'Cancer is tough, but I'm tougher.'
Breast cancer doctor Leah Dietrich, MD, is used to helping people through the most difficult time in their lives. But, she wasn't expecting it to happen to her.
Using the advice she so often gives patients, Dr. Dietrich held her head high and conquered breast cancer. She discovered courage she never knew existed. Now, as every patient's strongest advocate, she's spreading the message that survivorship can mean a healthier you and that you only live once, so live fully. Most importantly, early cancer detection saves lives!
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Dr. Leah Dietrich's story...
With a family history of breast cancer, Dr. Dietrich was adamant about going in for mammograms and doing regular self-exams; however, nothing could prepare the 43-year-old physician when she heard the words "breast cancer" in June 2011.
"It just felt like the world stopped and this can't be happening to me. I have a loving husband and two beautiful daughters. I have a great life. I'm supposed to be caring for people with breast cancer. I'm not supposed to be the one with breast cancer," Dr. Dietrich recalls.
Despite many unknowns, Dr. Dietrich felt reassurance from one thing—receiving care at Gundersen's Norma J. Vinger Center for Breast Care and Center for Cancer & Blood Disorders. "I had 100 percent confidence in staying here for treatment. From my initial tests to diagnosis, surgery and treatments, the care was absolutely top-notch. It's just what I'd expect for my patients," she says.
Dr. Dietrich underwent a bi-lateral mastectomy and six chemotherapy treatments over 14 weeks. Despite the mental and physical challenges, Dr. Dietrich made it known to her husband and daughters that, "Cancer is tough, but I'm tougher. We're going to get through this." And, she did just that!
Conquering cancer was a huge feat, but it was just the beginning of who Dr. Dietrich would become. "Going through cancer treatment gave me the courage to try new things, like climbing three mountains in Nepal. That's something I never would have done pre-cancer. You realize you only live once. It's not worth putting off those aspirations you have," she says.
As difficult as cancer is, Dr. Dietrich says there's a silver lining. "The relationship with my husband, daughters, girlfriends, patients and colleagues have all been strengthened. Cancer connected me with people in ways I hadn't been connected before."
And now, who better to help cancer patients than a physician who literally understands the challenges they are facing? "I try to show my patients how healthy I am now, and how we'll help them get back to that place. Maybe even better than they were before," she says.
Dr. Dietrich has taken breast cancer awareness to a new level too. In 2012, she served as honorary chair of Gundersen Medical Foundation's Steppin' Out in Pink walk, continues to enhance services of the Cancer Survivorship Clinic and remains dedicated to research.
"I can't overemphasize the benefits of preventive care and cancer screenings. The earlier cancer is found, the more likely it'll be cured and require less intensive therapy. And after living this story, it just reinforces the message," Dr. Dietrich says.