Breast Cancer Survivor Rides to Raise Awareness and Inspire Hope

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Photo by: Jeff Nohner,
Courtesy of LifeImage

In September 2006, with her older son in college and her younger son a senior in high school, St. Paul-resident Vicki O’Brien found herself with more free time on her hands. She figured she would fill the void through volunteer work, and thought Open Arms of Minnesota would be a good fit. A close friend of hers has multiple sclerosis and Vicki liked that Open Arms prepared and delivered meals to those living with MS, ALS, HIV/AIDS, or a breast cancer diagnosis. 

“I felt a personal connection to Open Arms,†Vicki says.

She arranged for a volunteer orientation in October.  

Little did she know then just how personal the connection would become.  

The Diagnosis

Her diagnosis was ductal carcinoma in situ (DCIS), also referred to as “early stage breast cancer.†The good news was that a mammogram and ultrasound detected the abnormal cells at an early stage. A lumpectomy revealed that Vicki’s lymph nodes were unaffected, another positive sign. The bad news came when a biopsy showed a high-grade pattern of DCIS, the fastest-growing cell type, meaning Vicki had a higher risk of invasive cancer.

Her doctors determined she would need radiation and chemotherapy to control the aggressive tumor cells. She had chemotherapy at Minnesota Oncology Hematology, P.A. (MOHPA) in partnership with the Virginia Piper Breast Clinic at Abbott Northwestern Hospital. Getting better had to become her top priority.

It would’ve been easy to blow off her Open Arms orientation–who would expect her to go when she was facing a life-changing breast cancer diagnosis?–but that’s not the kind of person Vicki is. She called Molly, the Open Arms volunteer director at the time, to apologize for not being able to make it to the orientation.

“Molly told me that Open Arms recently expanded their services to help people who were dealing with breast cancer,†Vicki says. “I told her thanks, but I didn’t think I’d need the help.â€

She didn’t think about Open Arms again until February, when she was in her second month of chemotherapy. By then she had lost all of her beautiful shoulder-length hair (and was wearing a stylish wig), and was simultaneously receiving cycles of the drugs Cytoxan and Adriamycin, administered intravenously.

She was working full-time as a financial analyst and single-handedly caring for her sons, Sean and Matt, while undergoing chemotherapy. And one day it just hit her. She was really, really tired.

“I realized I was no good to my sons if I didn’t take care of myself,†she says. “No matter how strong you think you are, sometimes you need to ask for help.â€

She called Open Arms and asked if she could take advantage of their meal service. In retrospect, she says it was one of the best calls she made.

Every Monday an Open Arms volunteer delivered two bags of groceries; bags filled with milk, juice, hot and cold breakfast foods, sandwiches, soup, fresh fruit, and five to ten prepared meals for Vicki and her boys.

“I was so appreciative to have that food delivered to me, at no charge,†she comments. “It was wonderful.†

Focusing on what’s right

Today Vicki is “tired, but good.†She’s looking forward to biking outside, gardening, and playing tennis again. She needs to have check-ups every three months for two years, on top of regular mammograms and bloodwork tests for cancer markers, but her prognosis is promising.  

Her advice to others diagnosed with breast cancer is to find a support network: lean on friends and family, a faith-based organization, or an organized support group. Ask for–and graciously accept–help. Vicki says her parents, her sister Gretchen’s family, her sons, and her friends “came through with flying colors†during her ordeal, as did Open Arms.

She encourages other women to be their own health care advocates, do monthly self-exams, get annual mammograms, and if necessary, demand an ultrasound.

In addition to early detection and rigorous treatment, she believes her health improved thanks to the power of positive thinking. You can either focus on what’s wrong in life, or you can focus on what’s right.

“I have this inspirational calendar on my desk, and Venus Williams has a quote I read every day. It really puts things into perspective,†Vicki says, reciting the quote.“‘My motto is: I can do anything as long as I’m alive.’â€

“Coming Full Circleâ€

In an odd coincidence, Vicki is once again linked to Open Arms through her involvement with Kari Mitchell, executive director of Charity Events of Minnesota. Vicki met Kari back in 2005, when she signed up to participate in a local bike event. A car accident kept Vicki from participating.

“When Kari told me she was planning a Breast Cancer Ride, I told her to keep me posted about the details,†Vicki says. “When I heard that [Charity Events of Minnesota] chose Open Arms as the recipient of the ride, it was like everything was coming full circle. It was meant to be.â€

Vicki faced another biking setback last summer after falling down her basement steps and severing an ACL, tearing an MCL, and dislocating and crushing her shoulder bone. Still, she’s determined to ride–along with her son, Matt–the entire 150-mile route. If she can’t make it the whole way on her bike, Vicki says she’ll volunteer with the support crew. After the Breast Cancer Ride, she plans on volunteering with Open Arms to deliver meals to others.

For more information about the Breast Cancer Ride, visit breastcancerride.org.
For more information about Open Arms, visit openarmsmn.org.

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