When Laura Peterson was called back in for a second mammogram after a routine visit in February of 2020, she didn’t think much of it.
When she was scheduled for an ultrasound following that appointment, it didn’t seem too unusual. But when she was sent from there to consult with a surgeon, she knew something was not right.
“That’s when I knew something was happening,” says Peterson, a medical receptionist from Concord.
On Valentine’s Day last year, Laura Peterson was diagnosed with Invasive Ductal Carcinoma. The following months put her on a journey that many women have experienced: follow-up visits, procedures, treatment, and a litany of unexpected challenges.
Rather than let it get the best of her, however, Peterson opted to get moving — looking to family members for strength, and mobilizing a team in Making Strides Against Breast Cancer, an annual event/walk to raise money for breast cancer awareness.
But first, she had to get healthy.
“When I was diagnosed, it was a shock, but on the flip side, it was stage 1, so they caught it early,” Peterson says. “The whole time I was going through my treatment, I was thinking of my dad, who was battling a very aggressive prostate cancer, and everything he had gone through in his battle. It made me stronger.”
The first appointment following the diagnosis arrived, and with it, the anticipated nerves that tend to accompany the beginning of treatment.
“The first appointment, they say, is the hardest — and it absolutely was,” Peterson says. “I went in there and I don’t remember a lot of the conversation. I was focused on the scans and how they looked when they came back. On that first appointment they can’t give you the answer you want. I was told things were looking good, but that there would be changes and that they’d have a better idea by the next appointment.
“You want to hear, ‘everything looks great, you’re good to go.’ But you don’t hear those words.”
Nearly a month after being diagnosed, Peterson underwent a partial mastectomy. Then COVID-19 arrived in New Hampshire, throwing additional and completely unforeseen obstacles onto an already difficult path. Pandemic-related restrictions and procedures made previously routine arrangements impossible — just when Peterson was most in-need. Luckily, she found herself in the hands of a team ready to get creative in the face of the unknown.
“As a team and as a facility, the Breast Care Center at Concord Hospital was phenomenal,” she says. “All of my questions were answered and they were always ahead of the game. For instance, when I was first scheduled for surgery, the receptionist there helped me with the Family Medical Leave Act, which protected my job and insurance. These were things I never thought of because I was so overwhelmed after being diagnosed with cancer. You automatically think of the bad things and not the positive, but they planned everything step by step.
“I had a follow-up visit with Dr. Sharon Gunsher after surgery, but by then COVID had hit. Zoom wasn’t even being used at that point. She realized she had an iPhone, and I had one, so we conducted that follow-up visit on FaceTime.”
Her team formulated a plan, which began with an aggressive course of 21 radiation treatments, five days a week, over a 4-5-week period starting in late May. Peterson’s support network then kicked-in: her daughters — a 29-year-old who lives in Rhode Island, and a 17-year-old — along with a few friends, who helped by bringing groceries to her home during a time when the immune compromised couldn’t leave home.
As the pandemic and her own recovery continued, Peterson found herself out of work and relying on COBRA insurance, which cost her $600 per month.
“It was astronomical, but I needed that insurance,” she says. “It was difficult all summer long.”
Immediately following her mastectomy, Peterson organized her Making Strides team. Last year, she was the top individual fundraiser, raising more than $5,000. This year will be the second time her team, Saving Second Base, will participate.
“I really just started hitting the ground running with the fundraising,” she says. “I utilized Facebook all the time, private messaged people and kept at it through the end of last summer.”
A self-described private person, Peterson opted to keep her own diagnosis out of the conversation as she went about organizing.
“I only disclosed by diagnosis when I messaged someone privately,” she says. “I kept my story private. I just kept watching the [fundraising] numbers go up and busted my butt. With COVID, I think we did very well, raising $5,000.”
She then began an ongoing series of races, fundraising events and challenges that provided the 51-year-old with both a distraction and a way of remaining active, though it would prove to be difficult.
“Luckily I didn’t go through chemo, but radiation can still kick your ass,” Peterson says. “I was so used to being active. There were days I wanted to go out and walk, but I was lucky if I could walk 100 feet.”
She became involved in an app called Yes.Fit, a digital fitness experience with virtual races and medals. Her first virtual race was a 42.3-mile challenge.
“Every day I’d log the miles,” she says. “It got me through my treatment and through COVID. I couldn’t wait to watch the numbers go down and be one step closer to my medal. Now I have nine medals, which have varied from 26 miles to a 102-mile race. Every day I’d push myself a little farther, walking, getting stronger.”
Thankfully, Peterson’s prognosis is very good. Recent visits have shown improvement, though the official “all clear” has yet to be sounded.
“I have one more scan in December, but I don’t have the clean bill of health yet because your breasts and skin change from the radiation,” she says. “I have that one last scan in December and then I’ll go back to yearly scans.”
Through her journey — the diagnosis, treatment, dealing with the pandemic and its related complications, fundraising and healing, Peterson has learned to remain focused on staying positive.
Her message: “Stay in the moment. Don’t overthink things. We, as individuals, as human beings, tend to do that and assume the worst. You can’t do that. Treatments have come so far. I look at my dad — he was stage 4, aggressive small cell cancer. We were told he wasn’t going to make it to my daughter’s wedding that fall [2019.] He just kept overcoming those hurdles. Be persistent, stay positive, and utilize your support group. Remember, it could always be worse.”
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