Wyoming councilwoman applies lessons from her battle
Pink may be the color most associated with breast cancer, but Linda Nanko-Yeager feels that nothing about the disease is cute or flowery.
Far from it, the breast cancer survivor said. Her battle, which began nine years ago this month, involved a spiral of drug side-effects that racked both body and mind. Meanwhile, she continually encountered a mind-set she found unsettling, as doctors and other caretakers tried to build her up with praise and encouragement while often ignoring the heart of the matter. Her prognosis, Nanko-Yeager found, was often the unseen elephant in the room.
“I guess you’re supposed to be nice and you’re this brave and noble chemo patient, but I was fighting it the whole time,” she said.
Now, several years after treatment, and with a clean bill of health, the mother of two finds herself taking on battles of a different type from her seat on the Wyoming City Council.
“If I survived that,” she said of breast cancer, “this is like nothing.”
Despite a small scare years earlier, her diagnosis of breast cancer following a mammogram in 2004 caught Nanko-Yeager off guard.
“The diagnosis scared the crap out of me, because, you know, you die of this stuff,” she said. “It came out of the blue because you couldn’t feel it. It just showed up on the X-ray.”
She underwent a lumpectomy and then, after the holidays, started chemotherapy. Ravaged by a cocktail of drugs, Nanko-Yeager found the process unbearable.
“It is just horrible,” she said. “I left my last instructions because I thought it was going to kill me.”
One drug turned her skin gray. Another was administered by someone wearing thick gloves because the liquid could burn skin.
“So I have a bunch of drugs to take care of the side effects, and then I have drugs to take care of the drugs that care of the side effects,” she recalled.
One steroid sent Nanko-Yeager into angry tirades, then, when the dosage was adjusted, brought on depression.
The chemotherapy included four sessions during eight weeks.
“By the end, there were no good days,” she said. “I was dancing, as much as I could dance, when that stuff cleared my system. The moral of the story is don’t do drugs as a kid. Good thing I didn’t do it – I suck.”
Next came radiation, which took place five days a week for six weeks. It, too, was a time of pain and depression for Nanko-Yeager. However, the treatment schedule allowed her to begin working out. Between exercise and a diet adjusted by a lessened appetite, she went on to lose more than 50 pounds.
Hormonal therapy, designed to stop estrogen from feeding another tumor, represented the final stage of treatment. Though it went on for five years, Nanko-Yeager began feeling better early in this time frame.
The 57-year-old will need to continue seeing an oncologist for two more years, but is otherwise past her ordeal.
“Everyone my age is either on cholesterol stuff or blood pressure (medicine),” she said. “I’m drug free. I’m happy.”
Fighting breast cancer certainly affected other areas of life, Nanko-Yeager said. For one, it provided her the motivation to enter the political arena.
“I ended up thinking, ‘Now that I realize I’m mortal, maybe I should have a bucket list,’” she said. “So I thought I would do something totally out of my comfort zone.”
She lost a school board bid in 2007 but won a seat on the City Council the following year. Nanko-Yeager took the oath of office four years to the day after starting chemotherapy.
She won re-election last fall and has come under the spotlight for opposing a street improvement plan favored by the rest of the council and city staff.
Nanko-Yeager said she conducts her city business with a no-nonsense attitude honed through communicating with doctors who did not always want to deal straight with her.
“It was some training for being up there and getting my questions answered,” she said.
She cut out of radiation a day early to avoid a sappy ritual marking its completion.
At one point during treatment, she was referred to a “healing coach” who was supposed to help her come to grips with the process. She felt she was being taught to refrain from voicing strong opinions.
“That’s just not me,” she said. “I remember telling the healing coach just flat-out: ‘Listen, I have cancer. I don’t have the time to be circumspect and polite and ask my questions in a (nice) way. I need an answer, I need an answer now. Here’s a direct question.’ And I kind of do that (on the council). … So it does help with a bunch of focus.”
Life isn’t completely serious for Nanko-Yeager, though. After all, she’s cancer-free. Removed from the hard times, she now even finds humor in her journey. She recalls how having her head shaved revealed to a stunned friend that Nanko-Yeager was not a natural blonde. The former chemist laughs about the look on a young child’s face when, during a science presentation, she pulled up her wig to show him the consequences of drinking “witches’ brew.”
“It’s probably helped me get where I am now,” Nanko-Yeager said of her battle with breast cancer. “It does change your outlook. It does make you look at it like, ‘You know what, if I got through this. …’ The guys (on City Council) probably don’t think so, but I think I’m probably a lot nicer.”