Diagnosed with Stage 4 breast cancer the worst stage that doctors say less than 20 percent of people survive losing her breast, hair and not to mention her ability to bear children, this Navy commander has not let any of these experiences stop her from living and embracing life.
Who is this warrior, who some of you may remember from previous articles? She is Cmdr. Ronda Hartzel, a nurse at Walter Reed Bethesda, who has defied the odds for almost three years now.
Before heading out for a New Year's Eve celebration to ring in 2010, Hartzel had a doctor's appointment to discuss the “knotty tissue” she discovered on her breast. The otherwise healthy Navy officer knew she needed to get it checked out: something was very wrong.
That weekend, she continued on with her plans, knowing it wouldn't be long before she would face reality. A few days later, she was told she had cancer. Shortly thereafter, at the then National Naval Medical Center, where she had worked in the Operating Room, she learned she in fact had Stage 4 cancer, meaning it had spread to other organs. It was found in her hip, back and part of her ribs. The average life expectancy for those with this diagnosis is about 24 months, she said.
Hartzel was stunned at the diagnosis, since she regularly ate right, exercised daily and lived a healthy lifestyle.
“Is this really happening to me?” was her initial reaction.
Her outlook on life quickly turned around. Things she normally worried about, no longer mattered, and she realized how much is taken for granted. She had dark moments at times, though, having lost her hair and breasts, and at one point, battled shingles and MRSA (Methicillin-Resistant Staphylococcus Aureus), simultaneously. Still, she saw what life handed her, and said, “I have a chance to get my life together and make sure I let people know I love them.”
Still at times, she asks herself, “Why me?”
“Am I doing what I am supposed to be doing? When I have lost everyone I was diagnosed with, it makes life tough, so I try to live life for every moment for those that are no longer here,” she said. “I appreciate the people and time I have now, whether it's whitewater rafting, going to dinner or taking a walk. Everything feels that much richer and amazing.”
Now the clinic manager of Walter Reed Bethesda's Oralmaxillofacial Clinic, she enjoys taking care of the patients here of all ages, she said. At work or at home, Hartzel said she “lives life” each day. She enjoys traveling, whitewater rafting, running 5K races, riding in hot air balloons, savoring the weekends and taking time to explore she tries to do and see as much as possible, she added.
In addition, Hartzel traveled recently to Australia, New Zealand, British Columbia, Denver, Mexico, New Mexico, Chicago and Florida. On her recent 39th birthday, she hiked a 14,000-foot mountain in Colorado, an experience she said that brought “lots of tears and happiness.” She appreciates these moments, she said, seeing the world's beauty and its people.
Enjoying talking with other young survivors, she reminds them that sometimes life may hand you things that are beyond your control, but you should never lose sight of who you are and what you can accomplish when you choose to meet your challenges head on.
An example of her tenacity is evident in the Emmy award winning Pentagon Channel interview where she informs and inspires those battling this disease.
As a lover of animals, she sponsored a dog through a non-profit organization. She named the dog Tobi, after her own dog. Tobi spent the last year-and-a-half in training with an inmate in New York, and after recently “graduating” from training, was matched with a local wounded warrior.
“It brought me to tears, to know someone gave Tobi so much love to train her, and that she is now helping someone in their life,” Hartzel said. “Paying it forward is what it is all about. It's not what you have done in life, it is what you are doing now.”
Faith, hope and her “zest to live,” are what have helped her through her battle, she said. “I feel very blessed.” She has also been motivated by being the “exception,” the one who “beats the odds, works hard, and plays even harder,” Hartzel added.
She encourages others, who may be going through a tumultuous time, to always stand up for themselves and what they want.
“Don't let people tell you what you can or cannot do, and how to handle things. It is your battle, your life. Fight for it, advocate for it, and live it,” she said. “You can never get this moment back, so make each and every one count.”
Today, her lab work is clear, and every three weeks, she continues to get chemotherapy. She will continue this regiment for the rest of her life, because her condition is considered chronic, she said. The treatment will only change if/when the chemo quits working, she added.
To keep up with Hartzel's fight, visit www.caringbridge.org/visit/r ondahartzel.
Breast cancer is the most common form of cancer in women, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). If discovered early, it may be curable. Women over age 40 are encouraged to have regular mammograms, which can help detect any lumps or abnormalities in the breast. It is especially important for those who have detected a lump(s), or who have a family history of breast cancer, also to have regular mammograms. The CDC recommends women have a screening every two years, or perhaps more frequently, depending on family history.
At Walter Reed Bethesda, to raise breast cancer awareness, the medical center has hosted a number of events this month, including a yoga class for survivors, a Breast Care Center open house, and a session on how to properly conduct a self breast exam. On Wednesday, a 1-mile walk will take place to show support for Breast Cancer Awareness Month. Participants should meet at 11 a.m. in the lobby of the Breast Care Center, on the third floor of the America Building. Those interested in participating should call Barb Ganster at 301-295-6388, or Holly Pertmer at 301-319-8827.