Fiercely fighting for her life
When Rachel Vath was diagnosed with breast cancer at age 19 last summer, she didn't ask why? While others around her did, Rachel didn't see any use in dwelling on a question that couldn't be answered.
The question she asked was how to beat the cancer.
Rachel, a 2010 Rosemount High School graduate and hockey standout, was diagnosed with breast cancer in July. She first noticed a lump in her breast her junior year of high school. Doctors insisted that it was likely a cyst. Then last year the lump started to grow and hurt.
Rachel was attending college at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire, where she was also playing college hockey.
She mentioned the pain to her doctor and was given medications to deal with it. The doctor again said it was likely a cyst.
However, the pain continued to worsen and so to be safe the doctor ordered a needle biopsy. Because she was busy with school and hockey, Rachel put the test off until July.
Even going into the test, doctors assured her it was unlikely to be cancer.
"I didn't think it would be a big deal," said Rachel.
The next morning Rachel's dad, Landon Vath, got the call with the news that it was indeed cancer. At 2 p.m. that day Rachel headed to Regions Hospital to start treatment.
On Aug. 30, Rachel had both her breasts removed. While the mass was only in her right breast, she decided to have both removed to lower her risk of the cancer coming back.
"To me it just made sense," said Rachel of her decision to have both breasts removed.
To her dad, her decision to have a double mastectomy was an example of Rachel's strength.
"To make that decision at 19, it's pretty impressive," said Landon.
While she had been told that the cancer was non-invasive, during the mastectomy doctors discovered the cancer had spread to some of her lymph nodes. So, doctors also removed 26 lymphnodes.
After the surgery, Rachel underwent two rounds of chemotherapy. She started in October and finished January 10.
"It's brutal," she said.
Rachel has always loved her hair. And at first the thought of losing it seemed daunting. But as she went through treatment, losing her hair turned out to be not that bad.
"Now I'm just ready for it to grow back," she said.
Doctors gave Rachel the option of doing radiation as well. Without radiation the risk of the cancer coming back is 25 to 30 percent but radiation has its own risk. Radiation therapy kills good cells as well as bad ones, and Rachel decided the dangers outweighed the possible benefits.
"They don't know the risks for someone so young," she said.
Picking up the pieces
Rachel has several more surgeries on the horizon to reconstruct her breasts. She will also need to go through scans every three months for the next several years.
Her road to recovery isn't over yet but at least the question she's asking now is, What's next?
The cancer effectively ended Rachel's collegiate hockey career and has put school on hold. Rachel is engaged to her high school sweetheart, Stephen Reardon. The couple hopes to marry soon, but no date has been set. Reardon is in the Navy.
While she hopes to return to school, Rachel said cancer has changed her priorities and she's not sure what she wants to do. She has been working at the Buckle in Burnsville throughout her ordeal and has taken an interest in fashion.
Rachel said at least for the immediate future she plans to work to pay her medical bills.
Rachel's family has no history of breast cancer. Her getting it was random. Landon said doctors have repeatedly told them it is extremely rare for someone so young to get breast cancer.
Rachel's diagnosis means her younger sister, Heather, mom, Susan Gerken, and aunts have a higher risk of getting breast cancer though.
According to the National Breast Cancer Foundation, it is estimated that each year nearly 200,000 women will be diagnosed with breast cancer. It is the second most common form of cancer in women after skin cancer.
Fierce for Life Fundraiser
There will be a fundraiser to help Rachel with her medical costs.
The event will take place from 4 to 11:30 p.m. Feb. 25 at the Rosemount VFW. The event will include dinner, raffles and several bands.
The live music will start at 7 p.m. and will include the bands 9Tomorrows and Mojo Munks.
An account has been set up at the First State Bank of Rosemount under Fierce for Life.
For more information check out www.fierce4life. com.