Many Eastern Iowans remember 2008 as a year full of turmoil.
For Wendy Dickens, now 42, of Cedar Rapids, and her family it was more than just floodwater that caused grief.
Wendy’s husband, Jim, lost his job because his business was flood-affected. Money quickly became a worry. Although Jim’s employer was able to continue providing health insurance for him, Wendy was not covered.
“In order to tighten our belts, we put me on a major medical policy,” Wendy says. “We hoped that, given a few months, things would turn around — Jim would be back to work and I’d return to the regular medical insurance policy.”
But in September, Wendy was due for her annual mammogram, something she’d started doing early because of her family history.
“I thought I should just cancel the mammogram because it was expensive and we’d be paying for it out of pocket,” she recalls, “but then I thought, ‘No, I just need to get this done.’”
When Wendy arrived for her appointment, she asked to be put on a payment plan for the procedure. That’s when the nurse told Wendy she’d be an excellent candidate for the Especially for You Fund.
The Especially for You Fund was established in 1991 to provide free mammograms and other breast care services to women in and around Linn County who cannot afford to pay for such vital screenings. Funding for the program comes from the Especially for You Race Against Breast Cancer, held each October in Cedar Rapids. Women seeking assistance through the fund simply need to fill out a confidential application form.
Wendy was approved for support from the Especially for You Fund by the time her exam was over. “It was a huge relief because other bills were piling up,” she says.
But Wendy’s relief did not last long — her doctor’s office soon called saying something turned up on her mammogram.
After a biopsy, it was confirmed that Wendy, at the age of 37, had breast cancer.
Wendy was shocked, scared and grief-stricken. But she also was thankful she had not put off her mammogram. “If I had not had that mammogram, my cancer would have progressed,” she says. “They caught mine early, thankfully.”
Wendy believes divine intervention played a role: “Women often have an internal sense of things, and I think God prompted me through that internal sense not to put off my mammogram,” she says.
Looking back, Wendy says her course of treatment was much less difficult than it could have been. She opted for a lumpectomy, followed by six weeks of radiation therapy, and then five years of daily medication (Tamoxifen). She did not have to undergo chemotherapy treatments.
To cope with her diagnosis, Wendy kept a blog and leaned heavily on her faith.
“Some days I was strong, and some days I certainly wasn’t,” she says. “But as far as I was concerned, there were two choices: I could sit in a corner in a puddle and feel sorry for myself, or I could put one foot in front of the other. Really, I guess, to me there was no other choice.”
Today, Wendy says she can even find a silver lining: “I wouldn’t say I’m glad I had cancer, but on the backside of it I can look at the experience and see the ways it changed me and helped me grow”
One of Wendy’s favorite sayings remains “cancer may have changed me but it doesn’t define me.”
To this day she is grateful for the Especially for You Fund and the role it played in saving her life. She encourages other women to make use of the program.
“I was aware of the program before, but didn’t realize it was available to me,” she says.
She encourages women to speak up when they need help. “Women especially let things hinder them from asking for the help we need,” she says. “That lack of reaching out isn’t helping anyone. We are all human and we need each other.”
Five years after her cancer diagnosis, Wendy is doing well. She still takes her daily medication, but is enjoying spending time with her husband and their three kids, ages 14, 10 and 2.
And this year, Wendy is proud to be putting together a team for the Especially for You Race on Oct. 13. In her mind, and heart, it’s about paying it forward.
This story originally appeared in the Oct. 6, 2013 Surviving Breast Cancer special section.