In the Pink
Fit To Live
Rebecca Gutwin doesn't seem like a "pink" person. Her T-shirt, which reads "William Smith '03-'04 Crew," is gym-class gray -- and soggy after a morning run. Her curly, brown hair is tied in a no-nonsense ponytail. But the laces in her Adidas are the hue of Pepto Bismol; the Swiss Army knife attached to her key chain? Hot pink. These are not just girly accessories, they're symbols: At 21, Gutwin is a breast cancer survivor. And pink is the "team" color of the Komen Race for the Cure.
If all goes well, Gutwin, who is 6 feet tall, will finish first among the "survivors" -- for the fourth year in a row -- in the upcoming Vermont-New Hampshire race in Manchester. The Williston resident never expected to find herself running competitively, never mind winning the race; she says loathed the experience of running cross-country and track at Champlain Valley Union High School. But then, she also never expected to find herself with breast cancer at age 18.
Gutwin was a freshman at William Smith in Geneva, New York, and brand-new to the crew program when she discovered a lump in her chest in the fall of 2002. She says she did not conduct regular self-exams, and found it purely by accident one day. "At first I thought, 'That's pretty weird,'" Gutwin says about the peach-pit-sized lump. "But I didn't get too alarmed, because I figured it was just something benign."
But Gutwin's primary care physician recommended she see a specialist. So during her winter break, she went to Fletcher Allen Health Care in Burlington for a biopsy. "The specialist took the lump out and let me see it -- that was pretty neat," Gutwin recalls. "Then a few days later she called -- my mom answered the phone -- and said it was a malignant tumor."
Though Gutwin can't remember the word "cancer" being mentioned that day, the news sunk in when she learned the traditional treatment for her condition. Called a phyllodes tumor, hers was a rare type of breast cancer that develops in the connective tissue of the breast rather than in a duct or lobule. A phyllodes tumor typically calls for a full mastectomy.
"I was 18," says Gutwin. "I was, like, 'They're gonna do what to me?'"
Then Gutwin's family discovered a Dartmouth Medical Center doctor who was conducting a clinical trial treating such tumors with connective-tissue removal and radiation therapy for six and half weeks. Gutwin wanted to continue crew and her regular college life, so she opted for the experimental study. "If I had gotten the mastectomy, it would have interfered with my rowing," she says matter-of-factly.
In March 2003, after her second surgery to remove connective tissue, Gutwin began radiation. With five academic courses and twice-daily crew practices, she began her days at 5 a.m. and returned to her room long after dinnertime. Instead of going to lunch, Gutwin went to radiation, relying on her assistant coach and a driver from the cancer clinic for the 30-minute rides to and from treatments. "The driver must have been 80; he was so cute," she says. "If I would arrive not smiling or tired, he'd say, 'It's OK, it'll be over soon.'"
Left alone behind the thick door of the radiation room, Gutwin imagined dipping her oar in the river. "It was scary, but the thing that definitely helped me the most was rowing," she says. "I never seriously entertained the possibility that I was dying."
Crew season and radiation ended around the same time, and Gutwin decided to spend the summer before her sophomore year training for a rowing career. She also decided to help raise money for cancer research and entered the Race for the Cure in Manchester, where breast-cancer survivors are identified by a bright-pink hat and T-shirt. Top finishers are awarded special prizes. But Gutwin arrived late and discarded the T-shirt because it was too big for her. So when she crossed the finish line -- first -- she wasn't recognized as a survivor, and her results were lost.
"It was a big mess!" says Gutwin, who explained her case to organizers and eventually won a silver bracelet for her victory. She returned to Manchester in 2004, once again rejecting the too-big T-shirt, and once again winning the race. Last year, Gutwin took her third first place -- finally, wearing a pink tee that fit.
During her post-cancer years, Gutwin became an ESPN Academic All-American athlete and a top oars- woman. Last spring she graduated summa cum laude from William Smith. Most importantly, Gutwin has been cancer-free for three and a half years. Now she has turned her energy to finding a job -- the math major is applying for a post at the National Security Agency in Maryland. Though she realizes the cancer could someday make a return appearance, "I'm not so scared now," she says.
The 2-inch scar on her chest and the pink accessories are the only reminders of what Gutwin went through at age 18. "Then I go to the race," she notes, "and it's recognition of this pretty big event in my life." The annual competition, she says, is a positive affirmation of survivorship, and provides a chance to share awareness of breast-cancer risks among younger women. "Breast cancer is a very real thing for a lot of people," she says. "In everyday life, though, people my age don't know what to do about it."
Gutwin has mixed feelings about winning the Race for the Cure. "It's neat to have the opportunity, to be able to race in the survivor division, and to have a solid, tangible goal of first place," she says. "But at the same time, I feel like my cancer diagnosis and treatment was not that extensive compared to some other people's; I really am very impressed by women who go through a mastectomy and chemotherapy and are still OK."
Though she hasn't yet met anyone close to her age there, fellow racers seem to be gaining on Gutwin; last year a woman in her fifties almost beat her. "Now," she says, "I'm looking out for the competition."
Running in the Race for the Cure is an affirmation of how athleticism allowed Gutwin to conquer a much tougher battle, and how cancer has made her a better athlete. And rowing, she notes, not only helped to distract her thoughts but also to loosen her muscles after surgery. Both crew and cancer, Gutwin adds, taught her how to power through pain. "In high school cross-country my body hurt, and I was afraid of that feeling, and I didn't see any advantage to pushing myself through it," she says. "Now I find a lot of value in challenging myself and doing things I didn't think I could do or wanted to do."