Sarah Beth Pergrossi’s journey with breast cancer began when she received abnormal results from an annual breast exam. Sarah Beth thought to herself, “No big deal.” She had abnormal results before due to calcifi- cations (the accumulation of calcium salts in a body tissue), so she thought that was all the results would show. Sarah Beth had no family history of any cancer, so in her mind there was no need for alarm. How- ever she would soon learn that her journey with this terrifying disease had just begun.
Any joy in the crisp Florida autumn air be- lied reality on the November day in 2008 when Sarah sat in Dr. Brian Pickens’ office behind North Florida Regional Medical Center. Dr. Pickens called Sarah in to review the results of her biopsy. Sarah, a recently retired school teacher at age 52, sat alone in Dr. Pickens office as he began to review the results. “In hindsight now, I should have been suspicious of the coming news because the doctor kept asking me if I had someone with me.” But Sarah didn’t have anyone with her. Mentally, she was still re- liant on her past experience that this was just another calcification-type situation. “In reflection, anytime you have a follow up to a procedure, take someone with you for that extra support.” Dr. Pickens was very re- luctant to share the results with her, but he ultimately proceeded with the unfortunate news. “The biopsy results are positive for cancer. We’ve identified three spots in your left breast.” The waves of comprehension slowly bathed Sarah. “Dr. Pickens had to re- peat himself six times for me to fully grasp what he was telling me.”
Dr. Pickens gave Sarah an overview of the process during their hour-long meeting. “I made some instant decisions.” There was a short list of choices to make for treatment, but ultimately, Sarah chose to proceed with the mastectomy for the left breast. Next step was to see an oncologist. “I went to my car and cried for a half hour. I don’t remem- ber driving home, but I got home.”
Sarah had the mastectomy which included an overnight stay in the hospital. “You leave with more apparatus than you came in with.” The mastectomy was on a Wednes- day. On Friday, Sarah was hopeful to attend a square dance she had been looking for- ward to. The doctor told her, “You won’t be square dancing.” Nonetheless, Sarah didn’t want to be stuck at home with her illness weighing on her mind. “I knew I couldn’t sit around.” Sarah decided to go to the square dance. Although she didn’t dance, being with people at the event helped to divert her attention.
To help cope with the enormity of her dis- ease, treatment, and recovery, Sarah began to soak up information. “Dr. Pickens gave me resources to help me navigate what I was going through.” It took about three weeks for the initial surgical recovery. “Af- ter a mastectomy, there are physical adjust- ments to make.” Dr. Robert Carroll, Sarah’s
oncologist, had a calm manner and the phys- ical environment of his office was peaceful which immensely helped Sarah cope with her recovery and follow-up visits. Sarah had DCIS (ductal carcinoma in situ), the most common type of cancer. Luckily, the cancer cells were only evident in the milk nodes and had not spread. In Sarah’s case, she didn’t have to go through chemo or radiation. She just had to focus on recovery.
She found that she couldn’t bear to examine her chest in the mirror and relied on her hus- band at first. Sarah would watch his face as he assisted with the wounds’ dressings and based on his facial reaction, she knew if she could brave a glance or not. Although a pa- tient can choose to have both a mastectomy and reconstructive surgery at the same time, Sarah chose to deal with one thing at a time. Eventually she sought out Dr. Jason Rosen- berg, a plastic surgeon, to assist with the re- construction.
There are several risk factors that statistically increase or decrease one’s risk of breast can- cer. Risk factors include family history, diet, weight, and other environmental factors. Sarah had no history of cancer in her fam- ily. “I’m not going to get this because no one else in my family has. But I did.” The particu- lar cancer that Sarah contracted thrives in an estrogen-rich environment. Excess estrogen is often synonymous with excess weight. Through her research and explanations of- fered by her oncologist, it was clear to Sarah the importance of losing weight to reduce her risk of additional cancer. This knowledge was Sarah’s motivation to focus on weight loss and a healthy lifestyle. “When he told me that I had all of this ‘fuel’ inside me, I de- cided to take my weight loss seriously.”
“The oncologist had a physician’s assistant who told me about Weight Watchers and challenged me to go.” In April of 2009 Sarah decided to make the decision to begin to lose weight. “This situation hit home and I want to be here when my grandchildren become young adults. For them I needed to do that.” Sarah tentatively eased into the Weight Watchers’ culture. She was resistant to the extra work involving shopping and meal preparation and other nuances that go into a change in lifestyle. Ultimately she realized she needed accountability and the supportive environment that Weight Watch- ers provided. “Seeing the support these people were given each other and listening was very convincing.” Sarah started with low expectations, but slowly she bought into the program and the weight started coming off. Eventually, Sarah would embrace Weight Watchers to the point that she became a lo- cal leader.
Sarah began to walk for exercise as her Weight Watchers support team wanted her to move more. Weight Watchers offered a training program for an upcoming 5K event. “I started following the plan. I would walk for 10 minutes three times a week.” She would walk in her yard and slowly increase the pace in five minute increments. Sarah started to feel good about moving more and began challenging herself. She participated in the 5K. ”I realized that wasn’t nearly as difficult as I thought it would be!” Sarah continued to walk for a year, increasing her distance and intensity and enjoying her time. “There was no one with me, no one asking anything of me, it was just me. This was my time. My investment in me.” Exercise would prove to have a positive outcome. “I got to realize who I was.”
Sarah began to listen to more varied music and started to reach out to technology such as iPod players to enhance her walking time. “Walking is great but I realized I needed more toning.” Sarah spent time with differ- ent types of exercise videos from the library. “For some I tried, I couldn’t take them out of the DVD player fast enough.” In 2010 Sarah saw infomercials for Zumba Fitness® on tele- vision. “It attracted me because I knew it had the elements I needed.” But Sarah thought since she lives in a rural area, it would be dif- ficult to find a class nearby to attend. She would be mistaken on that last assumption. Sarah quickly found a Zumba Fitness® class in Trenton but she was overwhelmed at first. She moved to a smaller class in Bell and began to thrive. Sarah was so in love with Zumba Fitness ® she decided to explore be- coming an instructor herself. “It was like I was Dorothy from the Wizard of Oz and I decided to look behind the curtain.”
After battling cancer, eventually also hav- ing her right breast removed as well, re- construction, weight loss, and now living a fully active lifestyle with Zumba Fitness® she realized she was a new person. “I heard the name Sarah Beth one day and I thought that was just a beautiful name.” Sarah wanted to change her name to identify with the newly discovered person that she had become at this point in her journey. She wanted to le- gally change her name. “My husband point- ed out to me one day, ‘Your middle name is Elizabeth… Isn’t Beth short for Elizabeth?’ and that’s all I needed to hear.” Sarah is now Sarah Beth.
Presently, Sarah Beth has realized who she is now and likes what she sees. She enjoys hav- ing a well-rounded lifestyle of healthy eat- ing, embracing relationships, and an active lifestyle with Zumba Fitness® and walking. Sarah Beth enjoys that through her role as both a Weight Watchers instructor and Zum- ba Fitness® leader, she’s able to share her ex- pertise and offer support to others on both fronts. Sarah Beth’s journey with cancer has turned into a blessing. It shined a light that helped reflect her entire life and bring her to a place of joy.