Betsey Peterson parks her golf cart and strides into the UCHealth Medical Fitness – Windsor. She has an Apple watch strapped on her left wrist and is ready to sweat. She looks trim and youthful in her black leggings.
Inside the facility, Amber Rager is happy to oblige. After all, the facility’s lead fitness specialist spends her days guiding clients through exercise routines designed to build muscle and improve cardiovascular fitness that help tackle cancer related fatigue. Peterson is one of her biggest fans, and the two hug and tease like old buddies, laughing at how far Rager’s prodigy has come.
But it wasn’t always like this. Five years ago, Betsey Peterson needed a miracle.
Choosing a path
In 2010, barely into her fifth decade, Peterson found a breast lump. She was active and otherwise healthy, so she wasn’t scared.
A lifelong believer in exercise and nutrition to help ward off disease, Peterson went the holistic route for a year, stocking up on supplements and vitamins. In 2013, a year after her initial diagnosis with stage IIB breast cancer by specialists at UCHealth’s Cancer Care and Hematology Clinic – Harmony Cancer, she traveled to Tijuana, Mexico, on the suggestion of a naturopath for more alternative treatments.
Peterson’s therapy south of the border consisted of stem cell treatments (“I’m not sure I even got them,” she says now), low dose chemotherapy and radiation, and “holistic things” like enemas, all of which she believed had healing properties.
“I was in big time denial,” Peterson said. “I thought I was getting better but toward the end I knew I was dying. The doctors were scared for me.”
Peterson’s cancer hadn’t yet spread when she was originally diagnosed, according to Dr. Farrah Datko, her oncologist with UCHealth. But within two years, the breast mass had grown so large that it had escaped Peterson’s deep tissues, creating infected wounds and killing her skin, a dangerous sign of the cancer’s relentless progression. And in November 2014, the pain came.
“I couldn’t move my body,” Peterson said. “I was lying down in the back seat of my car and my husband brought me to my doctor’s office. My doctor walked up to the car and said now is the time to go to the ER. And that started the ball rolling.”
For Datko, who steadfastly believes that proven treatments save people, watching her patients suffer can be heartbreaking. Having dealt with many other patients like Peterson, she urges people to look for proven approaches that fit their goals when cancer strikes.
“It is not uncommon for some women who are understandably fearful of well-established treatment recommendations to turn to unproven treatments, sometimes in Mexico and sometimes in the United States under the disguise of ‘alternative medicine,’” Datko said. “I wish Betsey’s case was rare, but unfortunately, it is not.”
She’s had patients who, like Betsey, finally agreed to standard treatment and had good outcomes. But, she said, “I have, sadly, seen some women not be so lucky and die.”
Beyond the breast
Peterson’s cancer had metastasized to her bones, liver and lungs. It also caused a life-threatening condition called cardiac tamponade, where excess fluid surrounds the heart inside its cavity preventing the heart muscle from contracting and relaxing properly. This required emergent treatment consisting of draining the fluid with a needle.
Datko estimates that had Peterson not sought treatment at that point, she was “within weeks to months of dying.”
Peterson, now 57, admitted that the memories over the last seven years remain unclear, partly from the stress and partly because of what cancer survivors like to call “chemo brain.” She began aggressive treatment but said that her holistic mindset still caused her to feel like she was rolling through an assembly line, and not being genuinely cared for. She had lost control of her body and more importantly, her agency. Something needed to change.
Making choices and changes
“I knew I was going to stay in charge because I’m a stubborn person,” said the Minnesota-born Peterson. “But thank God I’m stubborn, because that’s why I’m here. I don’t give up.”
Nevertheless, the setbacks arrived. She fractured both wrists in a fall and had surgery to repair the left one in 2014 and the right in 2018. She’s still seeing an orthopedic surgeon for the latter, which hasn’t healed well. A perforated stomach ulcer in 2015 required surgical repair and months of therapy at home to regain her strength.
