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Lawmaker battles cancer publicly
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Mary Czaja, state representative for the 35th Assembly District, is not afraid to share her battles publicly.

In her first term, the state representative from Tomahawk has become known as a fierce champion of her district, willing to take on downstate lawmakers and the powers-that-be to ensure the north’s voice is heard in Madison.

Her latest fight, the biggest yet, is also the most personal. And by sharing it, she hopes to help women everywhere.

In January, the 50-year-old Czaja was diagnosed with Stage 3 breast cancer, a return of a disease she thought she had beat a decade ago.

“I had done everything right, everything preventative I could do, and here I was diagnosed with breast cancer,” Czaja said. “Women can never let their guard down. We must always be vigilant about our health.”

At age 40, Czaja fought—and won—her first cancer battle after being diagnosed with pre-cancerous cells in the milk ducts of her right breast.

The surest course of treatment was mastectomy—removal of her breast. And because she had a family history of the disease, she had her left breast removed as well.

“Mainly I did it for peace of mind,” she said.

Through the years, Czaja thought she had gotten off easy, even feeling a bit of guilt as she watched friends and neighbors go through cancer treatments, with the inevitable side effects of drugs, chemotherapy and radiation.

That changed in January.

Czaja was traveling back from Las Vegas, where she had just completed a mega-course necessary to maintain her insurance licensure, when she felt “a god-awful pain in my right shoulder.”

She shrugged it off but the pain came back four days later in Madison, where she shared an apartment with her daughter.

“I couldn’t see, I couldn’t think,” she said.

Czaja thought she was having a heart attack. Her physicians feared a blood clot in her lung.

Then scans revealed the cancer, a metastatic form that raised concerns that the disease was lurking elsewhere in her body.

“I was absolutely beyond petrified,” Czaja said.

A special test known as a PET scan determined that wasn’t the case.

“I may make the medical books on this one, because they can’t tell me where it came from,” Czaja said. “How it ever came about, I have no idea.”

The treatment, like the disease, will be brutal. Czaja is beginning 16 weeks of chemotherapy followed by possible surgery and four to seven weeks of radiation.

She is having her head shaved, and being fitted for a wig today.

“My prognosis is very good,” she said, “and I have a great support network with my family.”

The lawmaker has no plans to leave her Assembly position and will kick off her campaign for re-election in a few weeks.

“I’m not going to let this stop what I do,” she says. “I just may do it slower.”

Czaja said she feels lucky, since that cancer would have continued to fester if it hadn’t been for that shoulder pain back in January.

“It was just divine intervention. If I had waited six months, I might not be here,” she said. “This is really uncharted territory for me. I look at it as a high hurdle, but nothing my family and I can’t handle.”

She is sharing the tale, she stressed, to increase awareness among women.

“We are such caregivers and are always taking care of others,” Czaja said. “But we have to listen to our bodies. Even when you think you’ve got something beat, you never know.”

According to the health care professionals at Langlade Hospital and the Volm Cancer Center, women—and men as well—can never let their guard down when it comes to treating and surviving cancer.

Nowadays, patients receive the “Journey Forward” survivorship care package, which outlines steps they should take once initial treatment is completed.

“You have to continue to have contact with your provider,” Lynn Yaeger, manager for the Volm Cancer Center, said. “This will be a plan that you will follow for the rest of your life.”

Sherry Bunten, chief nursing officer at the hospital, added that women must also remain vigilant with their monthly self-examinations, whether or not they have undergone a mastectomy.

“It’s never-ending,” she said.

Czaja did everything right and she wants her diagnosis to be a wake-up call.

“We, especially women, take our health for granted, sometimes until it is too late,” she said. “Don’t be afraid to go to your doctor.”
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Rep. Mary Czaja on the floor of the state Assembly chamber.
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