Everything was falling into place for Amanda Thiele.
After three years of working long-term substitute positions, she had landed her first full-time teaching job.
She and her fiance, Eric Vestergaard, were ready to start planning their wedding.
“I had felt like I was waiting for my life to start. Everything was happening,” Thiele said.
In a moment, everything changed.
“I was sitting at home on the computer. I bumped my chest and felt something hard on my right side, and I knew right away,” she said.
That was late last June, and Thiele, 25, did not yet have insurance.
The Waupaca native, who now lives in Menasha, went to Planned Parenthood and received a referral to have a biopsy.
“I went in. They did a mammogram and an ultrasound,” Thiele said. “The ultrasound said it didn’t have any characteristics of cancer. A good thing I had done testing and knew I had the gene, or I would have been sent home.”
She was referring to is the BRCA gene.
Thiele was 21 when her father, Dick Thiele, was tested to see if he carried the harmful mutation of the gene.
His mother, both of his sisters and two of his nieces were all diagnosed with breast or ovarian cancer when they were in their 50s.
“We found out he had it,” Thiele said.
She was then tested to see if she carried the same genetic mutation.
“I found out I have it. I had my first mammogram and MRI when I was 21,” Thiele said.
When a woman inherits the gene, her risk of developing breast and ovarian cancer greatly increases.
“I knew it was coming. I just kidn’t know when,” she said.
Thiele planned to have a double mastecomy when she was in her 30s to protect herself.
After having a mammogram at age 21, there was no recommendation to have annual mammograms at her age.
“We were thinking five to ten years,” she said of when the next mammogram should be scheduled.
On July 5, Thiele had a biopsy. Three days later, she was diagnosed with breast cancer.
The diagnosis came within a week of when she was hired to be a kindergarten teacher in the Kimberly School District.
After testing, Thiele decided to have a double mastecomy because the chance of a reoccurence was high.
“It was stage two, grade three, which means it’s progressive, so I was lucky I caught it when I did,” she said.
Thiele had the surgery on July 29 and had reconstructive surgery right away.
She will have a total of 16 chemotherapy treatments.
“It’s in my bloodstream, which is why I’m doing chemo. It’s not in my lymph nodes,” Thiele said.
Last Thursday, Sept. 26, she had her second treatment. She is having the treatments at Appleton Medical Center.
The first two months, the treatments are bi-weekly. That will be followed by weekly treatments for three months.
Friends, family and benefits
Her doctors tell her to think about it as a five-month break in her life.
Thiele’s job is to get healthy and to then start over, and that is exactly what she is doing.
She surrounds herself with what she calls her “circle of happy people.”
Her family, including parents Dick and Nancy and brother T.J., and also her friends and co-workers are doing what they can to support her.
Benefits have been held in the Fox Valley and in Waupaca. Among them was one at Red and White, a wine bar in Menasha where Thiele previously worked.
Working there also connected her to the Pink Party Breast Cancer Foundation, which holds events throughout the year in the Fox Valley to benefit local women.
Each year, the foundation does a “Faces of Survival” calendar as another way to raise funds.
Thiele is among the women in the foundation’s 2014 calendar, with her picture featured for February.
The Waupaca High School Dance Team also raised funds for Thiele, who was a member of the team when she was in high school.
Last Saturday, Sept. 28, a golf outing was held at Hidden Waters Golf Course, followed by food, music, a raffle and silent auction at Schueller’s Great Exspechtations.
A benefit is tentatively scheduled to be held at Chain O’ Lakes Bar & Grill on Saturday, Oct. 19.
The funds from the benefits will help her with incurred living and medical expenses. She is on six medications and will also have to do physical therapy.
Back to the classroom
Unable to work throughout the summer, Thiel’s fiance took care of her.
Now, she is teaching and her health insurance coverage began on Aug. 30.
“My principal texts and calls me after every appointment. The superintendent came to a benefit,” Thiele said. “Kimberly Schools donated money and items for the silent auction.”
Staff members from throughout the district helped Thiele put her classroom together, because she could not lift anything.
There is a designated substitute teacher for her classroom, so her students have consistency when she must leave for medical appointments and chemo treatments.
“The school year is going well so far,” she said. “I look at everything – school, this (cancer), the wedding – one day at a time.”
Looking toward the future
She and Eric are planning to be married on Aug. 2 in Colorado.
“He went to college there. We dated long distance, so we’re getting married there,” she said.
A reception will be held in Waupaca on Aug. 23.
Thiele hopes to have children but knows there is the possibility the chemotherapy may cause her to go into menopause.
Since the gene mutation she carries also puts her at a higher risk of developing ovarian cancer, she said, “I know already it’s not if, but when.”
As a result, she plans to eventually have more surgery.
Thiele shares her story as a way to educate women and tell others cancer can affect anyone, at any age.
“I feel people think cancer is something that affects you when you are old,” she said.
Monthly, self examinations are important for women, she said.
“Most of the time, that is how they find it,” she said.
For those who suspect they carry the gene mutation, Thiele encourages them to be screened for it.
“All my relatives who passed away, I try to keep in mind that I can beat it, because of all the information I have,” she said. “It could have been growing in them a long time.”
School keeps her busy and her mind off of it. Teaching pushes her to get up.
“Wedding planning and teaching help me stay motivated,” she said. “I have a lot of support from friends and family.”
The further away she gets away from a chemo treatment, the better she feels.
Around chemo days, Thiele eats small portions of food throughout the day and drinks a lot of water.
“When I’m home, I have times when I’m sad,” she said. “I’m trying to look at it as only five months.”
Thiele has had a genetic counselor since she was 21.
She knew what to expect and said the chemotherapy and hair loss will be the worst.
“I feel like I knew it was coming, so it’s a little bit easier, so I’m at peace with it,” she said. “I’ll be OK.”