Lindsay Stuettgen is 36 years old. She is a labor and delivery nurse, coming up on 12 years of experience. She married her husband, Nate, in fall of 2018, a few weeks before Thanksgiving. Together, they have a two-year-old golden lab, Gus. Lindsay is a lot of things to a lot of people. She is used to bringing life into this world. But last year, she started the fight to save her own.
Among the titles of daughter, sister, wife, friend, and nurse, Lindsay received the title of breast cancer patient. She was 35 years old the day she was diagnosed. This shouldn’t have happened to her.
I don’t know Lindsay, not really. I’ve asked her personal questions, yet I don’t know her favorite movie, where she’s from, or what she wanted to be when she was little. But I know her strength is overwhelming; her image unforgettable. I know she calls attention to a dark corner, shining sunlight in a place that others pull curtains because that’s the type of woman she is. Hers is the story of a warrior.
In July 2019, Lindsay came home from work. She changed her clothes, getting out of the scrubs she’d worn at the hospital. When she took off her bra, she felt a small lump. She wasn’t concerned. She chalked it up to breast swelling from her cycle.
But her period came and went. The lump didn’t.
Lindsay still wasn’t concerned. She was a healthy, young woman. She had no history of familial breast cancer. She was a trained medical professional. She went on vacation that month with her husband, Nate. Lindsay could let go of her concern, but Nate couldn’t.
When Lindsay and Nate returned from their trip, he urged her to go to the doctor. She obliged him by making an appointment. Like Lindsay, the first doctor wasn’t concerned, but ordered a mammogram and an ultrasound out of caution. Nate insisted on being there for that ultrasound, a moment of stubbornness that Lindsay is now grateful for.
“After the ultrasound, the radiologist came in and said she was very concerned about the way it looked. I asked her on a scale of 0-10 how concerned she was. She said a nine. I immediately started crying. She looked like she was going to cry with me. I pretty much knew when I left the office, I had cancer,” Lindsay recalls now.
Two days later, on August 9, 2019, in the midst of an unrelenting summer, Lindsay got the call she had been expecting. Yes, she had breast cancer. It was grade three of three, the most aggressive. Yes, she would start treatment immediately.
Lindsay underwent an emergency egg retrieval. Her eggs were frozen and stored in the hope she and Nate could start a family one day. She started chemotherapy, and after each chemo session, she soaked in Epsom salts to try to quiet the pain in her bones.
She shaved her head. She lost her eyelashes, her eyebrows. She struggled with her self-esteem because her reflection suddenly looked so unlike the woman she was. She scheduled her double mastectomy for mid-March. She was forced to confront the terrifying reality of her own mortality while trying to maintain optimism for her future.
Lindsay doesn’t know what her future will look like. She knows a few things – good things. Her scans are looking positive. She is finished with chemo. She is getting through this day by day, at least the physical part of cancer. But there is more to it than that. Lindsay highlights an issue that many people overlook – the fact that cancer lingers beyond the physical component. It follows, it festers, it torments. Even when the cancer is gone, the survivor may not feel like it is really beyond its grasp. Afterall, it snuck up once, so what prevents it from doing it again? What keeps it all from slipping through her fingertips?
“The type of cancer I have has a high reoccurrence rate in the first 2-5 years. So, while I want to celebrate, I’m also scared to. I fear it coming back, and I haven’t even gotten rid of it yet,” Lindsay states unapologetically.
Lindsay is also honest about what having breast cancer really means. In recent years, the realities of breast cancer have improved, however it is still not to be underestimated. It isn’t a “safe” type of cancer to get because it is more “treatable” in the public’s opinion. Cancer is cancer. Life is life. And having that called into question, is terrifying.
When asked what she wished people understood about breast cancer, Lindsay said, “I wish people knew that not everyone survives breast cancer. There has been a ton of research, and the survival rates are getting better, but the fact is, once you get diagnosed as stage IV breast cancer, you will die from the cancer. There is no cure for stage IV.”
Lindsay has been forced to learn a lot of things she never wanted to know, like how to get through chemotherapy and how to find cancer support groups. But that’s the thing – she has learned. She has found a focus, a purpose, a goal in the midst of overwhelming chaos. She has found a way to make her world brighter when darkness threatened her. She has found a way to help others.
When asked why she wanted to open herself up so vulnerably, Lindsay said, “I’ve learned going through this, more and more women under 40 are getting diagnosed, but yet the mammogram age hasn’t changed. Also, the younger you are diagnosed the more aggressive the cancer usually is.”
To put it painfully simply, “Too many young women are dying.”
I am a young woman. I have no direct familial link to breast cancer. I am the type of young woman that doesn’t do self-breast exams consistently. I am the type of young woman who would assume cancer couldn’t happen to me.
I will listen to Lindsay. I will take comfort in her strength and decide to honor it. I will do a self-breast exam. The next time my mom or my grandmother or my mother-in-law or my friend says she is too busy for her mammogram, I will push. I will demand. I will insist. I will tell her to listen to Lindsay.
We are worth our futures, and we are no longer so unaware to think this can’t happen to us. Listen to Lindsay.
Vendors who helped remind Lindsay’s of the warrior she is:
Henna: Taylor Victoria Art
Cookies: Dirty Sailor Baking Company
Article: Brittany Renee
Photography: NVS Photography