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Editor's note: In honor of October being National Breast Cancer Awareness Month, this week The Columbus Telegram is publishing profiles of area residents who are breast cancer survivors as part of our second-annual "Think Pink" series in collaboration with Columbus Cancer Care, which worked with us to find profile candidates. Read previously published stories on our website. Our masthead on the front page will also be pink throughout the week.

Ann Babel had been expecting an important phone call last Christmas morning with news she had been dreading.

“Those are pretty dark days when you hear those words,” Babel said, of when she was told ‘you have cancer.’ “It’s life-changing … I couldn’t see past the next days ahead. I didn’t know whether I was going to be here to celebrate my kids’ birthdays, to go through harvest with my husband, celebrate his birthday, all of those things you take for granted that are in front of you.”

It had been a fast but long four days. Babel had a mammogram on Dec. 21, 2018, a biopsy done soon after and awaited the results. She asked Dr. Ronald Ernst to call her as soon as he knew those results, so he obliged. She was diagnosed with breast cancer in her left breast, which was later classified as Stage 2.

“I told him I wanted to know right away – good or bad. I wanted to know because your mind doesn’t settle until you do,” said Babel, practice manager at Columbus General Surgery, who works regularly with Dr. Ernst. “I cried as I was talking to Dr. Ernst. He told me, 'Make sure that you still go enjoy your family and we will tackle this tomorrow and we will have a plan.'”

It proved to be a very challenging and scary few months, and even though her limits were tested, Babel fought like hell. In a way, it's all given her a new outlook on life and inspired her to share her story with others in hopes of saving as many lives as possible.

“I’ve made several connections and relationships to patients here who have similar stories,” she said. “Being a survivor means you’re a fighter. I think in order to be a survivor you have to keep fighting.”

EARLY ON

Breast cancer was always on Babel’s radar as her late mother had battled a form of it years earlier.

“My mom was 48 when she was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2001,” she said, noting her mother’s was hormone positive and hers was not.

Her mother ended up beating it but passed away at 61 from multiple myeloma that Babel said doctors believe was unrelated to her breast cancer.

Babel said she was thinking about how she was long overdue for a mammogram, noting it had been about 10 years but she had put it off because she was pregnant and then nursing her son. So when she went in at 41, she was worried.

There wasn’t any time to waste after she was diagnosed. She and her family shed many tears, but she discussed her options with doctors and went in for a partial mastectomy on Dec. 28.

HARD DAYS AHEAD

Surgery was the easy part if there is such a thing when it comes to battling cancer. While many around the world were preparing to ring in the new year that late December, Babel found herself unsure of what was to come.

“I didn’t know what to expect because I was getting ready to enter the biggest challenge of my life,” she said.

Babel had chemotherapy and radiation treatments looming over her head. Feeling vulnerable and unhappy, she wanted to skip plans she made with her husband and some close friends to go to an Eric Church concert in mid-January. But her husband, Mike, insisted they go and enjoy time together before they continued her cancer journey.

“I wasn’t going to go, but we didn’t know how many good days I would have,” she recalled. “My husband and I, as well as some of our good friends, celebrated life that night. We enjoyed the evening together before life took another drastic turn.”

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She officially began chemotherapy on Jan. 21 and did eight rounds up until April 30. That was followed by radiation, which started at the end of May and wrapped July 9. Radiation, she said, proved to be even more taxing because you’re alone in a “big machine by yourself.”

The side effects proved awful. She got sick often and, as a result, missed out on time with her loved ones. Among them was her father, who she called a great man and had surgery on Jan. 22. He ended up in a nursing home.

“I lost my father during all of this, and because of my weakened immune system, I couldn’t go visit him like I wanted,” she said. “He became more and more ill, and then he passed away in April. I didn’t get to spend those days with him, and we were pretty close, so that felt pretty cruddy.

“I couldn’t do the things I wanted to do that were the most important to me.”

What did get her through it all, and what she found comfort in, was her faith. A longtime St. Bonaventure attendee, she prayed often. She clutched her dear rosary.

“You can’t get through something like this without faith,” she said.

Then there was her massive support system made of her family (husband, Mike; daughter, Lily, 12; and son, Will, 2); numerous close friends, her colleagues/her medical team (Dr. Ernst, her primary surgeon); (Dr. Jeremy Albin and Dr. Myron Morse).

“My coworkers and physicians I work with who were also part of my medical treatment – I knew I had the best physicians on my case and I wouldn’t have gone anywhere else,” she said. “I put my health care in their hands and I knew they would tell me exactly what I needed to do to take care of this.

“I always knew they had big hearts, compassion and had a strong faith base and I saw that first hand as my providers. They were there for me every step of the way.”

Dr. Ernst praised his friend and colleague, noting how courageous and inspiring she is as a person.

“I have nothing but the best of things to say of Ann. She’s everything you want in an employee, she has all the characteristics that you would want as a friend … she’s the full package,” he said, noting he was impressed with how she got through chemo and radiation treatments like a champion. “I’m amazed how tough of a lady she is.”

DOING BETTER NOW

Babel has remained cancer-free since completing her treatments earlier in the year, though she acknowledged chemo and radiation have left her weaker and slower at times. She hurts physically but does her best to look at the glass half-full when it comes to her life.

“I always think there’s a reason for everything and a purpose for everything. I have to believe there’s good in every situation even though this wasn’t my idea of good. I know I must have some kind of message to share, otherwise God wouldn’t have seen me through it once he brought me to it,” she said. “I just believe he’s got a reason for bringing me down this road.”

Her attitude is “mind over matter.” She said she hopes to share her story as much as possible to inspire and remind others they, too, can fight and overcome. She said her gloves, so to speak, will never come off. She’ll always be fighting and advocating - maybe even more so than she did before her own battle. Of course, she’ll also make time to attend Brantley Gilbert and Kenny Chesney concerts in the coming months with her husband and the same group of friends. It’s about enjoying life to the fullest.

“I’m definitely more grateful and thankful for the simple things. My father and mother are no longer here, but I’m grateful for my family and all of the people in it,” she said. “I have an amazing family –an amazing husband and friends whose prayers I am so grateful for, because I am a survivor and a fighter and I have a greater purpose here on this journey, and that’s to spread awareness and support for others who might be facing the same journey.”

Matt Lindberg is the managing editor of The Columbus Telegram. Reach him via email at matt.lindberg@lee.net.

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