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The Northerner

Staying positive through adversity

Brandon Barb

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A professor’s closing comments at the end of class fall on occupied ears most of the time. Students are busy packing up, answering texts or talking to a friend, causing the professor’s message to get lost in the shuffle. Northern Kentucky University German professor Andrea Fieler’s message was about something different — a life-threatening disease.

She stressed the importance to getting a regular mammogram to female students in the class. It was an important address because it affected her personally — Fieler’s doctor found a lump in her breast.
The semester was coming to a close and the students in Fieler’s class were gearing up for the final project. Three weeks later the project was cancelled and the course prematurely discontinued. Students were confused about the cancellation at first, but received an email with an explanation: Fieler had been diagnosed with breast cancer.

“You’re just shocked, because what you are used to thinking is that when you hear cancer you think right away it’s a death sentence,” Fieler said.

Fieler was 30 years old when she was diagnosed. The risk of developing cancer never crossed her mind; it took her dog to alert her of the danger.

According to Sheryl Grabram-Mendola, a breast surgical oncologist at the Winship Cancer Institute of Emory University, the body has certain compounds released when a person has cancer that a dog can smell. Grabram-Mendola and her team were able to detect breast cancer in a patient 75 percent of the time.

“For a week or so she kept sniffing my breast, like really digging her nose in to it,” Fieler said. “I thought, ‘This is weird,’ and suddenly I felt myself. I felt a lump in there.”

Because of her young age, Fieler’s doctors thought the lump was a simple cyst. After her surgeon’s failed attempt to remove liquid from the lump, a sample was taken. The following day, Fieler received the unfortunate news of her diagnosis of breast cancer.

Since the time of her diagnosis, Fieler has been through hell and back. The first procedure Fieler underwent was a lumpectomy, the removal of the tumor and some surrounding tissue. From there she received chemotherapy treatments. The chemotherapy medication disoriented her so severely at times she wasn’t able to remember her name.

She shaved her head after she began to experience hair loss as a result of the first chemotherapy treatment.

“My husband was very cute, he shaved his head with me.”

Fieler continued to endure suffering: eight two-week radiation treatments, a painful process that nearly killed her. She received five more radiation treatments on her left breast. Fieler went through a double mastectomy, meaning both of her breasts were removed due to her high risk of recurring breast cancer.

“Its not easy when I look at my chest and see all these scars, but you get use to it. As crazy as that sounds,” Fieler said.

Even though she has been through so much, Fieler feels her family back in Germany and Lithuania have not been that supportive of her struggle. Some of her friends were lost as well because they weren’t able to cope with the situation.

“Some people treat you like it’s a cold and you can catch it,” Fieler said.
Though some of Fieler’s friends distanced themselves from her, those within the breast cancer community have been very supportive and she has made new friends.

Through her journey her husband’s family and her colleagues at NKU have kept her spirits high.
“We miss Andrea being on campus tremendously, every day. Her wit, smile and down-to-earth approach to life all make her a wonderful colleague, teacher and friend,” said World Languages and Literature Interim Chair Katherine Kurk.

Fieler hasn’t been on campus since her diagnosis, but she still feels “like part of the department” because of the consistent support she receives from fellow professors.

According to Kurk, the department sent care packages to Fieler, and at each staff meeting cards are signed with kind, encouraging messages. NKU students have kept in touch, as well. Former students of Fieler sent wool hats to her when she was first going through chemotherapy, giving her a “nice variety.”

Fieler is still going through surgeries and still visiting different doctors on a day-to-day basis. She wishes to return to teaching at NKU, but isn’t sure when because her time wouldn’t be completely devoted to her students.

Fieler’s optimism and cheer come from the support her family and friends bring her. Her treatments introduced her to women much younger, 25 and 18, that had breast cancer as well. As a person who has seen the worst of breast cancer, Fieler has a special message for everyone: “Enjoy life, focus on it, enjoy living. Really look while you’re living.”

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The Independent Student Newspaper of Northern Kentucky University.
Staying positive through adversity