Gina Collins thrives in the spotlight and is well-known in the Bitterroot Valley, Montana in the United States for performing and directing roles in Community Theater as well as leadership in philanthropy and fundraising.
However, this last year proved more dramatic than she would've ever anticipated or wanted. It's been 12 months since her breast cancer diagnosis and she recently shared the hope derived from her difficult journey.
"My entire family has passed away with some kind of cancer," Collins shared.
Her dad had a brain tumor; her step-mother died from lung cancer; her grandma from liver cancer; her aunt from pancreatic cancer; and she lost her mom to breast cancer seven years ago at the age of 66.
"In my family, when you're diagnosed with cancer, it is a death sentence and everybody says, 'well, okay, let's get to work, '" she said.
"We all sit through the treatments and know the process like the back of our hand. We are good at care giving and know about the benefits of hospice."
Her experiences led to passionate involvement in Relay for Life, a community-based fundraising event for the American Cancer Society.
She chaired the Ravalli County event for six years and raised more than US$500,000 (RM2.1mil) from local supporters.
"I got involved because I knew they were never going to let me into a lab to do research," Collins said.
"I'm a high school English teacher. No one is going to let me touch a beaker, but I was super-good at raising money."
What she treasures from the experience was learning about cancer prevention, cancer treatment and meeting so many survivors.
"Celebrating a survivor was so important to me," Collins said.
"They inspired me to do good things for myself, like doing breast exams, trying to live healthier and knowing a cancer diagnosis is not the end of the world.
"These days there's a strong possibility that you're going to live and you're going to live well. It was a huge change for me."
Collins said her regular self-checks and body awareness led to proactive efforts with her breast health.
"Twenty-three years ago I had my first lumpectomy on my right breast," she said. "Every six months I have been going in because I check myself, find lumps and take action."
However, two years ago she didn't feel right and was more lethargic. After a mammogram, the radiologist noticed her right nipple was starting to invert.
When nothing showed up on the ultrasound, changes were chalked up to dense breast tissue and perhaps scar tissue from her first lumpectomy.
A year ago, she noted more changes. The ultrasound again didn't show anything of concern but after a biopsy, she was introduced to a Nurse Navigator to plan future appointments.
"The test came back positive and I thought, 'It's time to go to battle, here we go, '" Collins said. "My type of cancer is really hard to detect in dense breast tissue."
Her stage three diagnosis was invasive mammary carcinoma with lobular features. She was also HR-positive (hormone receptor positive) with lymphoma involvement.
"From that experience, I learned that if you feel anything, take action," Collins said.
"Do breast self-checks, but if you're not comfortable then just pay the cost and go to the doctor.
"Patients must be aggressive advocates for themselves, but if you don't think you can do it and ask the right questions, then find someone to advocate for you."
She said it's important to be insistent because she believes if she had waited two more weeks, her diagnosis would have been stage four.
"It was a blessing that I went in when I did," Collins said.
"We must stay on top of our health with diet and exercise, but also understand that we could be genetically predisposed, no matter what we do."
Collins said she innately knew she had cancer, even before the doctor called because scar tissue doesn't grow and her lump was growing fast.
"From the beginning, I don't remember crying," she said.
"I just triggered an 'I can do this' attitude. Because of my Relay for Life and American Cancer Society experiences, I knew it was beatable and that a positive attitude was the most important medicine."
Within weeks of her diagnosis, she underwent a mastectomy on her right side and had five lymph nodes removed.
"My children were my biggest inspiration because I wanted to prove that having a cancer diagnosis does not mean you're going to die," Collins said.
"I wanted them to watch how I did it. I stayed super-positive and resolute, even at my sickest."
Collins said the chemotherapy treatments were the hardest and losing her hair was emotionally difficult.
"I wiped my hand across my forehead to move my bangs and they came out in my hand, that was super-hard," she said.
"I cried that day, but decided to shave my own head that very day because I didn't want my husband to have that horrible experience. And I wasn't going to let cancer take [my hair] from me, I did it on my own terms."
Collins endured 20 weeks of chemotherapy each week all winter. She said the experience was positive because of the friends and family who sat with her during treatments, but it would have been even better if a cancer center with more oncologists was located in Hamilton, the town where she lived.
"We had friends come to every infusion," she said.
"I literally had a tribe of people show up to each chemo session and we just laughed. I told Troy that I might be the only person who looked forward to chemo, because it was going to be a party."
The Covid-19 pandemic hit during her second-to-last treatment, which meant isolation was essential and she had to drive to her treatments by herself every day for eight weeks for radiation.
"No one could come with me," Collins said.
"I didn't really have a choice because I couldn't be around anyone. An infusion center would be a really great addition to our community and would benefit patients so much."
She deeply values the compassionate support of her husband, Troy, during the last year.
"He's been the most amazing husband, amazing," Collins said.
"He's been inspiring and a great caretaker and still painting and doing the things he has to do to provide. I will never be able to thank him enough."
Collins said a solid group of friends bolstered her spirit, including a pink-clad group who just ran the Colors of Cancer 5K in her behalf.
"I am so blessed by this community," she said.
"I don't think people understand how giving, supportive and amazing the people are who live here. I couldn't imagine being sick and recovering anyplace else."
She said regular meals, house cleaners, personal shoppers and words of encouragement lifted her spirits and blessed both she and Troy during her treatments.
Collin's journey through cancer is not over. She has six surgeries scheduled in the next year and will take anti-cancer drugs for the next 10 years.
She feels her mission now is to share hope, help others who are diagnosed with cancer and break the thought in her family that cancer is unbeatable.
"It is beatable, don't let it get you down, stay strong," she said.
"Become a fighter and take control. Your faith and positivity will get you through."
Blessings during the last year have been as abundant as the trials, she said. Watching her children fall in love, her son get married and having a new grandson are highlights of life that she's thrilled to not have missed.
"Until you are faced with the possibility of death you don't realise how important life is," Collins said.
"I value every sunrise and every sunset and I don't miss an opportunity to say I love you.
"You live every day as if it were your last and cherish watching your family grow. It's lovely to be alive and I don't think I will ever take that for granted again." – Ravalli Republic/Tribune News Service