Lori Ahrenhoerster: Blogging and Biking Through the Cancer Rollercoaster
— by ABCD board member, Gina Rich
September 12, 2018
When I meet Lori one late summer afternoon, I’m struck right away by her genuine warmth and openness. It’s a beautiful day, and our conversation flows freely. But it is a conversation she never expected to have.
With no family history of breast cancer and almost none of the other common risk factors, Lori had always been confident that the disease would not be in her future. As a self-titled lactivist who blogs under the nickname “bfmomma,” Lori nursed her three children for over ten years in total. She knew the benefits of extended breastfeeding and assumed she’d be protected when it came to breast cancer.
It was Thanksgiving week in 2014 when Lori first noticed a lump in her breast. With a busy schedule that included caring for her mother and preparing to graduate with a PhD in Public Health, Lori squeezed in time for a quick checkup with her doctor, still assuming the lump was benign. But an eventual biopsy confirmed the diagnosis she never thought she’d get: Lori had invasive lobular adenocarcinoma, one of the more common forms of breast cancer.
Lori recalls the two weeks between finding the lump and receiving the diagnosis as the most agonizing part of the process. Receiving the official diagnosis strengthened Lori’s resolve to push on with treatment, but she and her husband Greg first faced the difficult task of sharing the news with family members, including their oldest child, who was in the midst of final exams at college.
Roughly one month after her diagnosis, Lori’s treatment began with a double mastectomy and reconstruction. Surgery revealed multiple, fast-growing tumors as well as lymph node involvement, which meant further treatment would be necessary: chemotherapy, radiation, and hormone therapy.
Though few people could find a silver lining in chemotherapy, Lori found two: she didn’t have to fuss with tweezing or waxing unwanted hair anymore, and for the first time in her life, she had no trouble falling asleep at night. “Chemo was surprisingly not that bad,” she admits.
Sharing Her Story
With her academic background in public health, Lori, who today serves as Public Health Manager for the North Shore Health Department, is uniquely situated to share her diagnosis, treatment, and recovery journey. Soon after diagnosis, she created the blog Mammary Irony to document her experience and help other patients feel less alone. Her posts are raw and heartfelt, yet viewed through an analytical and research-based lens. In her writing, she refers often to medical studies to elaborate on specific treatments and procedures. “I wanted to share what was happening with me,” says Lori, “but I also find public health fascinating.”
Lori points out that women living in the North Shore have statistically high rates of breast cancer, a finding that was shared previously in Milwaukee Magazine. One reason for this higher incidence could be better detection. In contrast to Milwaukee’s most economically disadvantaged populations, many North Shore residents are highly insured and have the resources and time to be proactive with their health. ABCD is working to address this disparity through better outreach and education, which includes training its first African American Community Liaison.
Finding Support and a Newfound Passion
In 2015, as Lori endured chemotherapy and radiation, she decided to reach out to ABCD after learning about the organization from one of her children’s teachers. ABCD matched Lori with two different Mentors who were able to answer many of Lori’s questions. For Lori, it was critical to speak with someone in a similar life stage – a person who knew what it was like to be a caretaker for an elderly parent while experiencing cancer herself.
Lori’s experience as a Participant motivated her to complete ABCD’s Mentor training program in 2016. “I wanted to be that perfect match for someone else,” she explains. Today, she’s still close with the first woman she mentored, and hopes that one day they’ll meet in person.
In 2017, Lori joined Team Phoenix, a triathlon training program for cancer survivors. ABCD board member Leslie Waltke, DPT co-leads the 14-week program, which incorporates regular strength, swimming, biking, and running workouts, culminating in a sprint distance triathlon for participants. In the process of training for and completing the event, Lori discovered a newfound love: cycling. Today, it remains her favorite way to exercise. Biking has even helped Lori to better tolerate side effects from one of her maintenance medications. “Exercise has been amazing for me,” she shares.
On the one-year anniversary of finding her lump, Lori reflected on the roller coaster of the past several months, writing in a blog post, “I have had 103 medical appointments. My world’s been turned upside down. My priorities have been reorganized. And yet I think I’m in a much better place than I was a year ago.”
She continues to move forward.