Iowa Alumni Magazine | February 2014 | Features

The Scars of Cancer

By Tom Snee
Physically and psychologically brutalized by her brush with cancer, UI alumna Molly Barnhart refused to let a dreaded diagnosis derail her life.

Everyone agreed that Molly Barnhart shouldn’t worry.

Facts PHOTO: ISTOCK.COM /MONKEYBUSINESSIMAGESMammograms are a recommended screening tool for breast cancer for many women, with advances such as 3D imaging making them more effective than ever before.

“It’s probably nothing, especially at your age,” said the first doctor about the lump that the 20-year-old had noticed in her right breast while showering. A second physician expressed the same opinion, as did the ultrasound technician, and even the surgeon who eventually conducted an exploratory surgery.

Molly had just begun her junior year at Iowa State University in September 2010, a new transfer from Cedar Rapids’ Kirkwood Community College and living for the first time away from home in West Branch, Iowa. She picked Iowa State because it provided the cushion from family that so many 20-year-olds want, that chance to grow into her own woman.

“I had nothing against the University of Iowa,” she says. “I just didn’t want to live that close to mom and dad.”

She had been in Ames for only a month or so, mostly excited but still dealing with the general anxieties of being on her own in an unfamiliar city and finding her way around a sprawling campus, when another bullet point was added to her list of things to worry about.

TWhen she noticed the lump, she called a gynecologist who explained that the breast tissue of a 20-year-old woman is naturally dense and suggested that Molly cut back on chocolate and caffeine. But when she came home after fall semester, the lump was still there. During a routine physical, Molly pointed it out to her own doctor, who also said it was probably harmless, but suggested an ultrasound. A tech at Iowa City’s Mercy Hospital agreed it was probably nothing, but that maybe they should look at it some more. Her mother, Shelley, who also works at Mercy, brought in a surgeon who suggested removing it so there was no doubt.

And so, on Jan. 11, 2011 (all these dates—suddenly the most important of her life—are burned into Molly’s brain), a few days after the start of spring semester at ISU, Molly underwent a lumpectomy with biopsy.

Against all the odds, without suspect genes or any family history of the disease, it turned out that she had ductal carcinoma (cancer of the milk ducts in her breast).

“I woke up in the recovery room afterward, and I was still groggy from the anesthesia, and my mom was next to my bed,” Molly recalls. “She said, ‘You have ductal carcinoma. Cancer.’ I said, ‘All right,’ and went back to sleep.”

From there, things moved quickly. Her surgeon said that only the right breast had to be removed for now, but he wanted the left to come off within five years as a preventive measure. Molly decided to have both removed at once and had her double mastectomy on Feb. 14, 2011, Valentine’s Day, a date that she thinks must have some kind of meaning, although she hasn’t figured out what it is yet. Indeed, the next few months had nothing to do with flowers and chocolate.

The experience was more miserable, painful, and traumatic than Molly’s worst worst-case scenario. Before the surgery, she knew at a philosophical level that her body would be brutalized, but she couldn’t prepare herself for what she had to endure. Like the pain that no amount of medication could ease—the searing, all-consuming, just-kill-me-now agony that lasted for days. Simply raising her arms set the mutilated muscles in her chest on fire. Lifting herself out of bed was an exercise in misery.

Or when the nurses removed her dressing post-surgery, and Molly saw for the first time what the scalpel had wrought—an empty, flat, dented plane, covered with blood and ooze and several feet of sutures. She felt like she wasn’t looking at herself anymore but something from a sci-fi movie.

“You look alien,” she recalls. “I didn’t even look like a boy because there was nothing there but scar tissue.”

Molly began chemotherapy treatments shortly after the surgery. First came 12 doses of Taxol and Herceptin together, then 13 sessions of Herceptin alone. Molly started losing her hair, and even though she knew it would happen, the heartbreak of watching it fall out in clumps caught her off guard. One day, while taking a shower, she broke down when she pulled out another handful.

“I was more upset about losing my long hair than about losing my boobs,” she says. She took a clipper and cut off the rest, exerting what control she had left. She hated being bald. Only two photos were taken of her bald, which are two photos too many as far as she’s concerned.

Molly was in the middle of her Taxol treatments when she decided to go back to school. She needed some form of her normal life before the cancer. “After that semester off I was ready to go back,” she says. “I was afraid I’d forget everything I knew, or that I wouldn’t want to go back. And I wanted to graduate at the same time as my friends.”

"I wanted to graduate at the same time as my friends.

-Molly Barnhart

She thought about returning to ISU, but driving from Iowa City back to Ames after chemo every week was impossible given her physical condition after a morning of toxic chemicals injected into her veins. Nor did she want to inconvenience her family further by asking them to ferry her back and forth. They were already doing so much to help her, which caused her to laugh at the idea that she wanted to be away from them so badly just a few months earlier.

