September 4, 2000
Inspirational breast cancer survivor chronicles her adventure to wellness
by Deborah Stone
In 1994, Peggy Sturm-VanderPol had just settled into life with her new husband and family in Woodinville.
She held the job of school nurse at Hollywood Hill Elementary and was regarded by her colleagues as a dedicated and caring professional.
At forty-three, she felt enriched by family, friends, a rewarding career and good health. Then in July of that year, during a routine physical examination, her doctor noticed a thickening in her breast and took a tissue sample to rule out any problems.
To everyone's relief, the lump was benign. However, for several weeks after the procedure, the area around the lump remained sore, so Peggy's physician decided to do another biopsy.
This time, the test revealed a malignancy.
"I was totally shocked," says Sturm-VanderPol. "I had just gotten married and now I was being told I had breast cancer. I couldn't believe it and I kept thinking that it had to be a mistake. It was very traumatic for me to be first told I was OK and then to be told I had cancer."
Sturm-VanderPol's subsequent treatments caused her to be frequently absent from her job.
The staff at the school was afraid to mention to the children that she had breast cancer for fear of talking about a sensitive body part, as well as discussing the issue of cancer and its possible consequences.
"I would get letters from the students and they would ask me how my cold was," explains Sturm-VanderPol.
"I realized that no one was talking to them about what was really going on with me. This became my impetus to put a book together about my experience with breast cancer.
"I wanted to help others understand about breast cancer and show them what happens, step-by-step during all the treatments and medical care. I also wanted to let them know that they shouldn't be afraid of the "C" word. It's important to be able to talk about cancer and to be open and honest about it. We learn by talking and it's not so scary if we can share information and emotions."
Sturm-VanderPol has two sons of her own and she felt that a user-friendly book would also aid them in understanding what she was going through in the course of her disease.
Her 50-page personal book of snapshots, illustrations and easy-to-read text chronicles what she calls her "adventure to wellness."
It takes readers from an explanation of the location of her cancer and her surgery through the tests and treatments she received, including chemotherapy and radiation. Sturm-VanderPol introduces the technicians, doctors, nurses, friends and family members who helped her and also describes the equipment used on her during the eight-month treatment period.
In each photo, she is smiling, even in the one where her son Nicholas is shaving her head.
"My intent was to show that you're still feminine and graceful and can take joy in life when you have breast cancer," explains Sturm-VanderPol. "I wanted to show that I was still the same person before and after the treatment, with hair and without hair. The children needed to see that although I looked different, I was still the same nice person they knew and that I hadn't really changed at all."
The response to her book was overwhelmingly positive. It served as a tool to use with the students and helped them to discuss cancer openly. Some of the children wanted a copy for their own homes, as they knew a family member whom had recently been diagnosed with cancer or had had the disease in the past.
A nonprofit group, Partners in Education, decided to print copies of the book and make it available to people at no cost. Thus far, over 3000 copies have been sent out to breast cancer support groups, individuals and institutions all over the U.S.
"I think it has been so positively received because it's a friendly book and doesn't scare people," comments Sturm-VanderPol.
"I hadn't seen anything of this nature on the market before and obviously, it meets a need. I know that I would have enjoyed reading something like this when I was going through my experience. The best thing for me, however, turned out to be creating the book. It really helped me look at my experience clearly and process it better."
Sturm-VanderPol has been cancer-free for almost six years and continues to work as a school nurse at Hollywood Hill Elementary.
Her experience has made her value life more and realize the importance of relationships and people.
She says, "I have a whole different attitude now. Materials things do not matter to me.
"People do and it's how one treats others that's important." Sturm-VanderPol tells others who have been diagnosed with the disease not to lose hope. "Cancer is curable in many cases, but early detection is essential. You will have to fight with all of your being and at times you will feel like you want to give up, but don't ever give up. Already there are improvements in treatments and in the future, hopefully there will be a cure."
For her inspiration to others, Sturm-VanderPol was recently chosen as one of twelve winners in the Bon Marche's Most Inspiring Breast Cancer Survivor Contest.
She will be modeling in the store's Oct. 21st fashion show, an event where proceeds go towards breast cancer awareness and research.
In addition, an eight-foot picture of her will be in one of the windows of the downtown Bon during the whole month of October, which is Breast Cancer Awareness Month.
"I was surprised to learn I was one of the winners of this contest," says Sturm-VanderPol."I didn't know that my friend, Paula Freeman, had written an essay about me and sent it in. I am very touched by this honor. I am just so happy that my experience has helped others."