Wendi Waugh, the woman at the heart of Southern Ohio Medical Center’s (SOMC) ‘Paint It Pink’ (PIP) Campaign, is celebrating 10 years of survival from breast cancer with a radiance that expresses resilience and determination to make a difference.
Waugh, R.T. (R)(T) CMD CTR BS, administrative director of SOMC Cancer Services and Community Health & Wellness at SOMC, began working as a Radiation Therapist at the early age of 18.
“I started in the field of cancer care, as soon as I finished my Radiology degree. And it was funny, in my very last semester of college for Radiology I did a special rotation Radiation Therapy and I was very young then, about 18,” Waugh said. “I had gone to school at Oak Hill High School and one of the girls that I had cheered against was there in Radiation Therapy undergoing treatment, a young, young lady about 18 or 19 years old. She had Hodgkin’s lymphoma.”
It was a moment of realization for Waugh, as she began to understand the magnitude of her vocation.
“I said, ‘wow, I have to help people,’ and that is what first started my career in Radiation Therapy, I became very interested,” she said. “Then I had a lot of family relationships with cancer, and early in my career my father developed cancer, and it was metastatic, so it had spread to his bones and so he became my patient as a Radiation Therapist then.”
Waugh was overwhelmed at the sight of her father stretched out on the table, awaiting her
“I’ll never forget therapists can see the patient when they’re on the table, they’re watching them, and I will never forget seeing my father laying on the table, and me turning on the machine, I could see a little tear just go down his face, and it was a moment,” she said. “And it was moment, the daughter taking care of the father, and I thought, “I hate this disease.
After losing her father to cancer, she said wanted to change things about how the disease consumed lives.
” I lost my father then of metastatic cancer and I was the oldest of a family of four, so my brother was still in high school when my father died of cancer, ” she said. “I developed a mission then to change things about cancer. So I just put my head in it, and worked hard and when we had the opportunity to expand cancer services and build this center I took on the challenge as the leader of Cancer Services then, in addition to being a therapist.’
The Breast Center began to expand its services to cancer patients.
“I became very passionate because of my experience with my father and how young he was, and wanting everything to be together, and as easy as possible because it was hard to navigate the whole spectrum of cancer care, doctors appointments, all of things things that he needed,” she said. “So it was extremely important that the patients had one place that they could come to and be taken care of, rather than driving all over the place.”
Waugh told The Daily Times that it was in approximately late 2005 that she felt a lump in her breast.
“I thought that I knew everything from the caregivers perspective, and from working in the field,” she said. “And so that was in 2004 that we opened up Radiation Oncology and in 2005 we added Chemotherapy, or Medical Oncology and in 2006, probably late 2005, if I could admit, I felt a lump in my breast, and I ignored it.”
She said she immediately went into denial due to fear because of the knowledge that she possessed.
“Being in health care, being in cancer care you would think that I would do everything I could do, but instead I did just the opposite,” she said. “I went into denial, so I want people to know that denial is very real and people can’t understand why someone would let something go in their body, but you do because you’re afraid of what’s ahead. I was afraid of what was ahead, because I knew what was ahead.”
The lump in Waugh’s breast continued to grow, as denial ensued.
“The only thing I could think of, even though I had all of this knowledge the only thing that I could think of was my dad, and being young and I was a mommy,” she said. “So I felt the lump some time at the end of 2005 and I didn’t do anything about it, except watch it grow. About were hard to find, and wanted to get someone that did not know me. So, she did an examine, and she said you need to have a mammogram right away and she gave me a paper to get my mammogram and I stuck that paper into my purse and said I was too busy. I had vacation to take, this and that to do, people to take care of.”
It was not until August of 2006 that Waugh finally took heed to the instruction of the nurse practitioner and went to have a mammogram.
“I did have my mammogram here at the Breast Center, and when I did the girls said, ‘You are not leaving. We are driving you over to tell your friends that you work with every day, to tell your doctors,’” Waugh said. “So they drove me here, and that started my journey, and that is 10 years ago now. This is my 10 year survival history, and that sent me on a journey, so much I though I knew that I didn’t know from the caregivers perspective, but when it comes to you, yourself, and to experience chemotherapy, and radiation therapy, and surgeries as the boss, lose all of your hair and the whole nine-yards and have the staff that I hired take care of me was really something, I learned so much.”
Consumed by fear, she did not want to have her whole breast removed.
“The fear was worse than the disease. I had all of this fear of a mutilating surgery, of chemotherapy, that I would be so sick and it just didn’t turn out to be that way,” she said. “I think anytime a woman has a breast cancer surgery it is mutilating. It is just something that is very intimate. I can’t relate to a lung cancer, or a colon cancer, but it definitely affects the outer sexuality of your body, and that was probably the hardest thing for me. I was young, and I wanted to have a lumpectomy, just where you could remove the tumor, and not have my whole breast removed. “
Other options were tried for her, Waugh had to come to grips with the fact that her breast would have to be removed. The medical staff helped her to cope by bringing things into her environment that would divert her attention.
