By Errol Castens
OXFORD – Maggie Mistilis is living proof of the value of early detection for breast cancer.
In December 2008, an abnormality in her mammogram was diagnosed as cancer in her right breast. She had a lumpectomy right before Christmas, with another just after New Year’s.
“I’m very careful about having my mammogram every year,” said the now-retired elementary teacher. “My mother and my sister had had cancer diagnoses, so I’m spot-on every year.”
Other than her family history, Mistilis wasn’t at high risk for cancer.
“I’m very healthy overall. I exercise; I eat right,” she said. “I was a school teacher, so the stress level was there. Other than that, I didn’t have many risk factors.”
John Mistilis, a high school teacher and sports broadcaster, remembers being in shock over the diagnosis.
“The scariest day of my life was being called down to the radiologist’s office,” he said. “He was honest and said, ‘Your wife has cancer.’ It’s maybe the first time I ever didn’t talk.”
Maggie Mistilis remembers a similar feeling.
“When you hear those three words, ‘You have cancer,’ it changes your whole life,” she said.
The statement had extra gravity in her life.
“My first husband, my boys’ father, had died with cancer about 10 years before, so they felt like they might lose their mom, too,” Maggie Mistilis said. “They’ve always been protective, but they were extremely protective after that.”
She said she has had about as good an experience as anyone with such a diagnosis could imagine. Because her surgery coincided with Christmas vacation at school, she missed only about a week of work, she said, despite a follow-up series of radiation treatments.
“I’m tough,” she said, laughing. “I’m Norwegian. I’m tough.”
Maggie Mistilis said one thing that got her through was seeing moments of humor in the sobering process. One came when she developed a rash from the red marker used to draw the “map” for her initial surgery. While the rash itself itched, the idea of a schoolteacher who was allergic to Sharpies tickled her.
“You have to learn to laugh. You’ve got to,” she said. “You can’t go around feeling sorry for yourself, because there’s always someone who’s going through more than you.”
Another factor in her favor was excellent support throughout her illness – from John, her sons Andy and Beau, her physicians and many other family, friends and colleagues.
“Parents of children I’d taught years before called and wanted to help,” Maggie Mistilis said. “The ladies at church (St. Peter’s Episcopal) were so wonderful to us.”
Even her students cheered her on to recovery.
“I didn’t make it a secret that I had breast cancer; I needed the support of my second-graders,” she said. “I believe in being honest with children. They were incredible; they took it so well.”
Maggie Mistilis’ family’s history of surviving cancers also gave her reason to hope for a good outcome.
“After her breast cancer, about four years later my mother had colon cancer,” she said. “She’s 91 now. My sister’s cancer was about 14 years ago, and she’s done well.”
John Mistilis attributes part of his wife’s recovery to her lifestyle.
“The doctors are amazed at her recovery of her physical abilities,” he said. “Her physical attributes and health matched somebody 15 or 20 years younger.”
An accepting attitude has also helped, he added.
“She does a great job of keeping healthy and being in control of what we can be in control of and leaving the other to prayer,” he said.
December will mark the fifth anniversary of Maggie Mistilis’ diagnosis. If her semiannual exam shows no sign of the disease, she’ll have passed the unofficial divide between cancer patient and cancer survivor.
“It’s supposed to be a magic number,” she said. “When I hit that five-year mark, I think I’ll be very relieved. I’ll feel like I’ve climbed to the peak.”
And what advice does Maggie Mistilis share?
“Early detection – you just have to do it,” she says. “You have to be responsible.”