Two friends discovered they have almost too much in common when they were diagnosed with the same cancer four days apart
In June 2018, Amanda Schweizer and Chelsea Paterson had been part of the same friend group for about four years. Their respective boyfriends, Geoff Keating and Ryan Houghton, co-founded The Hop Yard, a farm in Gorham that grows hops for craft brewing. Paterson was also studying to be a nurse practitioner in the office where Schweizer worked as a physician assistant.
They didn’t know it, but they were about to embark on a shared battle that would ultimately make them much closer. On June 26, Schweizer, 33, was diagnosed with breast cancer (invasive ductal carcinoma). Four days later, Paterson, 30, received the same diagnosis. Neither has a family history of breast cancer and neither carries the breast cancer gene.
Their treatment plans did differ. Schweizer started with a single mastectomy with sentinel lymph node biopsy, then did chemotherapy and finished with radiation. Paterson started with chemotherapy, had the same surgery as Schweizer, and then began radiation. A few of their chemotherapy sessions overlapped, but not many.
The worst part, said Schweizer, was the egg harvesting. Eggs can be damaged by chemotherapy, so both women went through the harvesting process to preserve eggs for possible future pregnancies. But in Schweizer’s case, she had to schedule the harvesting procedure only four days after her surgery. She was in pain and had difficulty moving, and the medical staff—accustomed to seeing women excited about the prospect of getting pregnant soon—didn’t seem to understand that the procedure was not positive for her. Paterson agreed, noting that, only two weeks after her diagnosis, she too had been forced to make a decision she wasn’t ready to make. To make matters worse, the egg harvesting cost close to $20,000.
But they had each other and throughout their treatment, their bond strengthened. They texted each other constantly, left notes on each other’s cars as they were coming and going, and joined a support group called Tatas and Tapas.
Around the time of Schweizer’s surgery, she watched news coverage of the 2018 Tri for a Cure and thought, “I want to do that next year.” Once Paterson learned that Schweizer was doing it, she wanted in as well. But they had a way to go to prepare physically. Schweizer used to run and had done quite a bit of mountain biking, but her experience with swimming was limited; “I think I float!” She signed herself up for swimming lessons along with spin classes. Paterson has done a few 5Ks and cycled a lot, and has enjoyed swimming since childhood. Both women describe themselves as competitive, but neither has ever done a triathlon. They didn’t take it easy on themselves, though—each signed up for the whole triathlon, not the relay version. “I’m not as strong as I was before,” said Paterson, “but I’m more dedicated.”
As evidence of that dedication, they competed in the Sugarloaf Uphill Climb, an event advertised as “the toughest mountain run in Maine.” It was October and both were still undergoing treatment. “I whined the whole time,” said Paterson, “but I finished.” Schweizer was fourth in her age group and remains miffed that she didn’t make the podium. Both couples were long-time Sugarloafers, so they spent much of the winter there. “It was just comforting to spend time together,” said Paterson. “Even if we weren’t talking about it.”
As the end of their treatments neared, both women admitted to feeling somewhat lost. “In treatment you have a goal, clear steps and support,” said Schweizer. “After you finish, that support isn’t as constant. My world was turned upside down—where do I go from here? What is normal now?” Paterson chimed in, “And how do I get to normal?”
Keating noted that the foursome had a pretty balanced approach to life and work before the diagnoses, but cancer deepened their perspectives on both. Schweizer has become more empathetic, a trait which helps her with patients. She also gave up meat. Paterson is more intentional than she used to be, wanting to make sure that she values and enjoys whatever she does. She often tells her friends that she doesn’t want them to stop talking to her about their own challenges just because they think hers is bigger. “Everybody’s got something,” she says.
Despite their evident strength, Schweizer and Paterson have still struggled with insensitive comments, people trying to force them to be positive when they weren’t feeling it and the symptoms of depression and anxiety inherent with being on such an emotional rollercoaster.. One of the hardest parts to deal with, said Paterson, had to do with the incongruity of a threat within her breasts. “Something so innately feminine and sexy is killing you.” She reminds herself that she is still strong and capable of living a full life.
The two couples have some advice for anyone who receives a similar diagnosis. “The most helpful thing was reaching out to women who had just gotten through it,” said Schweizer. Paterson agreed, noting that she would be happy to be put in contact with young women who need to talk to someone about their experience. Both women pointed to the “oodles of resources” out there and recommended that patients make full use of them. That includes offers from friends and family to help. The best of which, Schweizer said, are the highly specific kind, like the person who says “Can I walk your dog/clean your house/bring dinner/do your laundry?” That’s more effective than a basic “What can I do?”
Throughout their ordeal, Schweizer and Paterson never forgot their friend and colleague Chris Shaffer, who was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer four days before Schweizer’s diagnosis. Unfortunately, she lost her battle after only five weeks, leaving Schweizer and Paterson devastated. This July they’ll compete in the Tri for a Cure not only for themselves, but in memory of Shaffer.
Angie Bryan moved to Portland in 2018 when she retired from the diplomatic service. Her writing has also appeared in The Foreign Service Journal and can be found regularly on MaineToday.com.