HANCOCK COUNTY — Tania Cruser was lying on her couch on a Friday night this past February when her hand fell against her side, and she felt the lump in her left breast.
“It felt like the size of an egg,” recalled Cruser, 50, a financial adviser who owns the Edward Jones franchise in Maxwell.
Being a Friday night, she couldn’t schedule a mammogram until Monday.
By the following Friday, she was given the news: Stage 2 cancer was growing in her breast, and she’d need to start chemotherapy immediately.
According to the Susan G. Komen Foundation, early detection is critical in battling the disease, which will claim the lives of an estimated 43,600 women in the United States this year.
Cruser knows she’s in for the fight of her life, and has been forging ahead with her trademark strength and straight forward resolve.
Those who know her know that Cruser has a direct way of expressing herself.
So she’s not afraid to admit that her brush with cancer has been “terrifying,” or that her typically upbeat demeanor was tested when her world was first turned upside down by the news.
“I’ve known a lot of people with cancer and with breast cancer, but I really had zero concept of what that looked like and felt like until it was me. And it’s awful. It sucks,” she said earlier this week from her Pendleton home.
Yet the New Palestine native is weathering the storm, even after undergoing a double mastectomy, radiation and seven rounds of chemo. She is being scheduled to have a hysterectomy next week.
The ongoing fight is still hard for her to wrap her head around, she said.
“Your brain goes to some very dark places,” Cruser shared over the phone Wednesday, as she juggled a slew of doctor’s appointments.
“Every time the phone rings, and they’re calling to say, ‘Hey, an appointment opened up sooner if you’d like to reschedule,’ you think, ‘Yeah sure you want to move it up, because I’m dying,’” she said.
Your mortality hits you like a ton of bricks when you hear the word “cancer,” said the mother of three.
“The older you get, you see all the things that kill people — and you know logically these things can happen to you, but until someone tells you that you have a condition that threatens your life span, it’s like having a kid; you can’t really understand it until you experience it,” she said.
A longtime county resident with 30 years of financial advising experience, Cruser has made her mark on Hancock County over the years. She recently wrapped up seven years of service as a Hancock Health Foundation board member, a position she recently gave up to focus on her family and her health.
One of the foundation’s main jobs is supporting the Women Helping Women fund, which helps provide health screenings for all women, regardless of insurance.
“Tania has brought financial and business expertise to the board, and she’s helped secure many donations for us over the years,” said foundation manager Allyson Smith, who has been inspired by how well Cruser has balanced her family, career and volunteer work throughout the years.
Cruser feels blessed to have not missed a single one of her daughter’s tennis matches or her son’s football games throughout her treatment.
“I have been incredibly fortunate that the chemo was not terrible for me. I’m still at all the things I should be at,” she said.
While she feels fortunate that her body has handled the chemotherapy and mastectomy well, her mental and emotional health have been put to the test.
Especially when it comes to questioning why she never went in for her annual mammogram in 2020.
She believes the fallout from the cancer would have been less extreme if she had scheduled her exam around her September birthday, as she does each year, but it slipped her mind.
“I’m one of those people who gets the (mammogram) reminder in the mail and I schedule it and go, but they never sent the letter in 2020, I assume because they got behind with the pandemic,” said Cruser, referring to Community Hospital North, which she has visited for health care since having her first child there 18 years ago.
“I’d get my mammogram every year. I did it because I got the annual reminder and knew it was what I was supposed to do. I never considered there would ever be a problem, because cancer doesn’t run in my family,” she said.
Cruser wants to make it clear that she’s not blaming anyone, but being faced with your own mortality makes you question why things happen the way they do, she said.
“I look at pictures now and think, ‘Oh look it’s my birthday last year, I bet I had cancer then and didn’t know it. This was the time I was supposed to be getting a mammogram and didn’t know it. If I had gotten my mammogram in 2020 and detected it then, it probably wouldn’t have spread to my lymph nodes by February,” she said.
“Maybe I would have still had cancer, but it wouldn’t have been as hard to deal with as it has. Once I heard that it had spread to my lymph nodes, in my head I started counting down my days.”
‘Get it done’
She hopes other women will use her story as a cautionary tale, and will make it a priority to schedule their mammograms every year.
“Do yourself a favor and get it done. Don’t be like me. Don’t be that person who relies on a reminder card to come in the mail reminding you that it’s time. Take things into your own hands,” she said.
If not, the consequences can be life-changing.
