Long-time survivor offers hope
By ALESA MESCHBERGER
Special to The Telegram
For those battling breast cancer, Roselyn Nicklaus offers 33 reasons to hope.
Thirty-three years, that is.
The now 79-year-old vividly remembers her 46th birthday — a birthday she feared might be her last.
Unusual soreness in one breast after a cross-country skiing trip led her to find the lump. On March 11, 1980 — her birthday — her doctor examined her and her breast cancer journey began.
Determined to be in charge of her own healing, Nicklaus considered all of her options. A biopsy in Garden City on March 21, 1980, made the cancer diagnosis definite.
She wanted a second opinion, and her local surgeon, Dr. Robert Miller, referred her to someone in Denver. In time, she would consult with an out-of-town oncologist, a surgeon and three plastic surgeons.
Ultimately, Nicklaus decided to return home for her mastectomy. On April Fool's Day of that year, she had the surgery. She refused to let her daughters come.
"'You will not give up your life and take care of me,'" she told them.
Nicklaus did not need chemotherapy or radiation, but her physician remained cautious and advised her to wait for reconstructive surgery. He feared the cancer might return.
On a snowy morning last week, Nicklaus sat sipping green tea at Starbucks with her husband, Ed, 81. She reflected on her path since that fateful day of finding the lump.
If cancer had taken her life those 33 years ago, what would she have missed?
"Oh," she said, stopping for a moment, unsure where to begin. "A whole life."
Once started, the memories came quickly.
She would have missed returning to teaching — for 24 years — and retiring at age 74.
"That teaching was the most marvelous thing I ever did," Nicklaus said.
She would have missed her daughters' lives unfolding: Pam's college graduation and completion of medical school; and Deborah's career at Kodak and eventually her move to Winter Park, Colo.
If cancer had won, Nicklaus never would have met Nathan and Andrew — her grandchildren.
She would not have been able to support her husband through his own battle with prostate cancer 15 years later. Ed underwent surgery and radiation treatment and also recovered.
She would have missed her 58th wedding anniversary and trips to Puerto Vallarta, Mexico; London, England, Germany, and so much more.
But she didn't.
No matter the years since her diagnosis and treatment, Nicklaus has never forgotten the lessons learned from that unsettling chapter in her life.
Her advice for those facing breast cancer today?
"Take charge of your life," Nicklaus said. "You make the decisions. It's your body. Take charge!"
Nicklaus educated herself and took lists of questions to her appointments. After three years of being cancer free, she grew weary of the prosthesis and opted for reconstructive surgery. She chose to have 90 percent of the breast tissue removed in her other breast, too. She opted for saline implants.
It was not a startling choice for Nicklaus even three decades ago. She wanted to live.
"I think your mindset makes a difference," she said.
Her husband, Ed, worked at Garden City Community College as an instructor and printer, at the time. He provided support, Roselyn said, but did not dictate what she should do.
He remembers her independence.
"I would say to the husbands, let her make the decisions," Ed Nicklaus said. "It's hard to put into words. It's kind of a helpless feeling. ... You can't do anything to help her but give support."
Roselyn embraces the openness of today's world in talking about breast cancer. Many of her own friends cringed at her decision to share her experience in an article in The Telegram in 1981.
"You didn't talk about such things," she said of the culture then. "But I did."
Nicklaus endured the stares to her chest and the awkward "How are you's?" after going public with her cancer story.
But she doesn't regret it.
Nicklaus wanted others facing this disease to have a support system not common in the 1980s. Roselyn and Ed later served on the first Relay for Life committee here. She also volunteered with the American Cancer Society, I Can Cope and other support groups.
More than three decades later, she's not afraid to share a few of her own private thoughts from those dark days. Brief excerpts from her journal tell her inner feelings.
"Monday, March 10, (1980): I've always known that one day I would find that lump, and I've prepared myself well for it, I thought. But it's almost like thinking it's happening to someone else. ... I don't tell Ed; I'm not sure when I will."
Nicklaus did not have a family history of cancer, except one great aunt. A regular examination by her gynecologist four months earlier revealed nothing. She told her husband and saw her doctor on the same day.
"Tuesday, March 11: Today is my 46th birthday. I had to stop and add up; I really couldn't remember how old I am ... What a hell of a way to spend my birthday. ... I wonder if Ed's insurance will be enough. ... I've always said I won't live to be old. ..."
She tried to be strong for her family and friends, Nicklaus said, often laughing and joking about her situation. But in her journal, she showed her vulnerability.
"Tuesday, March 25: ... I really can't believe all this is happening. I wonder how long I have. ... Surely God doesn't intend for me to die soon. I need more time. I know I've always said I didn't want to live to be old. But I wanted to be older than this. Is God wanting me to say, 'I don't want to die.' I prayed for (friends) not to have cancer ... they're still alive. Maybe I'd better pray for me. ... I don't want to die, God. Not yet. Let there be some hope for me."
A poem by Dylan Thomas inspired her to fight: "Do not go gentle into that good night. Rage, rage against the dying of the light."
Dr. Pam Nicklaus, her daughter, looks back and sees her mother's strength through those days.
"I was perhaps a very self-absorbed college student," she said. "(I was) finishing my senior year at that time and didn't really know how scared either of them were. You know we are from Kansas farm lineage, and we control our emotions pretty well."
She attributes her mother's attitude as a key to her survival.
"I think that she took the role of victim — cancer patient — and in her head made herself in control of the situation," Pam Nicklaus said. "I think that had as much to play in her long-term survival as the medical and surgical treatment."
Her mother really challenged the medical system that could be quite paternalistic at that time. She was a pioneer in women having a say in their treatment.
"Looking back, we are very proud of her," Pam Nicklaus said. "Cancer is always a life-changing event. For mom, it was the beginning of a new phase of her life. After her recovery, she started doing things for herself. She went back to school and got (recertified) as a teacher, worked, traveled ... did things that she may have not had the courage to do."
In The Telegram article published in 1981, Roselyn was asked if she worried about the cancer returning.
"You think about that possibility every day of your life," she said. "It's in the back of your mind. You live with the possibility, and you know that should it occur, you'd just pick up the pieces and go on with it."