A survivor's story

BIG RAPIDS – She knew there was a chance. She knew her chances were higher than most. Even so, when Molly Pretzlaff, 35, of Big Rapids, was diagnosed with cancer, the news felt surreal.

“We have a very extensive family history of breast cancer,” Pretzlaff said. “Seven years ago, my dad was diagnosed with breast cancer. Because he is a man and that’s super rare, and because his mom and aunt had breast cancer, he got genetic testing done. At that time he sent my sister and I in for basic mammograms. She was 32 and had breast cancer.”

Pretzlaff’s family carries the BRCA2 gene, a gene that significantly increases one’s chances of getting cancer.

“About ten months later, I underwent a prophylactic double mastectomy to prevent me from getting breast cancer,” she said.

“I believe for cosmetic reasons they didn’t go up as high as they should have, or that they would have now if I would have gotten it done nowadays. “Now the standard is to go up to the collarbone, where they only went up to a few inches below the collarbone with me.”

Without the surgery, Pretzlaff said she had an 87 percent chance of getting breast cancer. With the surgery, she had a 6 percent chance.

Because she had reconstructive surgery, Pretzlaff, who was in a study for the type of breast implants she received, routinely visited her reconstructive surgeon.

“I was in with him on an annual checkup and I asked him what he thought about this tiny little hard spot I was feeling,” she recalled. “He said, ‘Oh, that’s just scar tissue, it’s fine.’ So I left there and he told me to keep an eye on it. The next day I called and said I didn’t want to just keep an eye on it, I wanted to have an ultrasound done to see what it is.”

In August of 2012, Pretzlaff was diagnosed with breast cancer.

“I was diagnosed within weeks, whereas if I had just kept an eye on it, my next scheduled MRI to see inside would have been seven months later,” she said. “So it would have been seven months more advanced.”

While she wasn’t shocked about the diagnosis, she was fearful.

“I have small kids,” Pretzlaff said. “The first thought that came to mind when I got diagnosed was not me, it was my kids. When you are diagnosed you have no idea what stage it’s at. That waiting game between diagnosis and surgery results was the hardest, just not knowing.”

Pretzlaff found her cancer in the early stages. She tried to explain the effects of cancer to her children, Brady, 7, Karlee, 5 and Kenzie, 3, though they couldn’t really understand.

“One of the hardest things was my son was in a classroom last year with another boy who lost his mom to breast cancer,” Pretzlaff recalled. “He didn’t know what could really happen to me. We sugar coated it a little bit, because we knew that my prognosis was good. When his friend’s mom passed away, he was pretty upset, knowing we had the same disease and he didn’t really understand that there are different stages. All we told the girls was that I was going to be taking some medicine that would make my hair fall out.”

Pretzlaff underwent eight rounds of chemotherapy and radiation. Her husband, Jeff, and the community were extremely supportive.

Throughout her treatment, she continued to work for the Mecosta-Osceola Intermediate School District as a speech therapist, making light of her illness with the students.

“Kids are really funny,” she said. “They didn’t even really bat an eye at my baldness. Kids just don’t care. I would tell them that I was taking medicine and that it made my hair fall out and I would ask them if they wanted to see and I let them feel it.”

There is a 50 percent chance Pretzlaff could pass the gene on to her children.

“A parent cannot choose for their child to get the (genetic) testing done,” Pretzlaff said. “I will really encourage them to do it, but I wouldn’t really recommend they do it in their teens or 20s.”

For other women, Pretzlaff has a simple message.

“Listen to your body,” she said. “If you think there is something wrong and it’s just kind of blow off, if you really feel that way, get it checked out. Don’t just listen to the ‘keep an eye on it’ thing. Nine times out of ten it is probably nothing, but had I waited this could be a whole different story for me.”