Beating cancer with attitude

Shirley Schultz and Kathleen Messinger have never met yet march to the same drum.

They both feel that the best way to beat cancer is with a lot of attitude— positive attitude, that is.

These breast cancer survivors are too busy living life to the fullest to waste time or energy on being negative.

“You’ve got to keep moving or you’re dead!” said Schultz, 95, who recently returned from an African safari. In December, she’ll travel to the Middle East.

Messinger, 67, accomplished the challenging 446-mile Ride the Rockies tour in June after taking up biking last summer.

“It’s so unproductive to be negative,” she said. “I make the choice to be positive.”

No time for negativity

Schultz’s first breast cancer diagnosis was confirmed through blood work in 1988, before mammograms were commonplace. She is a three-time survivor after it returned in 1998 and 2008. Two lumpectomies and a mastectomy later, she now has checkups every three months.

“Cancer is something that happened to me, but I’m not going to wear badges because I was a cancer patient,” Schultz said. “I’m going above and beyond, surviving and living.”

Even through her treatments and pain, Schultz refused to feel sorry for herself. She is more proud of rising above the other tragedies she’s had in her life: losing her husband and three of her four children.

“When you’ve had other tragedies in your life, cancer is just another stop in the road,” Schultz said. “It’s all in your attitude and how you perceive it. Occupy yourself with something other than yourself so you have something else to think about.”

Schultz focuses her energy on staying active and helping others. She volunteers four days a week, splitting her time between St. Mary’s oncology center, Heirlooms for Hospice and the airport’s welcome desk. Her poor eyesight prevents her from driving, so she takes the bus or catches rides with friends. She is active with Friendship Force, continues to travel the world and is a voracious consumer of e-books and audiobooks. She’s currently relearning Spanish through library tapes.

“My husband used to say ‘There is no book of shoulds. Never regret what you didn’t do.’ I’m going to be the poorest lady in the cemetery,” she said.

Schultz also encourages participation in support groups or group therapy.

“People have funny ideas about support groups. [They think] that they’re sympathy groups to commiserate,” she said. “We don’t do that, but [we] show we need each other and that we’re not alone.”

She said her losses and cancer have made her an improved person, not a different person. She has new values and attitudes, an open mind and open horizons.

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Focus on the future

Since her mother had breast cancer at 38, Messinger knew she was at risk. But she was surprised to learn that her cancer was not genetic when she was diagnosed after a routine mammogram at age 49.

Following a second opinion, she opted for a double mastectomy.

“I told my husband I’m going to do everything I can to avoid my family going through long ordeals I’ve seen other families go through. Let’s just be done with it,” she said. “I don’t think it’s the surgery that kills you, but the chemo and radiation afterwards, which is so hard on your body.”

After extensive, 10-hour surgery, it took Messinger a full 18 months to feel like herself again. She was never so happy to see her birthday—the day she turned 50.

“Staying positive and support from family and friends makes a huge difference to your recovery,” said Messinger. “Coming from an Italian family, I didn’t have time to whine because my hospital room was filled with 16 or 17 people.”

Through it all, her husband, Bif, was right by her side. Messinger said his devotion brought tears to one doctor’s eyes, who told her how fortunate she was, because many men leave women during this process.

“Before cancer, I was always thankful for what I had: my husband, my kids. But it really does make a difference when you’ve had cancer—the birds really do sound lighter, the sun really looks brighter, the world is more colorful,” Messinger said. “I’ve known so many who haven’t made it. I have a whole new appreciation for life.”

A passionate horsewoman for 35 years, not even cancer could stop her from getting back in the saddle. She put it behind her and went on with life. Her advice is to treat cancer like anything else that happens in your life. Focus on the future and make plans for things you can look forward to.

In 2016, she found a new passion. She sold her horse and started riding a used bike she bought for $100. That bike, along with four months of training and a lot of determination, carried her throughout the seven-day Ride the Rockies event.

Her family’s support meant everything during this challenge, just as it did during her cancer surgery and recovery.

“Not once did anyone tell me they thought I shouldn’t do this,” said Messinger. “Everyone was so encouraging.”

Always the cheerleader for her family members, Messinger said it was fun to have them cheering for her for a change. Both of her kids met her at the finish line, where there was a lot of jumping and a few tears.

Stay well with these breast cancer screenings

The Colorado Department of Public Health’s Women’s Wellness Connection program offers breast and cervical cancer screenings, as well as heart health tests, to eligible women free of charge.

To qualify, women must:

  • Live in Colorado or a bordering state
  • Be legal U.S. residents
  • Be between ages 40 and 65 for breast cancer screenings
  • Be between ages 30 and 65 for heart exams
  • Be between ages 21 and 65 for cervical cancer screenings
  • Have limited or no health insurance to pay for these screenings
  • Have an income of no more than 2.5 times the Federal Poverty Level

To learn more about the program and find a service provider, visit www.colorado.gov/cdphe/womens-wellness-connection.

Melanie Wiseman

Melanie Wiseman

Melanie Wiseman is passionate about writing and loves sharing the stories of family, love, volunteering and adventure of the people she interviews. Raised in Wisconsin, she has called western Colorado home for more than 30 years. She loves traveling, reading, photography, hiking, camping, biking, cross-country skiing and exploring the outdoors with her husband, Dan, and Papillon, Abby.
Melanie Wiseman

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