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Kalispell breast cancer survivor says faith and love of nature kept her going

The Daily Inter Lake - 10/29/2023

Oct. 29—Roberta Schuppel remembers the moment she felt a lump in her breast, back in 2020 when she was settling into bed.

"I thought that's somewhat odd, not normal for me, and it had a little pain to it," Schuppel said. "I am a very healthy person, I don't go to the doctor very often. But I knew that this is not normal."

That moment began Schuppel's year-long battle with breast cancer, the most common kind of cancer for women in the United States, according to the American Cancer Society. For Breast Cancer Awareness Month, Schuppel reflected on her journey to remission, where she focused on her faith in God and love of nature to keep her going in the face of the unknown.

After her doctor learned about her lump, she was expedited to get a mammogram and ultrasound. From there, she got a biopsy at Logan Health, which came back positive for carcinoma.

"That's when the primary care doctor expressed to me that it was triple positive carcinoma and highly aggressive and she just rattled off a lot of things that were just foreign to my ears," Schuppel said.

Triple-positive breast cancer means the breast cancer cells test positive for estrogen receptors, progesterone receptors and have higher levels of the HER2 protein. She said the lump had doubled in size just two weeks after her first doctor's appointment, so her medical team wanted to act fast in determining what treatment would work best for her.

Logan Health breast surgical oncologist Dr. Melissa Kaptanian said cancer treatment has become more personalized. She said Schuppel's triple positive diagnosis happens in around 15% of breast cancer diagnosis each year.

"I tell people saying 'breast cancer' is like saying 'ice cream,' there's so many different kinds of flavors ... There are so many different kinds of breast cancer with so many treatments that are specific to that type. And that's definitely something new," Kaptanian said.

She said doctors and researchers have learned to use specific treatments on certain kinds of cancers. Kaptanian believes that's the trend for cancer treatment moving forward, as well as screening for genes that put people at higher risk for cancer.

She said breast cancer screenings are important because they allow medical personnel to catch anomalies early on.

"But finding it is not the end, that's just the beginning of all the treatments that we have, that we can bring to bear for individual people," Kaptanian said.

FOR SCHUPPEL, she began a one year tract of chemotherapy treatments, which included surgery and radiation. According to a Logan Health profile on Schuppel for Breast Cancer Awareness Month, she followed the first harsh rounds of chemotherapy with a mastectomy of her left breast in February 2021. She then received radiation from March through May 2021, ending with another round of chemotherapy treatments through September 2021.

She remembered feeling beside herself at the time. She didn't understand how she got cancer — she's an active, healthy person, who even underwent a blood test that showed she didn't carry a high risk for cancer. She was under the impression that healthy people don't get cancer.

"But that I learned later on that's a misconception, it truly is," Schuppel said. "Because cancer strikes anyone, it has no discrimination. It's not just people who have bad habits."

Unfamiliar with these new medical terms and anything surrounding a cancer diagnosis, she said she felt overwhelmed. She described it as a "sucker punch to the throat." Normal life had to stop, everything beside getting better fell away.

So, in a new state without any family aside from her husband, she said she chose to lean on her faith in God.

"He was my source of strength and he was with me the entire entire way," Schuppel said. "He puts doctors and people in my path that I wouldn't have ever encountered before. He opened a lot of doors and windows and gave me a lot of blessings."

The great outdoors provided another source of comfort. She has been a fan of hunting ever since she started going with her dad at the age of 10, never missing a hunting season, even while raising her kids. Schuppel said as she got older, she realized being outside in some capacity everyday was healing and therapeutic.

As her treatments got underway, she miraculously always had just enough energy to get outside.

"I'd bundle up and do something and I owe a lot of my healing to that fact. You know, even just a couple of days after I had my breasts removed, I was out snowshoeing. Even during radiation, my husband and I were chopping wood for our neighbors," Schuppel said. "You've got to have that motivation to get out there and do something. But once you do, it is so rewarding."

In the summer of 2021, following her radiation treatments, but still in her regimen of chemotherapy, she and her husband completed their first thru hike in the Pine Creek Falls area near Livingston.

"It was three days and I hiked seven miles a day while I was still going through treatments. This was all uphill, climbing elevation, and it was so rewarding to me to know that I had gotten that far, I still had the energy at the end of the treatments to do that," Schuppel said.

SHE ENTERED remission in the fall of 2021 and just celebrated her second anniversary of being clear of cancer. Schuppel said it was a feat she had to celebrate, "because there was so much goodness that came from the bad."

Just ahead of her one-year anniversary, she decided to volunteer in the Bob Marshall. She said it was a full circle experience for her, because she was carried through her cancer diagnosis by her faith and the outdoors. She wanted to give some of that back.

"I'm just so thankful to God that he has delivered me through that, and I'm able now to take my energy and my strength and use it for good. Use it for the community and to open up trails for other people so that they can enjoy the outdoors and the goodness that he has to offer," Schuppel said.

She said her cancer diagnosis led her to a support group being formed at her church. After she started losing her hair from chemotherapy treatments, other women in her congregation started sharing their cancer stories with her. When they noticed how much it helped, they came together to form the support group for cancer patients and caregivers, which is still up and running at Family Life Christian Church in Kalispell.

Schuppel said her team at Logan Health gave her the confidence to tackle the challenge. Logan Health offers many different services related to breast health. Their available treatments include surgeries, such as a lumpectomy or mastectomy, radiation, chemotherapy and hormone treatment. They also offer naturopathic treatments using herbs and special diets, administered by the hospital's board certified naturopathic oncologist, which is complimentary to all cancer patients.

Still, early detection is the best way to catch the cancer while it's the most treatable. Kaptanian said Logan Health Kalispell offers self referral screenings, meaning that patients don't have to have a referral from their primary care doctor to stop by for a screening mammogram. Women 40 and over can get screenings covered by their insurance providers on an annual basis.

In addition to this, the hospital's Save a Sister program, in conjunction with the Flathead City-County Health Department, provides financial assistance for people who are going through treatment or diagnosis for breast cancer.

There are a plethora of other services related to breast cancer offered by Logan Health. To learn more, go to www.logan.org/health/services/breast-health.

Reporter Taylor Inman can be reached at 406-758-4433 or by emailing tinman@dailyinterlake.com.

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