ALEDO, Ill. — The odds appeared to be in favor of Robin Huffstutler’s continued good health.
It seemed at first that a simple hysterectomy would take care of some issues she was having and that the Aledo woman would be able to move forward with her life. Married to Clint Huffstutler for 18 years, she is the mother of sons Adam Huffstutler, 16, and Brandon Galloway, 22. Galloway is a member of the Illinois National Guard who now attends Southern Illinois University-Carbondale.
But surgery revealed that the then-43-year-old woman had ovarian cancer, and it was later found that she is also a carrier of the BRCA1 gene mutation. That put her at very high risk for breast cancer, so she went ahead and had a double-mastectomy and reconstructive surgery.
In fact, Huffstutler underwent eight surgeries in 13 months, plus six rounds of chemotherapy. She missed six months of work in 2011.
Now a year older, she feels pretty good and is working to build up her stamina. The blessings are clear: She appears to have defeated a later-stage ovarian cancer, and there is virtually no chance she’ll get breast cancer.
But it was it was toughest trial of her life as she faced down not one, but two potentially deadly diseases.
“I did the ‘why me’ thing for a few days,” she said. “Then I said to myself, ‘I won’t ever know why it was me.’ It is me, and then I decided what I could do about it.”
Battle began in 2010
Huffstutler began having cramps monthly in 2010, something she hadn’t experienced since she was a teenager. A vaginal ultrasound indicated she had a fibroid growth on her uterus. That is fairly common in women, and fibroids come and go. Her doctor suggested she wait it out.
But the cramps got worse and she began to have bowel issues, too. The doctor then thought she was premenopausal and advised Huffstutler to make dietary changes to address the new symptoms.
“I didn’t really have to change much,” she said. “I still did the Zumba (fitness dancing), and I could do pretty much everything as before.”
Early in the spring of 2011, she felt much worse. She returned to the doctor and decided to have a hysterectomy. But since her eldest son was still serving with the military in the Middle East, she held off until he returned in May.
She underwent the surgery at Trinity Moline. Doctors found the cancer as well as the fibroid growth. Clint Huffstutler had to wait until his wife had recovered sufficiently to talk with her about it.
“That was very difficult,” he said.
“I didn’t suspect anything,” she said, noting that she’s had an annual physical, including a Pap smear, for years. She incorrectly believed that test would reveal any signs of ovarian cancer.
She was shocked to learn the diagnosis.
Treated in Iowa City
Huffstutler’s case was switched to University Hospitals & Clinics in Iowa City, where she was placed under the care of gynecological oncologists. She had a genetic test done on the advice of her oncologist and was again very surprised to find that she carries the BRCA1 gene mutation.
“It was like getting the cancer diagnosis all over again,” she said. Huffstutler learned that her chances of getting breast cancer approached 80 percent with the finding. She was given three options: close surveillance, daily doses of chemotherapy drugs or surgery. Huffstutler was not interested in any more chemotherapy and decided to have her breasts removed and reconstructed.
Ovarian cancer patients undergo genetic testing in Iowa City, said Kate Durda, a genetic counselor at University Hospitals. Patients who most often receive the tests are ovarian cancer patients as well as younger women who are diagnosed with breast cancer, she explained.
Huffstutler has a “tremendous support group,” she said, including her husband and children, her parents, fellow church members and co-workers at Country Financial Services, where she is employed in Aledo.
Her faith has increased and she has found comfort in prayer.
“If it’s 3 a.m. and your mind is churning, you still have God, and he’s there, all the time,” she said. “You don’t even have to explain anything to him.”
Her prayers led Huffstutler to decide to become more active at helping others. She found out about the Rock Island-based Norma Leah Foundation for ovarian cancer while watching the “Paula Sands Live” television show on KWQC one day and is now an active volunteer in that organization. She also attends programs at Gilda’s Club Quad-Cities in Davenport.
Both cancer support groups have helped. Huffstutler has some neuropathy in one of her feet as a result of the chemotherapy regimen. A woman she met recently suggested she seek relief with acupuncture and that has helped.
Huffstutler will share her story with 150 women at a district conference of Country Financial employees to be held in Princeton, Ill.
“I’ll speak to everyone about cancer awareness and also tie it into my work,” she said.
Today, she stays busy at her job and is following youngest son Adam’s football season as a member of the unbeaten Mercer County Golden Eagles. She’s no longer on any medications, but she goes in for check-ups every three months. She eats a healthy diet and is beginning to exercise again.
“I feel good, I have faith and I will do the outreach efforts,” she said. “That’s my silver lining.”