Exactly one year to the day of her breast cancer diagnosis, Lisa Middlebrook was on the mountain at Vail, her 10-year-old son Patrick beside her, preparing for a day full of skiing. The date was March 3, 2012, and the occasion was the first year of Pink Vail, a fundraising event for the Shaw Regional Cancer Center.
Participating that year was a big step for Middlebrook, and symbolic of the progress she had made over her disease.
“That was my goal, to be well enough to be able to ski,” she said. She also helped with promotion of the event, providing an interview and allowing Pink Vail to videotape her day on the slopes.
“I had much less hair,” she said with a laugh, referring to the physical changes that had affected her during treatment.
Now, there’s no way to tell, just by looking, what Middlebrook has gone through. Her blond hair reaches to her shoulders and her face has lost the puffy look that chemo drugs can cause.
Sitting in her Breckenridge home, discussing the roller coaster of the past few years, Middlebrook alternates among good-natured humor, thoughtful seriousness over her experiences and passion for her cancer-related volunteer efforts.
Originally from New York, Middlebrook moved to Summit County just over a decade ago. She, her husband and her two children relocated from the Front Range to the mountains in order to be closer to the ski slopes, as well as plentiful outdoor recreational opportunities.
“We really enjoy the outdoors together as a family,” Middlebrook said, citing numerous examples of hikes, camping trips and ski outings.
Middlebrook was heavily involved in her children’s activities, serving on the PTA at Upper Blue Elementary and Summit Middle schools, and helping out in the classroom. She also volunteered with the Backstage Theatre and served as a Girl Scout troop leader for several years.
Middlebrook was used to dedicating herself to helping others, so when her diagnosis came, it took some time to get used to helping herself. Fortunately, she had lots of support from friends and family.
“I had an amazing amount of support right from the get-go from my friends and family,” she said. “My parents and in-laws live 2,000 miles away, so my friends here basically became my family — helping with meals, helping with the kids, which was just invaluable. That was wonderful for me to have that.”
Doctors found four tumors on Middlebrook, as well as proof that the cancer had spread to one of her lymph nodes. Her first step was to decide where to get treatment out of state, in Denver or at the Shaw Regional Cancer Center in Edwards.
After several consultations, Middlebrook was convinced that Shaw was the best place for her.
“I walked into Shaw and I just knew that was the right fit,” she said.
After consultation, Middlebrook chose an aggressive course of action — chemotherapy, radiation and a double mastectomy. Each breast cancer case is different and involves a multitude of treatment options that patient, doctor and specialists decide on together. Middlebrook had some advice for others facing this daunting decision.
“If I could give advice, and I’ve talked to a lot of women, it’s know your options,” she said, “and you are your best advocate. … Being your best advocate is doing research, asking lots of questions and making the best choice that you can. It doesn’t ever seem like there’s only one thing, (that) this is the only thing you can possibly do, so it gets confusing. You really have to sit and think about that and take the advice of the doctors, get a second or third opinion.”
Middlebrook’s treatment required driving from Breckenridge over Vail Pass to the Shaw center multiple times a week. She maintains that the drive wasn’t too tough, and having Jack’s Place — a cancer caring house for the center’s patients — available gave her peace of mind.
She also enjoyed a close connection with doctors and nurses during her treatment.
“I would attribute (my positive outcome) certainly to my care that I received. I was a phone call away from doctors and nurses, 24/7 support, which is just incredible. With the most mundane question you could possibly have, somebody would get back to you within an hour, and I think having that personal connection as a patient and not being a number (helped),” she said. “The staff at Shaw, the nurses, many patients that have been there refer to them as angels here on earth, and they truly are. You’re with them an awful lot through that year, and they become a second family.”
Now that she’s on the other side of her diagnosis, Middlebrook has not forgotten all the help she received along the way. Besides participating in Pink Vail, she sits on the board of the Shaw Outreach Team, the nonprofit that set up Jack’s House. She also helped people at the Shaw center to create a peer support group that matches cancer survivors with patients going through treatment. Middlebrook has served as a mentor for several people, speaking with them in person or through phone and email.
“(It’s) just to give them that first-level support — ‘I’ve been there, it’s not easy, but look and see what you can be like on the other end,’” she said. “It’s living every day to its fullest. Those are not clichés anymore for someone like that.”
Middlebrook herself draws comfort and inspiration from other cancer survivors.
“Other women that I’ve met that are 15 or 20 years out, to me they’re just this true inspiration.”
Now, Middlebrook dedicates time to both helping herself and helping others. She makes sure she stays healthy by eating right and exercising, and she dedicates her free time to the Shaw Outreach Team, peer support and other fundraisers. And, of course, celebrating her victory over her frightening diagnosis two and a half years ago.
“I feel really great,” she said, smiling.