Cancer Coach Supports and Inspires Another Young Woman in Her Shoes
Stefanie Mueller has long promoted and practiced breast self-exams. After twice finding small, benign lumps — once at 16, the other when she was in college — she pressed doctors to investigate when she felt a third lump shortly after the birth of her first child.
“You don’t know what different feels like if you don’t know what normal feels like,” she says. “Because I was so used to what my body felt like normally, I pressed and they scheduled me for a sonogram. I’ve had several before and they’ve all come out totally fine. This was the first that didn’t.”
A 3D mammogram followed, then a biopsy that confirmed she had a type of carcinoma confined to milk ducts. Almost immediately Stefanie decided to have a double mastectomy, followed by reconstruction that involved taking tissue and blood vessels from her stomach to rebuild her breasts.
She told her Roswell Park surgeon, Jessica Young, MD, that this was the best approach for her, and Dr. Young agreed. “I told her to take them both off or I’d spend the rest of my life worrying that it’s going to show up in the other breast, so just get rid of them,” Stefanie says. “I had a year-and-a-half-old daughter. I was 28, 29. You start thinking about their life without you, all the stuff you want to do. We did what we had to do so I could get this behind me.” It was just a few weeks between her diagnosis and her mastectomy.
Early in her discussions with Dr. Young, Mueller was put in touch with Ashley (Johnston) Hardy, another young woman who’d just completed her breast cancer treatment and who went on to become a Cancer Coach for others going through the same experience. The two texted and talked on the phone.
“We found out later that there were a couple of days where we just missed each other in the hospital,” says Ashley, who recently passed her five-year mark of being cancer-free. Of the women she’s worked with as a Cancer Coach, she spoke with Stefanie the most. “Sometimes it would be actual questions about procedures or what to expect; sometimes it would be, ‘I’m tired,’ mental things. I would say, ‘It’s OK to feel the feelings you have, it’s OK to be sad, but don’t dwell on it. Positivity breeds positivity. Attitude is everything.’”
“The simple fact of having someone else to text at 10 p.m. when you’re freaking out is helpful,” says Stefanie, who also blogged about her cancer journey. “Ashley’s this beautiful young woman. She had to go through the whole gamut of chemo and radiation and she lost her hair. I didn’t have to go through that, so to watch her and see her being so positive, you remember to have perspective.”
Both women have a similar drive to address challenges head-on and not let cancer hold them back. Given their shared situation as young women fighting breast cancer, Ashley even offered to have her husband, Mike, talk to Stefanie’s husband, also named Mike, to help him navigate the challenges of supporting his wife through treatment.
It wasn’t until a few years later that Stefanie and Ashley met at last, at a Making Strides Against Breast Cancer Walk sponsored by Roswell Park.
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“She walked up to me looking like a breast cancer superhero, wearing a pink cape and these pink fuzzy boots and she had this whole posse of people in shirts with her name on them,” Stefanie recalls. “That was a special moment.” They maintain their pen-pal relationship now, supporting each other as they go through life as young breast cancer survivors.
Stefanie continues to promote breast self-exams and has contacted Dr. Young with questions about what she’s feeling. “At this point, it’s hard because I don’t know myself yet. I have to relearn what’s normal and what’s not. Learning to live in that new normal takes time.”
But for Stefanie, as for Ashley, a breast cancer diagnosis is just one chapter in a life that hopefully has many more to come.
Editor’s Note: Cancer patient outcomes and experiences may vary, even for those with the same type of cancer. An individual patient’s story should not be used as a prediction of how another patient will respond to treatment. Roswell Park is transparent about the survival rates of our patients as compared to national standards, and provides this information, when available, within the cancer type sections of this website.