“So I tried that, I had the lumpectomy, chemotherapy, radiation therapy and so in terms of hardness, my coping mechanism was here and my team brought me a laptop, set me up a phone, set the IV behind me and just helped me to feel that I never did accept that it was happening,” she said. “My coping skills were diversion, focus on the other things, people to take care of, things to do. Oh, an IV, that’s fine, put my IV in while I was over here doing something else. That is literally what I did.”
Though she did not become as physically ill as she anticipated, she was more bothered by being bombarded with pink.
“I was not as sick, and it is not as terrible to lose your hair. People feel sorrier for you than you feel, and I didn’t want that,” she said. “I wanted to be Wendi, not the cancer girl. I hated pink, and I though if someone brings me one more pick thing, if they thing I don’t know about breast cancer awareness I think I’ll vomit. “
It would be determined that a bilateral mastectomy and reconstruction would be her only option.
“I finished the radiation, and had my one month mammogram, and still had my breast and there were still multiple there, so I ended up having to go back for more biopsies, and nine of 11 needle biopsies were still positive for cancer,” she said. “So at that time it was recommended that I have a bilateral mastectomy and reconstruction. So that was hard, because I felt like I failed again. And again, being a radiation therapist initially in my career and having seen some of those mastectomies and the scars, and the women, that was hard. I thought that I couldn’t do it, but I did.”
She would later learn that in order to beat breast cancer, she would have to alter her lifestyle, and incorporate exercise and healthy living.
“I had reconstruction, and it was a long process but all is well. So when I finished my reconstruction, my Radiation Oncologist, and we worked together, and she said Wendi, do you want to beat this disease, and of course I said, “Yes.” She told me that I was going to have to start to exercise. There is a lot of evidence that exercise is preventative for cancer, and also prevents recurrence.”
The Paint It Pink Campaign was birthed during the course of Waugh’s cancer journey.
“I said, ‘are you kidding me?’ I was fat. I’d lost my hair. But she told me that I would have to get myself involved in an exercise program, and begin to live a healthy life style, so we started here at the Cancer Center bringing in little tapes and working out together early in the morning, then we ventured out and walked,” she said. “And I finally walked into The Life Center months later. Then came the Paint It Pink Campaign, which really materialized out of myself and three other ladies who kind of stood up and said don’t be afraid. We did it, you can do it. Get your mammogram. It saves lives. Here we are to prove it.”
PIP began as cancer awareness for SOMC employees.
“I actually started it. I said I wanted to get up in front of the SOMC leaders and make sure that they get their mammograms,” she said. “I’ve been in cancer care, and I was afraid to get my mammogram myself. So we did that, that year and it just grew from wanting to get some t-shirts for employees, and employee awareness, to the huge community campaign that it is now.”
When Dr. Vincent Scarpinato, MD, joined the SOMC medical staff he gave recognition to cancer patients, particularly breast cancer patients.
“Really, I think when Dr. Scarpinato came on board to SOMC he recognized the need to support cancer patients, and breast cancer patients particularly,” she said. “Dr. Scarpinato believed we could sell the t-shirts and use them to support people with breast cancer,” she said. “So it started out that the Compassion Fund was only the Breast Cancer Compassion Fund, and of course now it’s known today to support all cancer patients. We just ride on the platform of pink.”
Breast cancer ignited change, and helped her to live a better quality of life.
“It has actually changed my life for the better,” she said. “Portia, it was a gift. I will never know the lives that we’ve shaped and changed, or saved through exercise, or lifestyle habits, or early detection, prevention and the things that the Compassion Fund does. I think breast cancer, particularly is one of the most common cancers first of all, but also an intimate cancer in regards to sexuality. And it really affects and younger generation of people. Not that it doesn’t affect the older generation, and not that it makes it worse. My son was 10, and my daughter was 16. I was busy, too busy for this. I think that society holds “mommys” very high, and so I think this is a disease of mommys, and daughters.”
To women that are presently struggling with breast cancer, Waugh said wants them to know their strength overshadows their fears.
“We are stronger than the fears, and I hope that I would impart that survivor-ship, and thrivership, if that is even a word, are possible,” she said. “If you can just put one foot in front of the other in the midst of the crisis and take it one day at a time.”
Having friends and family who are supportive makes a tremendous difference, according to Waugh.
“I think that support is extremely important. Some of my best friends today are those that were with me throughout my journey, and I will never forget some of the little acts of kindness that occurred during those days. There were days that I did not have the strength to move, and to come to work and was very sick. But there was something within me that felt like I didn’t have my own inner strength to move but that my team was moving me. I felt lifted. I knew that everyone was praying for me and I didn’t have the strength, but I felt it. “
Reach Portia Williams at 740-464-3862, or on Twitter @PortiaWillPDT.