Saco Survivor Shares How Family’s Heart Disease History and Her Cancer Treatment Collided, and How She Survived

Written by Muffy Tostevin, Saco

I lived a charmed life until 2012, the year I retired at 65 from my many years as a teacher, coach, and later as a school principal in Lewiston. I was a free-range kid with, six siblings and great parents.

I grew up on the coast surrounded by pastures, coves, relatives and places to swim. I played tennis and sailed. I joined two swim teams and became a very good competitive swimmer. I worked 60-hour weeks as school principal in Lewiston. I’ve been married for 49 years to a wonderful husband and together we have two beautiful girls.

When I retired ten years ago, I was training to compete in a powerlifting meet and learning how to properly lift and breathe. All my annual physical exams were fine. However, one month later I found a lump that was breast cancer, so my life took a turn.

The only health issue I had was discovered when I was pregnant with my daughter at age 30. Doctors discovered I had a Congenital Bicuspid Aortic Valve that I likely inherited from my father, who had died from heart disease. I started having echocardiograms. I also became religious about routine mammograms and self-exams. My mom died at 65 from metastasized breast cancer.

Beginning in 2009, a few years before I retired, I started working with a personal trainer mostly to get strong – my personal record was 800+ lb. leg presses!

In 2013, after being diagnosed with breast cancer, I immediately started hormone therapy. I had the surgery, started chemotherapy, and had radiation for almost a year. Chemo wrecks blood sugar and I had to go on medication as a pre-diabetic. Through all of this, I continued to work out with my trainer every day I felt well enough. We moved after treatments finished and I immediately ruptured a disk requiring surgery. Four days later I saw my cardiologist to get the results of my annual echocardiogram, and he said, “You are growing an aortic aneurysm and need open-heart surgery but your valve looks great”. I was told to do absolutely nothing until my surgery in 3 months.

In 2014, I had open-heart surgery followed by 25 additional breast biopsies between 2015 and 2018, and had genetic testing which discovered my cancer had a high chance of recurrence. My oncologist recommended I stay on therapy for a total of 10 years. I was a bit lost with this new information as I worried about what more treatment might do to my heart.

In 2016, I had to endure yet another surgery, this time to repair my chest incision from the open-heart surgery I had years ago. In 2018, my valve failed and was replaced with the TAVR procedure. On my birthday in 2019, I had a double mastectomy and that fall. I had episodes of blindness. They suspected a

Transient Ischemic Attack or mini-stroke. However, after waiting several months, I was correctly diagnosed with retinal migraines without headaches.

After recovering from a rotator cuff surgery just last year, I researched how to lose weight I had gained over several years and how to lower an A1c of 7.2. I decided right then that enough was enough and getting healthy was my life goal. I worked hard and lost about 20 lbs. I began my transformation to wellness. Through all this, I continued to work with personal trainers when not recovering from medical issues. I feel this helped me stay strong and be able to survive each one my health problems.

I feel blessed and grateful every day. It could have been very different. I was taught to breathe properly. I had annual scans and tests. I discovered my heart condition before it was too late. I exercise. I have a fabulous medical team. I go to the gym. I teach swimming. I serve on boards. I even mentor medical students by sharing my health history and experiences to help them learn. The icing on the cake is a total weight loss of 70 lbs. and an A1c of 5.4.

My advice to others? “One step at a time, breathe, be patient, take it slow and steady, get strong, be active, ask questions, reduce stress, eat well, and eat dark chocolate!”