Amanda Henson was raring to go at the first Tri for a Cure fin 2008 and she’s raring to go for this year’s event. Well, raring might be slightly misleading, because when we talked, she hadn’t actually started training for it, but she was thinking about it.
“It’s such an incredible event,” she said. “Before it starts, all of us survivors get together and there’s a lot of crying and then we gain our composure and jump into the water. What an adrenaline rush!”
It was 16 years ago – the day after her 35th birthday – that Amanda was diagnosed with an aggressive, fast-growing cancer in her right breast. There was some good news. All nearby lymph nodes were clean. Still, her course of treatment was as aggressive as her cancer: a mastectomy with immediate reconstruction, four months of chemotherapy, and six weeks of radiation therapy.
I first met Amanda soon after she finished her treatments. She and five other women who belonged to a breast cancer support group had attended a retreat offered by Maine artist and writer Arla Patch, during which they made plaster casts, or breastplates, of their torsos and decorated them as sacred works of art. Greenhut Gallery in Portland had a special exhibit of the breastplates.
Amanda’s breastplate resembled a beautiful, exotic butterfly. She painted her breasts a vivid purple and outlined them in teal blue. When she was undergoing chemotherapy, knowing that she would lose all her hair, rather than wait for the inevitable, she had asked her hairdresser to pull her long brown hair up into a ponytail and cut it off. The ponytail was perfect for the body of her butterfly. The final touches were a pearl on a scallop shell to mark her cancer.
“We were trying our best to raise awareness,” said Amanda as she explained why they agreed to do the show. “Our little art exhibit touched some people. Today, with the breast cancer luncheon and the Tri for a Cure, which is not just for breast cancer, of course, and the breast cancer license plates, people are much more aware. But the exhibit was our little foray into trying to get people to see the importance and also to see the psychological stuff we all went through.”
Our paths crossed again a few years later when, after having a miscarriage and an ectopic pregnancy, Amanda and her husband John became the parents of twin boys, Ayden and Bryce, who are now 12. She and John were newlyweds when she was diagnosed and one of the first things she asked her doctor when her treatments were done was when they could start having babies. There was no guarantee she could ever have any. In fact, the odds were against it. But, she said, “Knowing that I wanted to have children is what helped see me through everything.”
After her sons were born, as countless other women have had to do, Amanda learned how to balance being a wife and mother with working outside the home. All the while, anxiety about her cancer coming back was a constant companion, along with what is known as survivor’s guilt. So many women, including three who were in the art exhibit with her, have died.
“When I’m having a bad day,” says Amanda, “I think about all the friends I have lost and I appreciate all that I have, but sometimes I feel such guilt because I am alive and well.”
She decided to participate in the Tri for a Cure because research shows that regular exercise reduces the risk of a recurrence.
“I figured the Tri would force me to exercise, she says. “People don’t realize that while it certainly raises a lot of money, another great benefit of the Tri is that it compels us to be active, it gets us moving!”
She does all three events – swimming, biking and running. “Swimming is the hardest for me,” she says. “This year I need to do more open water swimming to train. And I’ve got to go out running. I’ll get it done.”
And, of course, she will. Amanda admits that she loves a challenge, and she certainly knows how to meet one head on.
“I’m so lucky,” she says. “My story shows that even with cancer you can have a full and happy life and your dreams can come true.”