“I left it to them to remind me instead of taking responsibility for it myself, and this is what I get for it,” said Cruser, who still questions why things worked out the way they did. When she had a uterine ablation back in December, her gynecologist didn’t notice in her charts that she was overdue for a mammogram and didn’t give a friendly reminder, as she had in the past.
“Why didn’t she notice? Why didn’t somebody else notice? Why didn’t I remember?,” she said. “It’s nobody’s fault, but those are the kind of things that of course now cross my mind.”
Cruser encourages even those with no family history of cancer to still go in for routine mammograms and other health screenings.
“Even if you don’t think you need to, you really do. I had no cancer in my family, either… until I did,” she said. “It turns out my dad carries the breast cancer gene and passed it on to me, but he’s from a long line of men, and they’ve never had cancer.”
Because the gene increases the risk of ovarian and uterine cancer, Cruser elected to have both breasts removed in a preventive double mastectomy, followed by a full hysterectomy. She opted not to have reconstructive surgery on her breasts, “because if something comes back I want to know, and those implants can get in the way of you feeling something,” she said.
Cruser said it was “very scary” when her hand accidentally grazed the egg-sized lump in her breast back in February.
From that point forward — despite the doubts that have run through her head — Cruser has shown fierce determination to beat the disease, said her friend and office administrator, Jill Phillips.
“She has just been such an inspiration through this whole entire thing. She’s been so strong through the whole process,” said Phillips, who has worked for Cruser for the past eight years.
Her boss has continued to come into the office through it all, even when Phillips had to take a three-month medical leave.
“She’s worked throughout the entire process. I just am so impressed at her strength through this whole thing. She never asked anybody for anything, never said she needed anything from anybody, but her family and friends and our clients have been so amazing and supportive,” Phillips said.
“We knew she was going to beat this from the very beginning.”
Cruser has been humbled by the outpouring of support that has sustained her through this journey.
Her family didn’t blink an eye when she started losing her hair. She came straight home from her second chemo appointment and shaved her head herself.
“For me it was because I wanted to be the one in control. I’m going to be the one to decide when my hair goes away, not the cancer,” she said.
Cruser continues to tough it out each day, according to Phillips, and is spurred on by her bright hopes for the future — which include playing with her future grandchildren and easing into retirement one day with her husband by her side.
“Even when I don’t have hair or boobs, he’s still really supportive,” she joked. “He’s a really great guy, and we have things to do,” she said.
BREAST CANCER FACTS AND FIGURES
According to the Susan G. Komen Foundation, tens of thousands of women will die from breast cancer this year, which makes early detection and treatment crucial.
In 2021, according to komen.org, it’s estimated that among women in the United States there will be:
—281,550 new cases of invasive breast cancer (including new cases of primary breast cancer, but not breast cancer recurrences)
—49,290 new cases of ductal carcinoma in situ (DCIS), a non-invasive breast cancer
—43,600 breast cancer deaths
Among men in the United States, it’s estimated there will be:
—2,650 new cases of invasive breast cancer (including new cases of primary breast cancers, but not breast cancer recurrences)
—530 breast cancer deaths
The American Cancer Society also stresses the importance of screening for the early detection of breast cancer.
According to its website, cancer.org:
—Breast cancer is easier to treat successfully when detected early.
—The COVID-19 pandemic has led to a substantial decline in cancer screening, and those who have missed screenings should schedule as soon as possible.
—All women are urged to talk to their health-care provider to see what steps should be taken to plan, schedule and receive regular cancer screenings.
—Women between 40 and 44 have the option to start screening with a mammogram every year.
—Women 45 to 54 should get mammograms every year.
—Women 55 and older can switch to a mammogram every other year, or they can choose to continue yearly mammograms. Screening should continue as long as a woman is in good health and is expected to live at least 10 more years.
—Regular mammograms can help find breast cancer at an early stage, when treatment is most successful. A mammogram can often find breast changes that could be cancer years before physical symptoms develop.
—Research shows that women who have regular mammograms are more likely to have breast cancer found early, are less likely to need aggressive treatment like surgery to remove the breast (mastectomy) and chemotherapy, and are more likely to be cured.
—In recent years, a newer type of mammogram called digital breast tomosynthesis (commonly known as three-dimensional or 3D mammography) has become much more common, although it’s not available in all breast imaging centers.
—Studies have found that 3D mammography appears to find more breast cancers, and can be helpful in women whose breast tissue is more dense.
—Women should be familiar with how their breasts normally look and feel and should report any changes to a health care provider right away.
Susan G. Komen Foundation (www.komen.org)
American Cancer Society (www.cancer.org)