Schriever fitness trainer battles breast cancer

MINOT AIR FORCE BASE, N.D. -- The 5th Medical Group will host the 4th Annual Breast Cancer Awareness Event and Quilt Project at the Jimmy Dolittle Center here Oct. 23 at 6 p.m.  The event is held in conjunction with National Breast Cancer Awareness Month, which is every October. (Courtesy graphic)

(Courtesy graphic)

SCHRIEVER AIR FORCE BASE, Colo. -- Undoubtedly, most people know or have heard of someone who has battled breast cancer. According to the National Cancer Institute, one in every eight women will be diagnosed with the disease during their lifetime.

Patti Eafrati, 45, a personal trainer at the Schriever Fitness Center, hadn't really thought about the idea, even though she had a benign cyst removed from her left breast during her 20s.

But, two years ago, as she sat watching television, she reached to scratch a minor itch and felt a hard spot on her right breast.

She thought nothing of it at the time, figuring at worst, all she had was another benign cyst. She procrastinated about visiting her doctor for a few weeks.

"Really, I was pretty sure it was nothing," she said. "But, when technicians at Peterson Air Force Base viewed my ultra-sound pictures, they quickly called in a doctor, who studied the frames and ordered a biopsy of the area in question."

Her nonchalance quickly turned to worry and she was asked to come back to the doctor's office the next day. That's when a physician's assistant walked in, sat down and told her she had breast cancer.

"Hearing that word - cancer - it's a scary feeling," she said. "You automatically fear the worst. I was thinking, 'how long do I have to live?' That day I went through a range of emotions, shock and fear, and I asked myself how I was going to tell my husband, Tom, my mom and my dad. But, at the same time I wanted to attack this thing. I wanted to know what the next step was."

Her doctor at Peterson AFB referred her to a surgeon at the U.S. Air Force Academy, and to an oncologist.

Col. Scott Russi, USAFA surgeon at the time, recommended surgery to remove the tumor, while her oncologist recommended chemotherapy first in an effort to shrink the tumor before surgery.

Ultimately, after considering the matter with her husband Tom, she elected to have surgery first.

"I wanted this tumor out of me and Dr. Russi did a wonderful job explaining and describing exactly what would happen," she said.

The good news for Ms. Eafrati was that doctors believed the tumor was both slow moving and contained in a virtual bubble inside the breast.

Following two surgeries to remove the tumor, some surrounding tissue and a few lymph nodes, Ms. Eafrati endured four doses of chemotherapy, throughout several months, and then 33 days of radiation treatments. Her hair fell out, she lost a lot of weight and she grew weak and tired.

"The after effects of the chemo were hard to endure," Mr. Eafrati said. "Hair loss, bone pain, self injections and all, it's hard to watch someone you care so deeply about go through that physical pain and not be able to do anything to comfort her."

She also takes one pill of medication per day, which she'll take for another three years. Doctors found that the tumor was feeding off her estrogen, and so they've basically induced a menopause state to help prevent future cancerous tumors.

Ms. Eafrati is a personal trainer and what some might call a fitness fanatic. She works out regularly and sticks to a stringent, healthy diet and remains a model for healthy living. So what's the point of maintaining a healthy diet and lifestyle when it can't provide some sort of guarantee against serious diseases like cancer?

"I honestly think that with the medication I'm taking I'd feel the effects of menopause much worse," she said. "When I found out what the medication was designed to do, I worried that I might start growing a beard, but all I notice are some occasional hot flashes. The exercise and the diet play a big role in mitigating the effects of the menopause."

Her hair grew back, albeit slowly. She wore a bandana and hat at work for more than a year.

"Most people just thought I was trying to be cool," she said.

And a year after completing radiation treatment, doctors can't tell her she's cancer free. She's considered to be in remission, and hopefully will be for the next three years. She had her third surgery , this time for reconstructive purposes, last year and now schedules regular check-ups and breast exams.

The scary part seems to have subsided, but breast cancer has changed her life. She completed a living will, "put all of her ducks in a row", as she called it, and prepared for the worst outcome.

Now, Breast Cancer Awareness Month has a whole different context for her. It presents an opportunity for her to educate people about prevention measures and recognize the many organizations and people who assist in the research and care for cancer patients.

"The biggest thing women need to know is they don't have to be in their 40s to contract breast cancer," she said. "It seems to be happening with younger women all the time. Annual mammograms and weekly, if not daily, self breast exams are important. Women need to familiarize themselves so they recognize when they find something out of the ordinary. Also, women should know they are fortunate to be living in a day and age where research and technology have become so advanced. Doctors these days are more educated and knowledgeable about it."

Mr. Eafrati said the experience has opened his eyes to the plight of cancer patients.

"Patti's diagnosis changed my life in terms of breast cancer awareness," he said. "When you see what amazing things go on at a cancer center and the amount of people this disease affects, no amount of money is enough until a cure is found."