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Balancing business and battling cancer

Victoria Connolly, owner of Victoria’s Delights in downtown Oxford, hasn’t let breast cancer stop her from running the restaurant she loves. Photo by CJC. (click for larger version)
February 13, 2013 - "It was just a fluky thing."

That's how Victoria Connolly, owner of Victoria's Delights restaurant in downtown Oxford, described the happenstance discovery of her breast cancer.

She was coming back from Frankenmuth with her family on a very hot day in July 2012 when her heart began racing. She put her fingers on her chest to check her pulse and found a lump.

Had Connolly not been somewhat hunched over, she never would have felt it.

"When I sat up, it was gone," she said. "I couldn't find it."

Connolly went to get it checked out and she was diagnosed with breast cancer between Stage 1 and 2.

"I was scared to death," she said. "The worst part is the not knowing, the waiting. The waiting for test results. The waiting to find out what (treatment) they recommend.

"Of course, you think about your mortality. I'm tough, but I'm not going to say I didn't have a pity party. Then I focused on what I had to do to get it behind me."

Her tumor was just over 2 centimeters (or about 1 inch).

"In my business, it's about (the size of) a quail egg," she said.

Connolly admitted to never having a mammogram.

"I was putting that off," she said. "I had really no reason, I felt, to worry about it. I've always been very healthy and very active. It just wasn't on my list of worries.

"I have no family history whatsoever. There's no cancer on either side of my family. No cancer, period."

Women who have a mother or sister with breast cancer have a higher risk of the disease, especially if the relative's cancer was diagnosed at a young age, according to the Siteman Cancer Center. The risk goes up if a woman has multiple relatives with the disease.

Connolly thought she didn't have to get a mammogram until she was 50. Her diagnosis came at age 46.

The risk of developing breast cancer increases with age. Rates are generally low in women younger than 40, but they start to increase after 40 and are highest in those 70 and older, according to the Siteman Cancer Center. The average age breast cancer is found is 61.

Although she beat herself up for never having a mammogram, Connolly was told it wouldn't have made a difference in her case.

"Even the doctor said it probably wouldn't have been detected by a mammogram because of where it was and the denseness of the tissue," she said.

Despite her situation, Connolly is now definitely an advocate for getting regular checkups, whether they're mammograms for women or prostate exams for men.

"Don't put things off," she said. "You set an appointment, you do it now and you take care of it."

"Everything in life is secondary compared to your health," Connolly added. "You can't enjoy anything if you don't have your health."

Once Connolly was diagnosed, she opted to have a lumpectomy, which is the surgical removal of the tumor, as opposed to a mastectomy, the removal of the entire breast.

"It was a hard decision for me to make," she said. "I feel pretty good about it, but it was a very tough decision."

Connolly explained her reasoning.

"I was afraid to have a mastectomy because of how physical my job is," she said. "I'm lifting stock pots all day long. I'm doing some heavy-duty lifting like carrying cases of beer down to the basement.

"There was some risk of loss of strength in (my) arm (with a mastectomy). The recovery time was a lot longer. I don't want to say I put my business in front of my health, but I've got a business to run and that's a fact that I have to take into consideration. My business is such a big part of my life, it is something that I have to consider. This is my sole source of income."

When Connolly had her lumpectomy in August, some cancer was discovered in the tissue surrounding the tumor.

"Had I known that going in, maybe I would have opted otherwise," she said.

There was some evidence that the cancer had spread beyond her breast, so Connolly had to undergo 12 weeks of chemotherapy, followed by 17 double-dose radiation treatments, the last of which she underwent just last week.

Although Connolly took a week off when she had her surgery, she worked at her restaurant every single day during her chemo and radiation treatments. She typically works anywhere from 75 to 95 hours a week.

"It was hard," she said. "(Undergoing the treatments) was like having a part-time job on top an already big workload. It's hard enough to work 12-14 hours a day when you're healthy."

"Sometimes you have the luxury to take shelter and wait for the storm to pass," Connolly continued. "But then there are times you have to work in the rain. This was one of those times I just had to work in the rain.

Connolly's owned and operated her restaurant for 15 years.

"At first, I came to work because I didn't think I had a choice. Then, I came to work because I felt that working really kept my mind off of it," she said. "Once I get busy, I don't even give it a second thought. I've got work to do, food to cook and that's it. To be busy and surrounded by my people – whether they're my staff or my customers – gave me a really good feeling."

Connolly's customers have been "very supportive," especially the women who've dealt with breast cancer. "A lot of them have stories," she said. "It's nice to hear from 10 or 15-year survivors."

She's particularly thankful for all the prayers. "I've had a lot of people say that they've prayed for me, Connolly said. "I really believe in the power of prayer. I think that's possibly where I got the strength to keep plugging away."

Never once did her staff didn't treat her like a cancer patient, which is exactly what she wanted.

"That's not my style," she said. "I think it's important my staff sees me here and they know we're going to beat this together. My staff was great."

Going through this experience hasn't produced any great epiphanies for Connolly, but it has taught her she can get through just about anything.

"It's so in-your-face insurmountable at first, you wonder how am I ever going to have enough strength to deal with this," she said. "I'd never had surgery before. I've never broken a bone . . . But somewhere inside you find the strength. You find strength that you never knew you had.

"I think there's an inner strength in all of us. When push comes to shove, you get yourself up and you get going."

The biggest thing is to not focus on the disease and all the potential negative outcomes.

"Once you get that diagnosis, I think it's probably part of your life forever," Connolly said. "You wonder are you going to beat it? Is it gone? And is it ever going to come back? I can't worry about is it ever going to come back. If I worried about everything that was going to kill me, I'd never get any work done."

"I have never once said I have cancer," she noted. "I've said I've had a cancerous tumor removed and I'm being treated. Once you start saying, 'I have cancer, I'm a cancer patient,' you start believing it and it becomes part of your thought process. That's not my life. It's something that happened to me that I want to get past. I don't want to focus on it. I don't want to dwell on it."

Connolly prefers "to look for the positive."

"You can take good out of any situation in your life," she said. "The mind is capable of a lot. Dwell on the positive and do whatever you can do to put it past you – visualize yourself being healthy and this being over with. I look forward to putting it behind me."

CJ Carnacchio is editor for The Oxford Leader. He lives in the Village of Oxford with his wife Connie and daughter Larissa. When he's not busy working on the newspaper, he enjoys cigars/pipes, Martinis/Scotch, hunting and fishing.
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