Fluid had built up around her left kidney, so she underwent more surgery to place a stent in her ureter, the tube that connects the kidney to the bladder. The stent was uncomfortable and was eventually removed in late 2017. In the same year, she developed a suspicious mass on her gallbladder, which was subsequently removed. It ended up being benign.
“It’s not just cancer,” Peterson pointed out. “Things are never the same. It isn’t just one battle. You have to be willing to stick it out and fight.”
Accepting a new normal
Still, Peterson kept fighting to end up where she is now: a faithful attendee of the Cancer Related Fatigue exercise class at UCHealth’s Medical Fitness Center – Windsor.
Because of her peripheral neuropathy, a side effect of the chemotherapy that resulted in numbness in her hands and feet, she can’t drive a car anymore. But she rides over every Tuesday and Thursday morning in her own golf cart, giving her freedom to get out of the house, even if her only outings consist of a beeline to the gym — and the unwavering support she gets there.
First it was Nancy, the physical therapist, who helped her build strength and reduce her pelvic pain. She found Shelby, a personal trainer specializing in yoga for cancer patients, helped her loosen up and stay that way. Then she found Rager, who, Peterson said, changed her life.
Overcoming cancer-related fatigue
In the three years since they began working together, Peterson has progressed from basic strengthening and gaining body weight, to endurance and balance activities. And she has completely eliminated opioid medications to manage her pain.
“Betsey is the true definition of a survivor and a fighter,” Rager said. “She used to be frustrated, and I have to remind her that there is progress even if it’s slow. Now she’s a leader in the class, especially with the other people just starting out. The camaraderie that’s built here is one of my favorite parts of class. While the participants may have never met outside of this, they have that common element. They support each other.”
Peterson said she’s benefited most from Rager’s positive attitude, keeping her focused on how far she’s come. And she is always held accountable not just to show up, but to work hard.
“I’ll ask, ‘When is this exercise going to get easy?’” Peterson said. “And Amber says, ‘How many minutes did you start at? Two. Where are you at now? Twelve!’”
Perspective is crucial for people like Peterson, for whom life used to consist of feeling the breeze blowing through her hair while riding a bike. Then came the day she got to a stop sign and that same breeze tipped her over. Her only injury was to her pride, but she knew she would have to accept a new normal.
“Nancy and Amber care so much about making a difference, and they’ve taught me to take one step at a time,” Peterson said. “I needed to work on one thing, then build to the next. It was a process. Because of my back, my hip, my feet, my shoulder, my wrists … you get overwhelmed. But I focus on what I can do. I can’t run, but I can ride the elliptical. I can’t ride a regular bike, but I can ride the stationary bike.”
Peterson’s days of waking up and crying are a distant memory. “You can’t go there,” she said.
Success story to be shared
The medical community often hesitates to get too excited about individual success stories for fear of encouraging false hope. But Datko allows for the fact that Peterson’s should be celebrated and shared. If for no other reason than to encourage others to carve out their own journey. And sometimes, well, you never know.
“Betsey is now over four and a half years out from the diagnosis of metastatic breast cancer and without any evidence of active cancer,” Datko said. “We are careful not to say she is ‘cured’ because she may not be, and only time will tell. But there is a chance she is cured. She has a frail body but a positive mindset that gets her through any hurdle. I admire her fighting spirit.”
Peterson admitted she worries less about what her next doctor’s appointment is going to bring and more about how she’s going to get there. She’s grateful for the unwavering support she’s had from Scott, her husband of 33 years. She reads more. She started a bible study for women and invites them to her house so she doesn’t have to drive anywhere. She no longer beats herself up about taking supplements or if she’s eating the latest cancer-fighting “miracle food.”
And so much of her grace comes from the joy she takes from her time at UCHealth Medical Fitness.
“I’m doing the best I can in this new normal,” Peterson said, tearing up. “I take this as my journey and I’m going to do it well. That’s always been my attitude. I’m so grateful to be alive. They’re not just getting people to work out, they are truly saving lives.