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Two stories, one darn disease: Greeley women share how they survived breast cancer

July 7, 2018 


Terry Frei


Nina Rentschler screams and laughs as her family douses her with sparkling cider during a recent special celebration put on by UCHealth and the Colorado Eagles at the Budweiser Events Center in Loveland. Rentschler was one of the many cancer survivors that celebrated at the event. (Joshua Polson/jpolson@greeleytribune.com)

These are the stories of two Greeley women, Melissa Burroughs and Nina Rentschler, fighting breast cancer.

In Burroughs’ case, it also involves coping with the irreversible effects of an automobile crash more than 20 years ago.

They represent so many others — too many others — who have faced the disease.

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On Jan. 6, 1997, Melissa Burroughs was 22 and the married mother of two young children, Jeremiah and Brittney.

She was in her car, alone in a snowstorm.

“I was driving about 15 miles an hour, trying to shift into second gear,” she said this past week at her Greeley home. “I fish-tailed when I sped up a little bit and there was a dirt canal there. I flipped my car over, and I wasn’t wearing my seat belt. I went up and snapped my neck. Then they fused my neck back together, and I’m paralyzed from my chest down.”

She said that matter-of-factly.

In a wheelchair, she kept fighting with the help of her husband and family.

Raised in California’s San Joaquin Valley, Melissa Emerson met Jason Burroughs, stationed at the Lemoore Naval Air Station in Lemoore, Calif., 40 miles south of Fresno. They were married in 1992 and three years later, after Jason’s discharge, they settled back in his hometown of Thornton. After the early 1997 crash, Melissa and Jason moved to Greeley later that year.

A soaked Melissa Burroughs laughs as she joins in the cancer survivor celebration last month at the Budweiser Events Center in Loveland. (Joshua Polson)

“You worry, ‘Am I going to be a good wife,’ ‘Am I going to be a good mother,’ ‘Am I going to be able to do the things that I did before,’ ” she said. “But I think you get in a situation and you just adjust to it. You find other ways to do things. Like my daughter would fall down and get a scratch or something. She’d just crawl up on my legs and I’d kiss her little boo boo and she’d go on her way.”

In Greeley, she has worked for Connections for Independent Living and a law firm. In 2007, she was named Mrs. Wheelchair Colorado.

By November 2017, the kids had left the nest. Jason was operations manager for Bentley Welding.

One night, Melissa was taking off her bra.

“I felt a big lump,” she said. “I’d had help with my clothes, and we’d never felt it.”

She had a mammogram and biopsy, and soon after, treatment at UCHealth’s Cancer Care and Hematology Clinic at the Medical Center of the Rockies in Loveland.

The cancer was serious, and there were two tumors, one 7 centimeters in diameter. Of her 17 lymph nodes that appeared troublesome, 12 of them were cancerous.


Melissa and Jason Burroughs before her cancer diagnosis. (Courtesy Burroughs family)

She underwent a double mastectomy Dec. 28.

After all she had been through, now this? Breast cancer at age 43? Did she ever wonder: Why me?

“No, because I always look outside the box,” she said. “I look at everybody else who has had it rough. I just feel like I needed to stay strong for that. I look at other people who have had way worse than me.”

After the surgery, she underwent weekly chemotherapy treatments, beginning in early January. Weakened, she came down with a serious case of Influenza B and was hospitalized for six days.

On May 31, she finished chemo. She lost her hair and now wears a cap, but she proudly lifts it off to show stubble returning.


 Melissa Burroughs at home last week. (Terry Frei)

As she was looking ahead to the next step — radiation treatments ­— she came down with a yeast infection around the temporary implants in her breasts and underwent surgery June 20 to clean that up. She’s scheduled to begin six weeks of radiation treatments, five days per week, Monday.

She’s hopeful after being told no cancer showed up on a recent scan.

“They were worried about a spot on my neck, but that’s gone, too,” she said. “So the chemo got that, too.”

