When Hillary Wandler welcomed her 30th year of life, she was completely unaware that the radiation therapy that saved her life as a child was about to reemerge as something sinister – breast cancer.
The 37-year-old is an accomplished lawyer whose resume includes impressive professional stints serving as U.S. District Judge Donald Molloy’s clerk and working with the Missoula firm Garlington, Lohn and Robinson.
Now, she’s one of the youngest law professors at the University of Montana, teaching the dreaded classes, legal writing and civil procedure. In her spare time, she goes to bat for veterans who are suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, helping them get the full amount of disability payments they are entitled to.
But the battles she's won in the legal field pale in comparison to the struggle she’s had with the disease. It was the single life event that tested her resilience and forced her "to stretch" and grow in ways incomprehensible before her 2012 diagnosis.
“I feel like I was given a death sentence,” she told a nurse after her double mastectomy, but before her hysterectomy.
The nurse responded that every life is subject to a finite number of hours, minutes and seconds, and in that so-called death sentence, Wandler was not alone.
“When you become aware of your ‘death sentence,’ you start to ponder your meaning,” she explained. “I thought I had it all wrapped up. For me, it took a moment of sheer terror to realize, 'Whoops, I don’t have it all wrapped up. I have a lot of heavy lifting.' ”
When she was 5 years old, Wandler was diagnosed with Wilms tumor – a cancer that develops in the lining of the kidneys. The 1980s' treatment of the disease included the maximum amount of radiation therapy, which wasn't offered at the local hospital.
So her family left their home in Buffalo, Montana, for an extended stay in Billings' Ronald McDonald House while she received chemotherapy and radiation.
“For (my siblings and I), that was all back then and more my parents’ deal,” she explained. “I did not understand that treatment might impact my health later on the way it did.”
It was only after she was diagnosed with breast cancer that she discovered that childhood radiation made her more susceptible to cancer as an adult, she discovered.
“I had no idea that my 30s were a time bomb about to go off,” she added.
The 2012 maximal risk reduction mastectomy was a success, but she still had a ways to go. She underwent the knife again when the doctors removed her uterus and cervix as a preventative measure.
Though her health was steadily on the incline, the battle against the mental turmoil that followed was just beginning. She said she felt fearful and vulnerable, and at times the cancer made her feel like she lost her dignity.
As a whole, the experience gave her a fresh understanding of the pro-bono work she was doing with veterans, many of whom were wading through layers of bureaucracy in an attempt to receive a better disability rating or an honorable discharge - all the while dealing with PTSD.
Though sometimes less severe, the PTSD experienced by cancer patients mimics the symptoms veterans endure. She now understands firsthand the re-experiencing, isolation and hyper-vigilance. She knows what it's like for returning soldiers dealing with the aftershock of war - where they were in constant fear for their lives and are now reliving the horror of fighting an enemy - seen or unseen.
“PTSD was really fascinating for me – the dark days were a living hell, but as I started to emerge I told my clients it’s amazing the work you have done,” Wandler said. “(Veterans with PTSD) confront this crap over and over and over again. I don’t think that many people realize what hard work that is to deal with it.”