By Scott Linesburgh
The Stockton Record
STOCKTON, Calif. – Theresa Larson was informed just two weeks before her son’s wedding that she would be forced to confront a deadly disease.
It was a devastating, terrible moment. And more than two years later she remembers the feelings of fear and sadness. But mostly she remembers that even at her darkest moments, she always planned to fight back and not lose hope.
Larson said early detection of her breast cancer helped save her life. She has been cancer-free since March and has become a cancer awareness advocate, writing about her experiences and giving lectures urging others to get regular checkups.
This weekend she’ll be at the Stockton Thunder’s “Pink Weekend” at Stockton Arena, and not just to watch a hockey game. The Thunder plays Long Beach at 7:30 Friday and Phoenix at 7:30 p.m. Saturday on pink ice to promote breast cancer awareness.
“Any time an organization steps up to the plate to put this issue out there, it’s a terrific idea,” said Larson, whose husband, Ray Larson, is an off-ice official for the Thunder. “Our mothers, sisters, nieces and grandmothers are dying of this disease. It’s all about getting the word out and sharing hope.”
The Thunder is working with the St. Joseph’s Medical Center to bring attention to the disease. The team will donate one dollar from every ticket sold this weekend to the St. Joseph’s Foundation Mobile Mammography Unit and the Stockton field office of the American Cancer Society.
Larson, 52, appreciates the team’s efforts. She understands what it means to have your hope and faith tested in the worst ways possible.
She went through countless tests, had chemotherapy and watched as her hair fell out.
And she and her family had to deal with the emotional fallout of a sudden and scary change in her life.
“I’m just thankful for all the people who stood by me,” Larson said.
Larson was preparing for the wedding of her son, Matthew Silva, in May of 2004, when she found a bump in her left breast.
She hoped it was a cyst, but it was a tumor and she heard the word she dreaded.
“Malignant,” Larson said slowly. “That word brought a shiver. It’s quite a shock, and it was probably one of the darkest days of my life. “
One of her first and hardest decisions was how to tell her family. She decided to wait until after the wedding to tell Matthew, her other sons, Michael and Ryan Silva, and her daughter, Melissa Harris, because she didn’t want to spoil what was supposed to be a joyous event for her family.
But she couldn’t put off telling her husband.
“Naturally, he was quite shocked and very supportive,” Larson said. “But when I said to him that if this takes my life, this is what I want you to do, he cried.”
Ray Larson’s mother had breast cancer, so he knew something about the disease. But that didn’t prepare him for Theresa’s shocking announcement.
“You just get wrapped up in being as supportive as you can,” he said. “You get pretty emotional, and I told her we’d get through this together. I knew there was a long road to go.”
Theresa Larson said one of the most important tasks she faced early in her treatment was taking care of herself mentally as well as physically.
“There’s a certain insanity that engulfs you when you face something like this,” she said. “You become so self-absorbed.”
But Larson was determined not to spend much time feeling sorry for herself. She said she had a moment during her treatment when she had to decide whether to battle the disease with all her heart or lie down and perish.
“Theresa is such a strong woman, and she decided to try to beat this thing,” Ray Larson said. “She kept pushing and trying to learn as much about the disease as she could.”
She made the difficult decision whether to have a mastectomy and have her breast removed or have only a part of it removed.
“I considered my options, and decided to have a lumpectomy and have the tumors removed,” she said. “I just thought it was best for me.”
After two years of treatment and medication, she was declared cancer-free seven months ago.
“But not cured,” she cautions. “I get a checkup every three months.”
Larson, who is administration manager for the Lodi News-Sentinel, has also been spreading her message of hope. She wrote a series of articles about her experiences that have been turned into an extensive pamphlet, “My Fight For Life.”
Sandy Stoddard, the community services director of the Stockton office of the American Cancer Society, said her organization estimates that 214,000 cases of breast cancer will be diagnosed by the end of the year, including 335 in San Joaquin County.
“We always say that early detection is the best defense,” Stoddard said. “We’re thrilled whenever people are discussing it, or organizations like the Thunder get involved and bring attention to the disease.”
Larson plans to do as much as she can to help as a survivor. She wants anyone who ends up hearing the dreadful words she heard to know that you have to believe that there is hope.
“There will be moments when you are down, but never give up,” Larson said. “I know as well as anyone that you can be sick and still celebrate life.”