Story by Chris Graham
Breast cancer will always be a part of Rita Handley’s life.
She acknowledges that readily.
“But it’s not my life,” said Handley, a Stuarts Draft woman who was diagnosed with breast cancer 10 years ago and is still dealing with its aftereffects.
“I had, like many women, fibrocystic disease all my life – and actually had found a lump four years before,” Handley said in an interview last week on “The New Dominion Show.”
“I had a negative mammogram in August 1996 – and just before Christmas was undressing and caught a glimpse of my chest in the mirror, and there was a red area that was hot and very tingly to the touch. And subsequently that was my sign that my lump had changed to breast cancer at some time,” Handley said.
Handley had to undergo a partial mastectomy and six weeks of radiation therapy at Martha Jefferson Hospital in Charlottesville – then six months of chemotherapy.
But that wasn’t the end of her battle with cancer.
“Four and a half years after my first diagnosis, I had been experiencing some back pain, and it was diagnosed in my thoracic vertebra, which is right up around your upper chest,” said Handley, who underwent additional radiation treatments to battle that cancer.
“And I’m still in treatment – it’s now six years after all that. But I am considered stable. I will never be cured. I will be fighting this for the rest of my life. But my life is good. I have a good quality of life,” Handley said.
She had to give up her nursing career – but she has found ways to utilize her time for her own good and the good of others like her. Handley serves on the board of directors of the Virginia Breast Cancer Foundation and volunteers with the foundation’s Blue Ridge chapter.
Handley doesn’t shy away from talking about her struggle with cancer.
“The mantra of the Virginia Breast Cancer Foundation is to educate, advocate and eradicate breast cancer,” Handley said. “We do a lot of educational programs. We speak to civic groups, church groups. We’ve been to schools. And we do this in our local area as well as on a state level. We present programs that relate to treatments, to legal issues, to employment issues.”
But even as she advocates, she makes sure to stress that there is more to her than what she has been forced to endure.
“When you’ve been diagnosed and have been involved with any breast-cancer organization, you meet people – and it’s just astounding the stories that people have to share and the complications in the disease that people live with,” Handley said.
“There are many people out there who have breast cancer develop in another breast or another vital organ of their body. It’s not uncommon within the breast-cancer culture. But we’re working so hard to make sure that the stories could end,” Handley said.
Chris Graham is the executive editor of The Augusta Free Press.