As all this was going on, she worked when she could as a Wrangler volunteer at the Stampede, serving as an attendant at the private boxes. She also is a volunteer at Banner Health’s North Colorado Medical Center in Greeley, at the East Information Desk.

She can give others encouragement after all she’s been through.

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Nina Feng, born and raised in Hilo, Hawaii, graduated from the University of Northern Colorado in 2002, double majoring in speech language pathology and audiology. She went to work for State Farm Insurance in Greeley, intending to officially establish residency before going to graduate school.

Married to Rick Rentschler in 2004, Nina Rentschler still is at State Farm, working as an underwriting team manager.

“I was just going to do it for a year,” she said with a laugh. “And here it is, 16 years later … I never went to graduate school.”

She and Rick have an 11-year-old daughter, Naia, and life was good.

Then last November, Nina was taking a shower.

“I was shaving my armpits,” she said. “Nothing glamorous. I felt a lump and felt this was not right. It was in my left breast and it caught me off guard.”

Visiting UCHealth’s Cancer Center on the Harmony Campus in Fort Collins, Rentschler was told the lump was 2.8 centimeters in diameter and that she also had a thickness of the lymph nodes in her armpit. After several tests, including a mammogram and a biopsy, she also heard the chilling diagnosis: Breast cancer. The lymph nodes were cancer free, but the lump was cancerous.

“They said they were going to throw everything but the kitchen sink at it because of my age, only 37,” Rentschler said. “It was also very aggressive. It was stage 2, early-stage breast cancer, but it was very aggressive breast cancer. So they wanted to be sure they gave me the most active or the harshest treatment possible so it never comes back again.”

Starting on Dec. 22, she had 16 chemotherapy treatments in 20 weeks. She took four months off from State Farm.

“The first four treatments were really harsh,” she said. “They call it — and this is a horrible name — the red devil. It’s bright red. It’s the color of Kool-Aid, and they have to push it manually. You’re watching this bright red toxic substance entering your veins. It really is kind of scary. But my tumor was shrinking even after the first treatment.”

Like Melissa Burroughs, Rentschler lost her hair early in the sequence.

“I was bald as a cue ball,” she said. “Not a hair left. I sported ball caps and went bald. I was not a wig person.”

At the end of the chemo cycle, the lump was down to 0.8 centimeters in diameter.

The next step was lumpectomy surgery June 5. Doctors removed both the tumor and, as a precaution, the lymph nodes. Doctors were able to get clear 4-centimeter margins of healthy tissue around the removed tumor.

“So now I’m free and clear,” Rentschler said.

But it’s not that simple. She now will undergo 33 radiation treatments, 28 generally in the left breast area where the lump was and the final five more targeted to the spot.

The alternative was to undergo a mastectomy.

“Because my cancer was not in my lymph nodes, my chance of recurrent cancer or survival is equal if I did a lumpectomy or a mastectomy,” Rentschler said. “I opted for the lumpectomy and radiation. I actually just did my radiation consult,and my radiation oncololgist told me ‘If you endured chemo, this is a walk in the park.’ ”

Rentschler said she planned to continue to work during the radiation cycle.

“They’ve been able to schedule it so my radiation treatments are at 12:30 every day for six and a half weeks,” she said. “So I’m going to have to drive at lunch, get zapped, then come back literally radiant.” She laughed and added, “I will be glowing back at work.”

Her prognosis looks good.

Rentschler calls herself “an open book” in discussing her cancer, hoping to raise awareness.

“There’s a reason that this has happened to me, and that reason is positive,” she said. “I’ve talked to so many women that were like, ‘I haven’t done breast self-exams for years, now I’m going to start.’ Women that I work with. Women that I see at church.

“If I can get that message out, there’s another 30-something year old woman who maybe wouldn’t feel it shaving because it might not be in that spot. To be able to be an advocate and an influence for other women who are starting a very fearful time has been a calling for me. It truly has changed my life.”