The band plays on for breast cancer survivor

With determination and assistance from UCHealth, Andrea Meyers has overcome her disease and returned to her lifelong love: the cello
December 21st, 2017
Andrea Meyer plays the cello in this photo.
A little more than a year after her diagnosis and treatment of breast cancer, Andrea Meyers is back to playing the cello confidently, as she did in an early November concert at Highlands Ranch High School.

If a person’s life were a series of interwoven threads forming indelible patterns, the dominant motif of Andrea Meyers’ would be music.

Meyers, now 63, was a 10-year-old Denver Public Schools student when she, like many other kids, got a chance to learn to play a musical instrument. She hoisted a cello to a slender shoulder and carried it home. Far from a burden, the instrument proved to be a source of strength and liberation.

“I found my place playing the cello,” Meyers said. “Playing it was safe and fun. It spoke to me on so many levels, inside and out.”

When Meyers says today that the cello “is part of me,” she’s talking about more than her own 50-plus-year attachment to the instrument and to music. Her mother played flute and piano. The piano her grandmother played stands in Meyers’ Denver-area home.

The right notes

After that first grade-school day, she carried her cello and her musical legacy forward, wrapping her daily schedule around private lessons and practice and playing with the orchestra at Denver’s George Washington High School. She had a chair in the citywide and all-state orchestras, and after a one-year stint at Denver University, headed up Highway 85 to Greeley to join the University of Northern Colorado’s prestigious music program. There she honed her craft through playing and touring.

Ten-year-old Andrea Meyers is shown with her school cello in the 1960s.
Ten-year-old Andrea Meyers in the 1960s with her school cello.

“It launched my career,” Meyers said.

That career would be defined not only by playing, but also by teaching. After graduating from UNC, Meyers joined Fairview High School in Boulder as its orchestra teacher. Thus began 35 years of passing the love of music to public schoolers in Boulder and Douglas counties. In the late 70s, Meyers began conducting. And she continued to play, carrying the cello to rehearsals and performances of the Boulder, Greeley and Arapahoe philharmonics and to many other musical gatherings, such as the First World Cello Congress at the University of Maryland in 1988. There she met the master Russian cellist Mstislav Rostropovich, along with some of the hundreds of other lovers of the instrument.

Music was the gateway to lifelong learning, including a master’s degree in music education that she earned from the University of Colorado Denver in 1992. She maintained decades-long memberships and leadership positions in the National Association of Music Education and Colorado Music Educators Association, respectively. For four years she served as membership chair of the National American String Teachers Association.

In short, the instrument she toted year after year transported her to new places and opened her to new worlds. “The cello was my ticket to a great socialization,” Meyers said.

A loss of balance

In October 2016, Meyers faced a massive and unexpected disruption to the order and harmony she’d built over half a century. A routine mammogram revealed a small lump in her breast that a biopsy later confirmed was malignant. Further tests during a double mastectomy the following month revealed the cancer had spread to her lymph nodes. The physical pain and mental anguish the cancer caused was best captured in one profound new reality.

“I couldn’t lift my cello off the floor, much less carry it to the car,” Meyers said. The physical challenges of stretching her left arm to reach high and low notes and to bow with her right were also too much for her.

“It turned my life upside down,” Meyers said. For a time, the cello stayed in its case, untouched. The trauma of the disease left her depressed and stripped of energy to do even routine tasks, let alone play the instrument that had been her touchstone.

Andrea Meyer raises her cello bow at the completion of an orchestra performance.
The raised bow symbolizes the direction of Meyers’’ life.

In February 2017, Meyers wrote a note to her fellow members of the Arapahoe Philharmonic, letting them know that because of her breast cancer, she would not be able to play. The brief message was to help restore order to her life.

Among those who read Meyers’ note was Dr. Anthony Elias, a violinist with the orchestra who also happens to be a longtime medical oncologist and breast cancer and sarcoma specialist with the University of Colorado Cancer Center. Elias immediately offered to help Meyers in any way he could.

