Published on Oct 9, 2014 by Denise Austin
Read this month’s Woman’s Day magazine to learn about how Denise Austin helped her niece, who suffered from breast cancer, feel better through eating right and exercise.
Learn more by watching this video and visiting http://www.womansday.com/health-fitness/conditions-diseases/denise-austin-niece-breast-cancer
Denise Austin Helps Her Niece Fight Breast Cancer
Faced with the life-threatening disease, Annie Arensdorf turned to her aunt for support—and found a whole new way to get through
By Julia Savacool
When Denise Austin's phone rang on July 11, 2013, and she saw that it was her niece, Annie, her stomach tightened. Trying to remain cool, she answered.
"It's breast cancer," Annie said calmly, still in a state of shock and disbelief. They'd been worried about this outcome ever since Annie found a pea-size lump in her breast 12 days earlier. The biopsy had revealed stage 2 invasive ductal carcinoma.
Denise, in her usual upbeat manner, told Annie she was sure it would be OK and that there were so many great new treatments available. But after Denise hung up the phone, she broke down. "I just cried and cried. I kept thinking, 'Annie is too young for this.'"
At 32, Annie Arensdorf is proof that breast cancer does not discriminate. The mother of two little girls has no family history of the disease, doesn't smoke and follows a healthy lifestyle. She has been close to her aunt since she was young, even serving as the flower girl in Denise's wedding. "I went to Annie's school recitals and we'd all have family dinners together," says Denise, who has three sisters and one brother (Annie's father). "Annie is like a daughter to me," she says.
So, as Annie's parents put their lives on hold to take their daughter to consultations, Denise pitched in to do what she could to ensure that her niece received the best care. Fast action was crucial because Annie's aggressive type of cancer had spread to her lymph nodes, and survival hinged on quickly making an overwhelming number of decisions about treatments.
Denise immediately flew from California to Virginia, where Annie lives, and started researching facilities and doctors in the area. "I made calls to hospitals, I asked friends who had gone through it for advice—I just wanted to be sure that Annie was in good hands," says Denise.
|After Annie's husband, Ryan, shaved her head, she shaved his.|
A New Normal
Less than two weeks after her diagnosis, Annie had a double mastectomy. Then she began 20 weeks of chemotherapy. During that time, Denise visited often and took her to appointments or babysat Rylee, 6, and Brooklyn, 5, so Annie's husband, Ryan, could go with her. "It's inspiring to see how strong she is for her kids' sake," says Denise. "Even when she's worn out, she is positive around the girls."
Annie admits it isn't always easy. "All I've ever wanted was to be a mom," she says. "Imagining I might not be there to watch my girls get older really chokes me up." She also worried about losing her hair and how her daughters might react. "I tried to keep life as normal as possible for them. It's funny: You think, being a woman, losing my breasts would have been harder, but what got me really emotional was my hair, because I wanted to protect my girls," says Annie.
Denise realized she couldn't take away the cancer, but she could help Annie keep her look—in the form of a wig made from real hair, which Annie wasn't in a position to buy herself. So, before she lost it all, Annie, Denise and her sister Anne took a road trip to one of the best wig shops in northern Virginia. "Annie was trying on this wig and that wig, and we were just goofing around," says Denise. It was a welcome relief after so much stress.
But the somber moment came when Annie put on a skin-colored cap to simulate baldness for wig selection. "It took my breath away," says Denise. "Reality hit me hard—everything she was going through, everything she was giving up to fight this disease." They eventually settled on a long brunette wig that closely resembled Annie's hair.
Beyond appearance, Annie found that maintaining her strength during treatment was a struggle. Chemo sucked away her energy and left her nauseated. Once again, Denise reached out to see if she could help. "Exercise gets the blood flowing after surgery, and psychologically, it makes you feel stronger because you're helping your body heal," says Denise.
During one of Denise's visits, the two women sprawled out on the living room floor and crafted a plan to help Annie fight chemo's side effects. Three or four days a week, Annie would walk for 20 minutes outside. (If Denise was in town, they strolled together.) On days when she felt exhausted, she'd pop in Denise's Latin dance workout DVD—a mix of easy, low-impact moves set to upbeat music.
A month into this new routine, Annie got the green light from her doctor to do light resistance training. So Denise created a 10-minute workout, which Annie started doing three times a week. "You lose so much muscle strength after major surgery," says Denise. "You need to get it back not only for your looks, but for injury prevention: If your core is weak, you're more vulnerable to getting hurt."
After Annie finished chemo in the winter, she was ready to put cancer behind her, but her doctor informed her she wasn't in the clear just yet. "I needed 30 sessions of radiation—every weekday for six weeks straight," says Annie. "I was devastated—I'd really hoped to avoid doing radiation. I knew it would be painful and leave burns on my chest and underarms."
Annie reminded herself that she'd made a promise to never give in to self-pity. Instead, she focused on her family and fitness to get through the trying time, waking early to do 10 minutes of stretching and strength moves, and walking her girls to school every day.
"I realized that when I feel good physically, I feel good emotionally," she says. "Staying on top of my fitness makes me feel powerful, like I can conquer any obstacle."
Annie is currently in remission, taking a daily dose of tamoxifen to lower the chances of recurrence and visiting her doctor every few months for tests. Meanwhile, Denise just gave her a new set of exercises—and remains one of Annie's biggest cheerleaders. "You can't cure cancer through exercise, but you can give your body a huge head start in fighting back," says Denise.
Top photo by Ericka McConnell; Hair & makeup by Geoffrey Rodriguez; Second photo courtesy of LCE Photography