Every year the Norma J. Vinger Center for Breast Care, supported by Gundersen Medical Foundation, awards the Paula J. Tower Memorial Award.
The award honors its namesake who was a mammography technologist at Gundersen for more than 16 years when her body surrendered to breast cancer in 2007. The award recognizes one individual in the Coulee Region who has exemplified the selfless giving of time and energy to advance the message of hope for a future without breast cancer.
Margaret "Peggy" Herlitzka of La Crosse was honored for exemplifying the "Power of One" at the 14th annual Steppin' Out in Pink on Sept. 7.
Peggy served as a full and active force on the Steppin' Out in Pink Committee beginning in 2008 when she stepped up as a team recruiter. For the next nine years, she volunteered to run the Survivor Tent, including the tent's inaugural year in 2009.
"So assured, positive and confident, Peggy knew how to get things done and create an awesome experience for survivors attending the walk, year after year," says Patty Brown, who nominated Peggy for the award.
A cancer previvor, Peggy shares, "I became involved in Steppin' Out in Pink to raise money to fund research for a cure for breast cancer. I also wanted to tell our family's story with the hope that women with a family history would know to ask their medical providers about genetic testing, and to make sure all women realize they are at risk—regardless of their family history—and the importance of early detection."
To say Peggy's Irish family has been impacted by breast cancer is an understatement.
"My maternal aunt was diagnosed in her early 40s and left behind five children when she lost her battle in her early 50s. Another maternal aunt was diagnosed at age 72. Four of my first cousins were diagnosed with breast cancer (two at age 37, one at age 39 and one at age 41). My sister, Kathy's, worst fears were confirmed at age 31, and she joined our cousins in the fight for their lives. Of these five young women, my sister is the sole survivor," she says.
In 2000, Peggy was tested for a BRCA mutation, and the results came back positive.
"I couldn't bear the idea of not being around for my children," shares Peggy, who was 37 years old when she got the results.
Following hours of research and numerous medical consults, Peggy underwent a bilateral prophylactic mastectomy to reduce her risk of developing breast cancer. It was life-changing moments, like this one, that helped create a platform for Peggy to share her family's story, advocate for cancer research and demonstrate that life goes on with great love and joy.
Though some worries of cancer always remain, Peggy says, "I feel fortunate that advances in research made it possible for me and my family to test for the BRCA2 gene which allowed us to be pro-active. Knowledge truly can be power. I am also grateful to share that our extended family has not had a breast cancer diagnosis since the BRCA2 testing has become available. There truly is hope for our family and others."
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