Meyers was preparing for the first treatment of her chemotherapy regimen with a community provider, but she agreed to meet with Elias and his multidisciplinary team at the Cancer Center, one of 69 centers in the United States designated as a treatment and research leader by the National Cancer Institute. The visit changed the course of her recovery.

Restoring order

On their first meeting, Elias said Meyers was struggling with the chaos the disease had brought into her life. He countered it with a thorough review of her case and an introduction to the Cancer Center’s team care concept. That includes close consultation between medical, radiation and surgical oncologists to determine and coordinate a plan of care that informs and involves the patient.

Andrea Meyers is shown with her medical oncologist and fellow musician, Dr. Anthony Elias of the University of Colorado Cancer Center.
Meyers with her medical oncologist and fellow musician, Dr. Anthony Elias of the University of Colorado Cancer Center.

The support for the treatment regimen extends to a “greater community,” as Elias put it, that includes pathologists and imaging specialists and consistent assistance and guidance from front-desk staff, medical assistants, nurses, advanced health care professionals, pharmacists, dietitians, social workers, and clinical psychologists. It’s all tailored to the individual’s needs, Elias added.

“As a team, we discuss the patient’s situation with each partner,” he said. “That makes the handoffs smoother and avoids delays. The patient knows what’s going on.”

The thorough explanations helped to calm at least some of Meyers’ anxiety. “The team at the Cancer Center streamlined the entire process,” she said. “My whole body breathed a sigh of relief.”

Andrea Meyers is shown with internationally recognized violinist and educator Mark Wood.
Internationally recognized violinist and educator Mark Wood led Meyers and dozens of other string players in a November concert.

The hurdle immediately facing her was chemotherapy. Elias recommended a shortened regimen, with four double doses of medication, spelled by two-week breaks, replacing the 12 weekly doses, with one-week breaks, that she was originally prescribed. A crucial advantage of the change, Elias added, was the shorter regimen promised to reduce nerve pain.

“That’s incredibly important for a cellist,” he said.

In addition, Meyers wanted to do what she could to prevent hair loss from the chemo. Elias set her up with the DigniCap, an FDA-approved system that preserves hair follicles by super-cooling the scalp during treatments. Instead of coming to the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus for the chemo, Elias set up the treatments at UCHealth’s Lone Tree Health Center, just a few miles from Meyers’ home.

After the chemo, Meyers still faced radiation treatments. In late July, she had the last of 19 radiation treatments prescribed by radiation oncologist Christine Fisher, MD. By now, she was fully committed to regaining her old life, a goal that Elias had encouraged all along.

“He told me, ‘Your body has betrayed you, and we’re going to help you. You’re not fragile. Don’t stop living your life,’” Meyers recalled.

“One of the lessons for my patients is that you want to continue life,” Elias said. “You don’t want to wait until whatever ‘it’ is is over, and then resume life.”

Getting physical

That counsel led Meyers to another decision that smoothed her road to recovery. One day at the Lone Tree facility she worked through physical therapy to improve the range of motion she lost from her mastectomy and breast reconstruction. She noticed a brochure for a Cancer Center program called BFitBWell that uses structured physical activity, guided by specialists, to strengthen patients who have been diagnosed with cancer or who are getting treatment for it.

A growing body of literature shows that regular exercise can help cancer patients combat the negative effects of the disease, including cardiotoxicity, shortness of breath, fatigue, muscle atrophy and pain, said BFitBWell Program Manager Nicole Klochak, CES, CPT.

In this photo, Andrea Meyers exercises as part of the BFitBWell program.
Structured exercise with the Cancer Center’’s BFitBWell program helped Meyers through her recovery from breast cancer.

“Exercise is also a part of therapy that patients can control,” Klochak said. “It provides a sense of normalcy. When we dig into why it’s important to do it with patients, we tell them to think of it literally as another pill. It has similar benefits in terms of saving lives.”

