The longest persisting memory Natalie Eggeman has of her teen-age years is of her mother fighting breast cancer. For 13 years, Della Ellis battled the disease and survived long enough to see her first granddaughter's birth and to see Natalie carrying her second.
``We just kept saying as long as we could laugh... as long as we could laugh and stay positive...,'' Eggeman said. ``She had so much to live for.''
But Ellis died in 1989, and her daughter battled her own anxieties about breast cancer ever since. Though sometimes Eggeman's doctors didn't think they were necessary, starting at age 40 she underwent yearly mammograms. The first five or six times everything was clear, but a new digital technology found a suspicious speck when she was 45.
``I was always waiting for it, and it didn't surprise me a bit,'' she said. ``They caught it early, and I wasn't going to worry about it because it was just such a small speck. They did a biopsy and then tried to remove that small part, but my surgeon said it was like fingers reaching out and they didn't know if they got it all.''
The diagnosis, Ductal Carcinoma in Situ -- pre-invasive breast cancer -- had the potential of becoming the same full-blown breast cancer her mother had. It was even in the same breast which only maintained Eggeman's anxiety level. The doctors said they were going to operate to try again and remove it all, but Eggeman wanted time to think. Her surgeon said one option was a bilateral mastectomy which would reduce the odds of a re-occurrence to 5 percent but also mean reconstructive surgery.
``There was no way I was going to do that,'' Eggeman said. ``I knew I'd need chemotherapy and radiation and all that, but then I thought, `Oh, my gosh, my whole life I've been worried about breast cancer, and with this I wouldn't have to worry about it any more.' I ended up sleeping on it.''
When she woke the next morning, Eggeman knew a double mastectomy was the right thing to do, the right way to end this burden. She just wanted to live and not have to worry any more.
One area that concerned her also fueled her. Part of the reading material said she likely would not be able to swim or play tennis as well as before because upper back muscles would be transplanted to her chest as part of the reconstruction surgery. That's when her stomach sank.
Eggeman had played No. 1 singles for Wayne High School for two years before graduating in 1981 to play at IPFW. She wasn't the greatest player, but she loved tennis and played yearly in the run, Jane, run tournament, sometimes winning the doubles title. She had been trying to rebuild her confidence to play in the City Tennis Tournament when she was diagnosed.
``I didn't worry so much about how I would look because I trusted the doctors to take care of that,'' she said, ``but if I couldn't play tennis as well, maybe nobody could fix that.''
But she decided she would try. Two months after her surgery, Eggeman began playing at indoors. She could only lift her arms to about shoulder height, but she was just starting.
``That was what challenged me,'' she said. ``I'd conquered so much so don't tell me I can't do something. That drove me. I had survived the pain and I wanted my life to be exactly the way it was but better. I said, `I'm going to play tennis. I'm going to ignore the fact that I'm older, but why not accomplish something that I didn't even accomplish when I was younger?' I could be better than ever before.''
And her goal was to play in the city tournament. She started playing recreationally and then met Mary Didier at an Autumn Ridge tennis group. They both loved hitting the ball, whether they played or not, and that love for the game created a strong, encouraging friendship. Slowly, her strokes got stronger, and her serve got better.
``We immediately had a connection and started playing three, four times a week,'' Didier said. ``She didn't tell me about her breast cancer till about a year ago, and I was truly amazed that she could perform as well as she does. Natalie and I share the same love -- playing tennis, we're a little obsessed with the game. We never really worry about winning, we just want to play and play and play.''
Eggeman's friends and teammates knew her goal was to play in the city tournament, and some suggested it was time to try last year. She wasn't ready yet but knew she was getting closer.
This year she told Didier it was time and she was going to sign them up in the women's 6.0 doubles. She also registered with Dan O'Connell in the 35 and older open mixed doubles tournament, but they were beaten in the first round, though Eggeman was encouraged because they won a few games.
That also helped relieve her tournament jitters. