By Mike Suchan, 8/27/2010

Life Comes First

Boom runner Atkinson back after battle with breast cancer



SALEM, Ore. -- Forgive Jenny Atkinson if she gets a little misty around the first cash register at Costco -- that's where she found out she had cancer.

"Surprisingly, I was really calm," she said. "I teared up."

Then she went and ordered Christmas cards.

The breast cancer -- requiring intense chemotherapy, a double mastectomy and reconstructive surgery with more procedures to come -- has barely slowed the eight-time boom run and log rolling world champion.

Four months after her surgery and with yet another round of "chemo-lite" next Friday, Atkinson is back. She is among the eight boom runners competing this weekend as the STIHL TIMBERSPORTS® Series Presented By Carhartt® holds its U.S. Championship and Collegiate Championship at the Oregon State Fair.

Winning her first STIHL title might be ambitious, but competitors such as reigning champ Alyse Schroeder, whom Atkinson taught to log roll, are thrilled she's back.

"She's so strong," Schroeder said. "Honestly, if this had happened to anybody, Jenny could handle this the best. Mentally, physically, everything.

"She has a child and she handled this. And she's still competing ...! Nothing slows her down, end of story. Ever. Ever."

The native of Stillwater, Minn., kept her focus on life during the difficult journey. She was surprised when she got "the call" while shopping with her mother and 8-month-old son, Berendt, whom they call Bear, last December.

Weeks before, she had found a lump during a self-exam and contacted doctors, who thought at first because she was nursing it might just be a clogged milk duct. Yet massage and heat therapy didn't break it up, as hoped.

"It was definitely big enough, and it wasn't going away," she said. "They said, 'I don't think it's cancer but let's just get a mammogram.' "

She had that procedure on a Monday and was asked if she wanted the results by phone or in person.

"I didn't think I had cancer so why would I need to come in?" she said.

Two days later she stopped near the first register to answer her cell phone. The doctor gave her the bad news, and asked to speak to her mother "because most of the time people don't remember what I said," he told her.

Shock might have hit Atkinson as she held "my lil' baby Bear" while her mother took detailed notes.

"Right after we found out, my mom was kind of frazzled, 'We have to leave,'" Atkinson said. "I was like, 'Oh no we don't. I've got to go order my Christmas cards because life is going to get all busy.'

"I'm going to live life and do the things I need to do whenever I don't have to be dealing with cancer."

With an MRI the next day, a meeting with the oncologist on Friday, the decision to start chemo before or after Christmas and all the scheduling and rescheduling, the third-grade teacher at Elmo Elementary was determined to get those cards.

"No. I'm going to do Christmas cards, and if I don't do them right now, today, I won't be able to do them," she told her mother.

Telling this and how the cards had pictures of Bear, herself and her husband, Niel, brought tears to her eyes. She said she didn't cry much during her treatment.

"I was really fine," she said. "I just felt like I can do it. I never got mad. I never worried. I remember early on getting like 'Aaarrrrggh! I want to be done with this. I'm annoyed. I don't want to deal with this any longer.'"

Chemotherapy didn't make her ill, but thinking back at her early treatments made her cringe. She began intense chemo with "Big Red," or adriamycin, a DNA-interacting drug known for dangerous risks, including congestive heart failure.

Haz-mat suits were worn by those administering it, and she thought it odd that just touching one drop of the bright red drug could do damage, yet this stuff was being injected through a portal implanted under her skin and coursing through her veins.

"You hear horrible things about chemo," she said. "I thought, 'When am I going to feel sick?' And all the sudden four hours went by and I was thinking, 'I'm fine, I'm great.' Right away, Round 1 made me realize don't dread something that may never happen."

Losing all but several eyebrow hairs didn't get to her; she was fine with going out bald. The port sticking out from near her collarbone made her somewhat self-conscious, but when it finally did wear on her, she would give herself a pep talk.

Atkinson realized the 14-month treatment plan would have her on a first-name basis with the oncology staffs at Lakeview Hospital in Stillwater and the Virginia Piper Cancer Institute 40 minutes away in Minneapolis.

"Jenny, you will have over 100 of those wristbands before you can let yourself think you're burned out on this," she told herself. "I believe your attitude affects everything."

Deciding between a lumpectomy and double mastectomy was difficult, she said, but she wanted to attack the cancer aggressively so it doesn't "come back in the next 50 years." She wanted to be around for Bear.

Doctors gave her a 10-pound lifting limit after the surgery and she said it was heartbreaking that she couldn't hold her 20-pound child.

"Certainly, the worst is over," said Atkinson, who now has no evidence of disease. She has a November surgery to take out expanders and put in implants, chemo treatments every third Friday until March and then the port will be taken out.

"Then I should be done." She said. "The future is everything it was always going to be. Do everything I was going to do anyway."

The hardest part is she won't able to have any more children, and she didn't like cancer taking that decision away from her.

"Every woman wants to decide if and when they want to be done having kids. I didn't want cancer to decide that for me. Chemo fries your ovaries. I'm through menopause at 36.

"I feel fortunate that I had Bear. I've known other women who didn't have kids, younger than me, and had breast cancer. You can't feel sorry for yourself because there's so many people around the world who have it so much worse. We are lucky in America to have the medical access that we have."

She appreciates all her friends at STIHL who provided mental support and sponsors Central Boiler and Wood-Mizer, who have allowed her to continue in the sport she loves. She espouses a healthy lifestyle and exercise, especially after learning that women who exercise a half hour five times a week have a 50 percent more successful survival rate.

"It's like the easiest no-brainer. Get out there and exercise, ladies," she said. "It doesn't have to be boom running and tree climbing, it can be walking. Every time I'm at the support group, I'm like, 'Hey, is everybody out there doing their five times a week? Stay active ladies.'"

It's a sure bet Atkinson will. Next year she will celebrate her 20th year as a pro lumberjill. She said she worked hard to get back to compete this week and is excited to return to teach this fall, where she can inspire the next generation.

"I believe your attitude is huge. Absolutely huge," she said. "I feel really fortunate. I was honest with my doctors. This is what I do, I want to live my life."

So nothing will get in the way of her doing something as simple as ordering Christmas cards, but forgive her if she takes a moment to reflect on her journey at the first register at Costco - and if she sheds a tear.

"Any time we're there, we just look at that register and just remember," she said. "I remember just cuddling and holding Bear and just quietly crying with him for a while."