Elias said he too strongly supports exercise for all his patients and weight loss for those who need it. “Patients who exercise invariably feel better,” he said. “It’s the only thing that increases their energy levels, ironically.”

With Elias’s encouragement, Meyers enrolled in BFitBWell, strengthening herself not only for another breast reconstruction surgery but for a healthy post-cancer life. She made regular trips to the Anschutz Health and Wellness Center, sweating through rounds of stretching, pulling, pushing, balancing and lifting. The work bolstered her body and her resolve. By mid-October, after three months of regular sessions, she could work quickly and confidently through 45 minutes of strenuous activity at the Wellness Center, supervised by exercise specialist Ian Moran.

“The benefit I got from BFitBWell was profound,” Meyers said. “It helped me to face my cancer and gave me concrete, objective goals.”

Medical and musical healing

Today, Meyers has retaken control of her life. She’s playing the cello again with a renewed appreciation and savoring the physical and spiritual satisfactions it provides. True to Elias’s assurances, she suffered very little nerve pain during her chemo treatments. The sensation in her fingers, so vital to coaxing music from her instrument, is intact.

“I had lost the personal trust in my body,” she said, “but now I feel confident. My arms are in fabulous shape. My memory has picked up. I’m conducting again. I have gotten my power back.”

Andrea Meyers is shown exercising.
Meyers found that exercising helped her recover from breast cancer and return to music.

Elias said that for now, Meyers is cancer-free, but her recovery continues. She’s enrolled in a one-year clinical trial, sponsored by the Southwest Oncology Group, testing the effectiveness of the tumor-blocking drug everolimus in combination with hormone therapy. One group will receive everolimus, the other will receive a placebo. The next breast reconstruction surgery is scheduled for February.

But while cancer is a fact of her life, it does not define her. She refuses to see herself as a victim. “I don’t want to play the cancer card with people,” she said. “I identify myself as a viable contributor to the world through my music and as a daughter, a sister, a friend, and as someone to count on.”

She credits Elias and the entire Cancer Center team for “opening a curtain” on what a life with cancer could be and providing “the best possible care in the United States. I feel that now I’m not just surviving. I’m thriving,” she said.

Her cello is no longer in the case, locked in a silence imposed by disease. Instead, it waits for Meyers’ fingers to bring it to life, as they have so often over the years, and as they will again. For his part, Elias says that he is glad that he and his team could give the fingers a helping hand.

“Andrea is a fabulous patient who wanted to do everything possible to improve her outcomes,” he said. “She had concerns about being able to continue her work as a teacher and a cellist. We were able to give her a constellation of interventions that helped her through.”

A coda…for now

In early November, Andrea Meyers wove another thread in the life pattern that steadily grows deeper and richer. At Highlands Ranch High School, she added the sounds of her cello to the joyful noise of dozens of string instruments played by young students bound, as she was and still is, by a love of music and their instruments. They played behind violin virtuoso Mark Wood, co-founder of the Trans-Siberian Orchestra. Wood, a longtime friend of Meyers, now carries a message of the transformative power of music to schools across the United States.

Striding back and forth on stage, drawing his bow back and forth across an electric violin he designed himself, Wood led the orchestra through a mash-up of music from Led Zeppelin, the Beatles, and AC/DC. Meyers’ right hand drew her bow back and forth across the strings in alternating sustained and staccato figures while the fingers of her left hand moved confidently up and down the neck of the cello.

The music pulsed, like a beating heart. Then Wood brought the bow of his violin down on the strings with a flourish. Meyers and the others followed him. The music stopped. With her fellow musicians, she raised her bow in the air in celebration. The audience thundered its appreciation.

For Andrea Meyers, the celebration was so much more. She would leave the stage knowing that for many days and nights to come, the music would keep playing.

About the author

Tyler Smith is a freelance writer based in metro Denver.