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A quick reality check came with a lump

Judy Steagall remembers scanning the waiting room of the oncology department at Virginia Mason Medical Center in Seattle.

Recently given a clean bill of health after being diagnosed and treated for breast and lymph node cancer, she was waiting for a follow-up evaluation.

"It was hard to go back," said the North Bend resident who owns the Mount Si Pet Salon inside of ACE Hardware in North Bend. "I was on that floor and I saw these women, and they hadn't lost their hair yet (from chemotherapy), and I remember sitting there and wondering what was going to happen to them."

In June of last year, the 61-year-old said she randomly felt under her left arm pit.

Having received a mammogram without incident in October, Steagall said she had no reason to be concerned about her health.

Then she felt what she described as something hard like "marbles."

She said she immediately went to Virginia Mason to have it checked.

"Everything happened really quick," she said. "I think what made a huge difference to me was it was found early."

Doctors did an ultrasound, gave her another mammogram and a biopsy and checked her lymph nodes. Even then the cancerous cells were difficult to find.

A week later, she was told she had grade-two cancer.

Right down the middle for severity, Steagall explained.

"I was devastated," she said. "I cried for about two seconds and then, I'm the kind of person whose like, 'On to the next,' Even though I'm a strong person and so independent, it's so overwhelming, you can't take it."

Putting her faith in her doctors' abilities and her positive attitude, she said she never doubted that she would survive.

"I never let it [not recovering] enter into conversation," she said.

She had surgery in mid July and doctors removed eight lymph nodes, of which four were cancerous. They also removed a small portion of her left breast.

The whole process was so fast, she said. "You don't even have time to gather your thoughts."

Then came chemotherapy.

"It's just like you're on a roller coaster," she said. "You just gotta think that you're going to make it."

She was scheduled for eight treatments, but only managed to complete five of them because she said her red blood cell count dropped dramatically enough to warrant two blood transfusions. She had pneumonia, gained 10 pounds and developed blood clots in her lungs.

"It's poison," she said about the chemotherapy. "[But], you have to deal with it."

She took to wearing hats after she lost all of her hair (including her eyebrows), even taking a few strands from her head and attaching them to her hats to make permanent bangs.

When doctors decided that it was not in her best interest to continue the chemotherapy, she began radiation treatment, which worked better for her system.

She received treatments from November until Jan. 13 of this year.

Steagall said she has been healthy all her life, exercising and lifting free weights, biking, eating healthy foods and keeping a positive attitude. Married for 18 years to her husband Jim, the couple has no children.

She said she puts her energy into showing animals, including Cavalier King Charles spaniels and, in the past, horses.

Her cancer was not genetic, she said, as shown through genetic testing that she participated in. However, he mother was diagnosed with breast cancer at age 70 and had a mastectomy.

Steagall noted that she worked throughout her illness, taking a total of maybe a couple of weeks off throughout the ordeal.

"I didn't realize how sick I was," she said, noting that she would arrive home from work sometimes at 4 p.m., fall asleep exhausted and wake up the next morning at 8 a.m., only to still be tired. "I had a business to run. It's not in my nature to rest."

Groomer Santa Stanley said that she was devastated when she found out about Steagall's sickness, but "Judy is such a strong person. Of course, I figured she'd be not working."

"It wasn't about being tired," Steagall learned. "It was about being sick."

Clear of cancer since a February blood test came back healthy, she continues to take three medications a day and is a participant in a study group.

"I hope that by myself participating, what they find out for me will benefit others down the road," she said.

Steagall will continue follow up with doctors on a regular basis, but she estimated that she has an 80-percent chance of not having a reoccurrence.

"[Since the cancer], it's like nothing ever happened. Really, she is just the same. It takes a lot to get her down. She's a fighter," Stanley said.

Steagall looks forward to getting back into an exercise routine and is appreciative of the support she has received from her staff and her husband throughout her experience.

"I think its just the luck of the draw," she said about her diagnosis. "I'm really convinced of that."

From her experience, she said that she has learned to make herself more of a priority and to get rid of negativity in her life. She also said she urges women to trust their gut feelings, even if a mammogram tells a different story.

"If something's not right, don't wait," she said. "You gotta go, just go."

Steagall is considering participating in the Snoqualmie Valley Relay for Life at Mount Si High School on May 20-21. She said she would like to, but she may be out of town at a dog show that weekend (part of her plan to make herself a priority).

"Cancer has made me think about what I can do to take care of myself," she said. "Where I'm going, where I've been. The whole thing can be a big reality check."

Relay for Life of Snoqualmie Valley is sponsored by the American Cancer Society. It runs May 20-21 at Mount Si High School, 8651 Meadowbrook Way S.E. in Snoqualmie. For more information, call (425) 941-8795.

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