race, Poggi's Pride (named after the plastic surgeon who performed her breast reconstruction), has formed an alliance with Eric Fisher Salon to make donations and race sign-up more convenient, and to remind women to get regular breast exams.
She sums up what the Komen organization and race mean to her:
"I do it because their work saved my life. I do it because I have two little girls. I do it because I'm still here."