As a Medical Oncologist at Gundersen Lutheran in La Crosse, Dr. Leah Dietrich has become a 'go to' person for people diagnosed with breast cancer. "When I see patients, usually they've had the diagnosis and they are still really adjusting to it. Depending on the stage and the type, there is generally a lot of decisions that have to be made regarding medical treatments, chemo, surgery."
And over the past 12 years, she's seen it all. "From the earliest cancer to unfortunately cancer that is very advanced by the time the patient comes in."
But a diagnosis that came in 2011 caught her completely off guard because the diagnosis - was her own.
She new the statistics, new the odds. One in eight women will be diagnosed with breast cancer. "If you think about people you know, sister, daughter, mother, co-worker, Someone you know is going to be affected by it in a lifetime. But you never really think it's going to happen to you."
But when she felt a small lump in her own breast her professional instincts kicked in. "I played doctor and said, 'what would I tell my patients? Watch it. I was fairly young." But the lump didn't go away.
"I came to the realization, what am I doing? I need to go get this checked out. And so I did. We did the biopsy and as soon as the doctor did it he said, I have to tell you, I think this is going to be cancer. You just feel like the bottom drops out. No. No. This can't be happening."
She chose an aggressive treatment - surgery followed by six rounds of chemotherapy. "At some point `during my chemotherapy, my 10-year-old asked me, 'Mom, are you going to die?' I was like, 'no. We're doing everything we can and it's not my time. I think if I had ignored this - unfortunately the story could have been different."
And that's the message, the lesson, a now cancer free Leah Dietrich hopes women will learn from her story. "Pay attention to your body and any changes that you notice. Doing self breast exams once a month is really important. It can happen to anyone. No one thinks it's going to happen to them."
Today the outward signs of cancer are nearly gone. Her hair is growing back, her strength returned. But like anyone who's gone to war, she's a changed person - a changed doctor - because of the battle. "I feel like I can relate to my patients with a personal experience. I hoped that I was an empathetic doctor before, but it really helps when you can look a patient in the eye and know what you're going through. And we're going to get through this."
This weekend, Doctor Dietrich will be Steppin' out in pink just like she has every year since the walk began. But now she has two unique perspectives. "I've actually done some of the research that is supported by this walk and it means so much to us that the community support is there. It has turned in to more than just a walk. It is a community event. People are there to support people they know to raise and to prevent people from going through it."
You can still sign up to be a part of this very inspirational day. Event organizers welcome 'day of' registration. The cost to do that is 25-dollars. You can find out more by visiting them online at gundluth.org/steppinout.