By Victoria Messina
It was the night before her husband left on a trip to Europe. She didn’t want to spoil his excitement, so she didn’t share the news — that she discovered a lump in her right breast.
After a mammogram, ultrasound and biopsy, Wanda Hagen’s suspicions were confirmed: She was diagnosed with breast cancer — the infamous disease that one in eight US women deal with in their lifetime. Her first thought was to change her diet to make the cancer go away, but that route didn’t pan out as expected. As the cancer progressed and spread to her right armpit, Hagen’s oncologist suggested surgery to rid her body of the aggressive disease. In July 2004, Hagen underwent a radical mastectomy, a procedure in which surgeons completely removed breast tissue and some muscle tissue from her right breast, as well as about 20 lymph nodes from her right arm. But that wasn’t the end of it. Two months later, after making it through the healing process, she began chemotherapy to fight off those pesky cancer cells.
The chemo may have drained Hagen of her physical energy and robbed her of her hair, but that wasn’t enough to dull her passion for teaching. She arranged her teaching schedule so that she could receive treatment on Thursday afternoons and had someone teach her class on Fridays while she recuperated. “I could barely get from here to the door without getting worn out, but the kids were very supportive, so it went really well,” Hagen said.
Hagen is now 61 years old and cancer-free. A woman who practically exudes sunshine and positivity, she’s the perfect fit for her job as a sixth grade teacher at a small private school in Gainesville, Heart Pine School. When asked how she stayed so confident in the aftermath of a surgery that takes a toll on most women’s self-esteem and body image, her answer was simple. “I’m comfortable how I am,” she said, shrugging her shoulders and smiling. While looking back on the months following her mastectomy, she explained why she decided to forgo reconstructive surgery to rebuild her right breast. “I never wore bras. I am very small-breasted, so that wasn’t a big thing,” she said. Plus, after hearing about the potential risks, she officially decided it wasn’t for her.
Hagen had some words of wisdom for women undergoing mastectomies and considering reconstructive surgery: “Meditate — that’s a big one. Also, remember that it’s the inside that counts. Think about what would make you happier; if you’re going to be miserable, don’t go that route. Go ahead and have the reconstruction if that would make you feel more secure,” she explained. Remaining comfortable in her own skin from diagnosis to recovery, she embraced her breasts’ asymmetry with open arms, which is pretty darn inspiring if you ask me.