When Colleen Flanders was diagnosed with breast cancer in June 2015, she found a "new balance" with the help of a network of family and friends to find a quiet strength she never knew she had.
"I had always been the caregiver," said Flanders, a dedicated nurse practitioner, daughter, wife, and mother of two. "I never thought I would be on the other end. My husband, daughters, family and friends had to take care of me....I have tried to return that. It feels good to help other people."
Flanders, husband, Rob, and daughter Devin moved to Cookeville in 2014 to be close to her parents. Her father had been diagnosed with lung cancer and her oldest daughter, Erin, was attending Tennessee Tech University.
She quickly reconnected with friends from her youth and made a number of new friends, including Emily Loy. Loy had gone through breast cancer treatment and Flanders attended the 2014 Upper Cumberland Race for the Cure in Cookeville to show support.
There, she and friend Karen Brown discussed the importance of scheduling their yearly mammograms. But Flanders was in the middle of a chaotic schedule -- a new job, a new home, a new community. She also began having severe stomach pains that required surgery. When she had an abdominal CT scan, the radiologist arned her he saw something in her left breast that needed to be looked at right away.
"He didn't have to look at that or say anything. But he cared enough to do that, and he probably saved my life," said Flanders.
She'd had her yearly mammograms like clockwork, but this year, at 46, she was about three months late. She scheduled her mammogram at Vanderbilt, where she had worked for 25 years, and thought nothing more about it.
The call came two days before her 47th birthday, in the midst of planning her oldest daughter's wedding.
"The hardest part was telling my husband," Flanders said. His mother had died of breast cancer. She also struggled with telling her two daughters, the youngest only 13 at the time.
Her case proved to be more complex than originally thought. She had more than one tumor in her left breast. That caused the start of treatment to be delayed until after her daughter's wedding. She elected to have a bi-lateral mastectomy followed by four rounds of chemotherapy and then radiation.
That's when her new support system stepped up. Loy offered tips on wearing button-up blouses after her surgery. Brown brought over a recliner she could sleep in while recovering from surgery. A new friend Jami Cherry suggested hair that could be worn under a hat. They offered tips on how to fight the nausea or what to do when her eyelashes and eyebrows fell out from treatment. She also felt great support from the staff in her new job at CRMC.
"These incredible people reached out with fantastic pieces of information," Flanders said. "These were little things you didn't necessarily think about but that made me feel more like a normal person and made my day a little bit better."
When she went to Vanderbilt for the first chemo treatment, her former coworkers from Vanderbilt came to pray with her and sent home care packages.
"It gave me peace and helped me to start that journey in a positive way," she said.
She kept working throughout her treatment and, one month after her surgery, she attended her second Upper Cumberland Race for the Cure, this time as a survivor and a fighter.
"I saw the joy on people's faces," she said. "I talked to so many people who gave me love and support -- people I didn't know at all."
Flanders says she's generally a very positive person. It's something that's been a blessing in her career as a neonatal nurse practitioner, and it was a blessing as she dealt with her own illness.
"I'm thankful for the little things," she said. "I wake up happy every day."
She encouraged others to find joy in the little things and, most importantly, to not lose hope.
"There are so many good treatments available today and so much support," she said. "You don't have to go it alone."
One organization offering a network of support is Susan G. Komen Central Tennessee. The annual Upper Cumberland Race for the Cure, set Sept 24 in Cookeville, helps raise funds used to provide community grants throughout the region for breast health education, early detection, survivor support and more.
This year, Flanders will be serving as the 2016 New Balance Survivor of the Year for the race and encourages everyone to form a team and help in the effort to end breast cancer forever.
Registration for the Race for the Cure is going on now. Early registration will end Sept. 14, and the price will increase $5. Online and paper registration will be accepted until midnight Sept. 23. Individuals may register in person at packet pickup at Cookeville Ford Sept. 22 and 23, from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. each day. Race-day registration will also be offered from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. for chip-timed runners and until 2 p.m. for others at Race Village at TTU.
For more information, visit komencentraltennessee.org.