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Stephanie Riley reflects after her double pre-emptive mastectomy

  • Steph Riley of Concord helps her daughter Sammy Riley start painting during Sammy's eighth birthday party at The Muse Paint Bar in Manchester on Sunday, November 24, 2013. Riley, who underwent a double mastectomy less than a month before to treat early-stage breast cancer, said making her daughter's birthday was one of her main goals for her recovery. <br/><br/>(WILL PARSON / Monitor staff)

    Steph Riley of Concord helps her daughter Sammy Riley start painting during Sammy's eighth birthday party at The Muse Paint Bar in Manchester on Sunday, November 24, 2013. Riley, who underwent a double mastectomy less than a month before to treat early-stage breast cancer, said making her daughter's birthday was one of her main goals for her recovery.

    (WILL PARSON / Monitor staff)

  • Sammy Riley of Concord reads birthday cards during her eighth birthday party at The Muse Paint Bar in Manchester on Sunday, November 24, 2013. Her mother Steph Riley, who underwent a double mastectomy less than a month before to treat early-stage breast cancer, said making her daughter's birthday was one of her goals for her recovery. <br/><br/>(WILL PARSON / Monitor staff)

    Sammy Riley of Concord reads birthday cards during her eighth birthday party at The Muse Paint Bar in Manchester on Sunday, November 24, 2013. Her mother Steph Riley, who underwent a double mastectomy less than a month before to treat early-stage breast cancer, said making her daughter's birthday was one of her goals for her recovery.

    (WILL PARSON / Monitor staff)

  • Steph Riley of Concord watches her daughter Sammy Riley open presents during Sammy's eighth birthday party at The Muse Paint Bar in Manchester on Sunday, November 24, 2013. Riley, who underwent a double mastectomy less than a month before to treat early-stage breast cancer, said making her daughter's birthday was one of her goals for her recovery. <br/><br/>(WILL PARSON / Monitor staff)

    Steph Riley of Concord watches her daughter Sammy Riley open presents during Sammy's eighth birthday party at The Muse Paint Bar in Manchester on Sunday, November 24, 2013. Riley, who underwent a double mastectomy less than a month before to treat early-stage breast cancer, said making her daughter's birthday was one of her goals for her recovery.

    (WILL PARSON / Monitor staff)

  • Steph Riley of Concord helps her daughter Sammy Riley start painting during Sammy's eighth birthday party at The Muse Paint Bar in Manchester on Sunday, November 24, 2013. Riley, who underwent a double mastectomy less than a month before to treat early-stage breast cancer, said making her daughter's birthday was one of her main goals for her recovery. <br/><br/>(WILL PARSON / Monitor staff)
  • Sammy Riley of Concord reads birthday cards during her eighth birthday party at The Muse Paint Bar in Manchester on Sunday, November 24, 2013. Her mother Steph Riley, who underwent a double mastectomy less than a month before to treat early-stage breast cancer, said making her daughter's birthday was one of her goals for her recovery. <br/><br/>(WILL PARSON / Monitor staff)
  • Steph Riley of Concord watches her daughter Sammy Riley open presents during Sammy's eighth birthday party at The Muse Paint Bar in Manchester on Sunday, November 24, 2013. Riley, who underwent a double mastectomy less than a month before to treat early-stage breast cancer, said making her daughter's birthday was one of her goals for her recovery. <br/><br/>(WILL PARSON / Monitor staff)

There was a minute, the day before her mastectomy, when Stephanie Riley doubted her decision.

After a career as a nurse in the Air Force and now with the Army National Guard, she knew all the risks of surgery: a bad reaction to anesthesia, a dangerous loss of blood or a clot that could stop her heart.

She composed letters to her two children, son Shane, 12, and daughter Sammy, 8.

She thought, what if I don’t wake up? What if the recovery period is long and painful and debilitating?

“But I remember thinking, if something’s going to happen, it’s going to happen, and no way I’m going to back out now,” Riley said last week, looking back a month after her surgery.

Riley is 46, with a family history of cancer, and this summer, her annual mammogram revealed an abnormality. More testing revealed cancer cells confined to the milk duct in her right breast, and atypical cells in her left breast – not cancer, but a likely precursor.

Fifteen years ago, she cared for her father as he battled terminal lung cancer and died roughly six months after the initial diagnosis.

“What I’m trying to do is make this a wake-up call to change my life so I can live to be 95. I would never want to be in that position, not to diss my dad, but people should be vigilant about their health,” she said. “He was the type to not go to the doctor, not get things checked out. Maybe it could have been caught earlier and had a different outcome.”

When she learned her own diagnosis, Riley decided to get a pre-emptive bilateral mastectomy and reconstructive surgery, and has used her experience to spread awareness within her Guard unit and broader community about the importance of early detection and regular health screenings for men and women.

A few days before her surgery, she took part in the annual Making Strides walk for breast cancer awareness, where strangers approached her to thank her for putting her story out there.

She and some friends hope to form a fundraising team for the walk next year.

“It was so cool to see all the support. With breast cancer, there is so much support. Once you tell people of your diagnosis, you find out there are so many other women who have gone through it,” she said, adding that the atmosphere reminded her of the community of her Air Force and National Guard units.

“What I love about the military is there is such a feeling of community, a brotherhood and sense of camaraderie, and I sense the same thing with breast cancer,” she said.

Even hours after her surgery, she was turning down pain medication so she could stay awake to post on Facebook as she watched the Red Sox win Game 6 and clinch the World Series title.

The hardest part of the recovery process was sitting still at home without her community around. While picking up her laptop to check email or log into Facebook hurt, the pain couldn’t stop her from getting online.

In the month since her surgery, she’s returned to normalcy: work, volunteer committees and a party for Sammy’s birthday.

But she’s determined, she said, not to return to some old habits.

First on the chopping block: a 30-year daily Diet Coke habit.

She has no hard science to say the soda caused her cancer, but she’s determined to use the diagnosis to change her life, from what she eats and drinks to how she reacts to stress and where she spends her time.

“I’m really changing my thinking. I don’t stress out about stuff,” she said.

After a difficult morning at work, she said, “in the long run, it doesn’t matter, it’s nothing to get worked up about. Before, I would worry and it would really stress me out. Now, I just kind of flip a switch and say I’ll deal with it, and if the other people don’t like how its being dealt with, that’s their reaction and their stress.”

She hopes that in a few decades, when she looks back on a full, long life, she’ll be able to say her battle with cancer was brief, just a blip on the timeline between diagnosis and surgery.

“I’ve never once felt sorry for myself. I’m grateful it was only stage zero,” she said.

“There are lifestyle changes I would like to make, and I’m thinking this is the time to do it,” she said. “I think things happen for a reason sometimes. I’ve got a second chance.”

(Sarah Palermo can be reached at 369-3322 or spalermo@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @SPalermoNews.)

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