DeAnn never stops smiling. She talks about physical and emotional pain, but all the while, a grin is spread wide across her face. As she relives the trauma of chemotherapy and the fear she would only allow herself to feel momentarily, she does so with a smile warm enough to crinkle the corners of her eyes. And, three years after her breast cancer diagnosis, DeAnn Ruoff lives by a simple reminder: "Be kinder than necessary because everyone you meet is fighting some kind of battle."
She's many things, DeAnn is. She's a mother of two, with a son (22) and a daughter (20), and she's been a wife for 28 years. She's from Indiana and loves to take walks, to garden and to sew. She creates beautiful pillowcases and knickknacks with patience. Perhaps just as important, DeAnn is a survivor, although she'd say her husband was worse off during the fight than she was.
"After the kids left the house," DeAnn said, "I kept thinking, 'What are my husband and I going to talk about?' " It turns out the topic would choose them.
During the summer of 2009, doctors found four areas worth watching in DeAnn's mammogram. Her surgeon at the time said they could wait to do a biopsy and that there was only a 20 percent chance the areas were dangerous, playing to DeAnn's vanity, she said, because there would be divots on her skin where the biopsies were taken. But the radiologist told DeAnn, "Honey, I can't sleep at night until you get those biopsied." So she did. Three out of four areas were cancerous.
"She saved my life," DeAnn said. "As a mother, I have so many other things to do," DeAnn remembered thinking when she considered putting the biopsies off. "I don't have time for this. I'll be okay. But when you're that 20 percent …"
On June 22, 2009, DeAnn was diagnosed with stage I breast cancer. Only a few days later, on July 1, she underwent a double mastectomy at the hospital where her husband is an orthopedic surgeon. When she came out of the operating room and the doctors determined the cancer had not spread anywhere else, the nurses cheered. "It felt really good that peopled cared that much," DeAnn said.
Although the cancer was found in only one breast, DeAnn decided she didn't want to take any chances. "Once you've been through it, it's even scarier because you know what it entails," she said of her reasoning. "Now, I can sleep at night."
Besides, everything in life can have a positive spin, at least for DeAnn. "Of all the places you can get cancer, it's like go ahead!" she laughed. "It's something you can live without."
Two weeks later, things became more difficult. DeAnn started chemo—five-hour sessions of getting toxic drugs pumped into her body. "It was horrendous," she said. "You are so depleted, and just when you start feeling good, you have to have another session."
Nurses would come in wearing masks, gloves and protective suits because chemicals were toxic. "Oh my gosh! They're putting that in my body!" DeAnn remembered thinking. "It's so scary when you really think about it."
Again, it was a game of percentages. Only 50 percent of chemo patients lose their hair. DeAnn fell on the wrong side of the numbers, and her hair started to come out in clumps. DeAnn thinks her husband begged her not to shave it because without the drastic change, he could still believe she was okay. "It was so hard to lose it. Hair is so much of your personality," she said.
Her previous employer, Vera Bradley, sent her scarves, garnering her a new nickname from her son. "He called me Biker Mama," DeAnn laughed.
When she made the transition to wigs, she did so with a sense of humor. Going through airport security one day with a wig on, the TSA agent looked at DeAnn, then her photo ID and back to her. "I like your hair so much better now," the agent said.
DeAnn giggled at the memory. "I should have just taken it off and handed it to her! Here, have it," she said.
But sometimes, it was simply too hard, too draining, to really try and stay upbeat about her weakening condition. Although DeAnn claims it was easier to go through it because she had a sense of control, rather than witness someone you love suffer through it like her husband did, there were moments she felt defeated.
"There was only a five-minute period when I ever thought I was going to die," DeAnn said. She got violently ill after a chemo session, and the fear briefly took control. "I couldn't calm myself down."
The not-so-good days weren't frequent, but they're easy to remember. "There were days when I would literally lie on the floor and cry, just because I was so depleted. It's a feeling I can't describe. It wasn't that I didn't think I was going to live, or get through it, I was just tired.
"It's like a rollercoaster. A lot of the times, it goes down lower than you think."
DeAnn says she's never really been outwardly strong, although she's always had it in her. But hearing her speak about keeping strong for her kids and her husband, no one could doubt her resilience. "I was so blessed my children were away at school," she said, more concerned with their well-being and reaction to her diminishing health than she was with her own.
"I knew I could handle whatever life gave me, but there were a few days I questioned that." For about four months, DeAnn couldn't do much of anything, too tired to even stand in a grocery line, but with the generosity of her friends, she was never really alone.
On Sept. 24, she finished chemo, and about a month later, on Oct. 26, her 25th wedding anniversary, she had reconstructive surgery—a new beginning.
As things slowly started to get better, the doctors put DeAnn on medication, basically tripping menopause. "It's funny," she said with her ever-present positivity, "I've been cold my whole life, and it's like the first time in my life I've ever been warm!"
Her positive thinking was rewarded this past June when she was given clearance to get mammograms only twice a year, reduced from every three months. And her energy is slowly returning. She can now get back into the Club's water aerobics classes, something she loved before chemo, and has been enjoying the Barre-X classes as well.
DeAnn danced ballet for 11 years, and she has made it a goal to take her niece's ballet class next month. But other than that, it's one step at a time.
"I've given myself permission not to have these lofty goals anymore," she said, deciding one errand a day is better than 10.
DeAnn's best advice for anyone going through something similar is to find a surgeon and oncologist that you trust, since "you're kind of married to them for five years." But most important, listen to your body. "I was told that cancer doesn't hurt," she said. "I had deep pains in my chest before my diagnosis, but didn't think it could be anything. I think we know our bodies."
She's still dealing with the after-effects, things that most people don't realize linger long after chemo is over. With "chemo brain" she sometimes has difficulty stringing sentences together or finding the right word, and overstimulation, like an action-packed movie, can be hard to bear.
But DeAnn recognizes that she isn't the only one to go through this struggle, and that the many women before her had it harder, without the advances of science. She's very thankful for everyone who volunteers for the cause—through walks, climbs and everything else.
"Once you have an illness and get through it, I think everyone has the feeling that they want to give back. That's one thing I've had the hardest time with," she said. "I thought I had to give back in a big way, but I really don't have the energy.
"Some people are hurricanes and some people are whisperers, so I'm a whisperer. I'm going to give back, but it's going to be little by little, softly."
For now, she's starting by sharing her story, and offering comfort and guidance to anyone who may need it. "I would love to help anybody. I would love to be that whisperer." It doesn't have to be a singular fight, and it wasn't for DeAnn.
"It's a community that saved me."