Fortunately, another good university happened to be near home. Molly applied to the University of Iowa in April 2011, just two months after her mastectomy, and within days was accepted into the Tippie College of Business as a finance and marketing major.

The UI admissions office went out of its way to help, even arranging a private orientation session to protect her chemo-crimped immune system from large groups of people carrying viruses. A counselor referred her to a scholarship program, which she applied for and received, and also suggested she visit the university’s Student Disability Services. Molly declined.

“I didn’t want to think I was disabled,” she says. “I know I was just being hard-headed, but I didn’t go.”

She took a class at Kirkwood that summer and then started at the UI in fall 2011. Her chemo treatments were on Wednesday mornings from 8 to 11. At first she thought she could use that time to study or write papers, but one treatment disabused her of that notion. It left her woozy and sick and nauseous and exhausted and unable to do much of anything but nap.

Yet, just a few hours later, at 3:30 p.m. on most days, she was at her rhetoric or statistical analysis class. When she couldn’t attend, her instructors understood. They met with her outside of class, let her come to other sections, and postponed tests until she felt better.

By this point, Molly was taking Tamoxifen—a drug to block the estrogen that can feed breast cancer tumors. It comes in a pill, so she no longer had to lie in a bed for hours at a time with a tube running into a port surgically implanted in her chest—but she will have to take it for another three years. Plus, the side effects are nasty. Under Tamoxifen, Molly began having menopause-like symptoms, complete with hot flashes and weight gain, and also developed painful ovarian cysts that frequently make her want to curl up in a fetal position with a heating pad on her back.

By the time she settled in for her last semester at the UI, Molly was free of cancer. Psychologically, though, her status as a cancer survivor often created a wall between herself and other students. She lived in a whole different world, seeing life from a place that none of them had even glimpsed. Other students fretted about classes, tests, or boyfriends; Molly worried about getting through class without collapsing on the floor in pain. She worried about staying alive. “I felt a lot older than anyone else,” she says. “Older and more tired.”

But the experience also brought a measure of peace—and even some positive moments. “During treatments, I got free snacks and a warm blanket. They had a Keurig, too,” she says. “And I didn’t have to shave my legs for over a year.”

She also met a lot of amazing and inspirational people, and all of this taught her to be more accepting of things that don’t go right, because she’s faced one of the biggest possible things that can’t go right and lived through it. Now, she says, “I try not to focus on the negative things in life; it’s not worth it.”

Molly does have breasts again—her surgeons left behind implants during her mastectomy that were later inflated with saline injections. And some things have actually changed for the better. She sees a personal trainer now, so she’s in better physical shape, and her diet is much improved.

“I used to be a huge junk food eater,” she says. “Most mornings I’d have a Pop Tart and 20-ounce Mountain Dew for breakfast. I can’t eat like that anymore. I have to eat better for strength, more protein, vegetables, and fruit.”

This past fall, Molly was finally able—like any other UI senior—to focus on her job search, her future. For a while, she worried that potential employers would see her as a liability and wouldn’t want hire her because of the cancer. After all, the doctors still don’t know how she developed it—no other women in her family have had that type of cancer, she had no risk factors, and the tests found no suspect genes. “It was just bad luck,” she says.

PHOTO: DAVID SCRIVNER/ IOWA CITY PRESS-CITIZENThis past December, Molly Barnhart cemented her triumph over breast cancer by graduating from the University of Iowa.

Then, after all that bad luck, something good happened. As a student at Kirkwood Community College, Molly had interned for the Eldon C. Stutsman agricultural retail company in Hills, Iowa. When her former bosses heard she was back home, they asked her to work part-time, offering flexibility and understanding to accommodate her UI class schedule and cancer treatments. Then, this past November, the company hired her full-time as a salesperson in the agronomy department. Even before she graduated, Molly had a head start on a fresh start.

After everything she’s endured, it would be natural if Molly never wanted to hear the word “cancer” again. Instead, she’s open about her experiences, speaking to other patients and survivors networks. “A lot of people tend to hide it and don’t want anyone to know,” she says, “but I want to be upfront because it’s a part of who I am.”

This past fall, she participated as a runway model with other breast cancer survivors at the “Surviving in Style” fashion show in Iowa City to raise money for mammograms for uninsured women. She sashayed down the catwalk in a short flowery dress with a leather jacket and a long dress with a blazer. As one of the speakers, she talked about the highs and lows of her brush with cancer, like the time she unexpectedly burst into tears in the mastectomy boutique when trying on wigs to hide her bald head—and how her mom insisted on buying her a purple wig. She described how her mom had been right by her side throughout this terrible time, pushing doctors for a diagnosis and dedicating every Wednesday to Molly’s chemo appointments.

At the Tippie College of Business commencement ceremony in Carver-Hawkeye Arena in December, her mom and the rest of the family watched through tears as Molly walked onto the stage. Dressed in a black graduation cap and gown, scarred by cancer but undefeated, Molly Barnhart faced the future with hope.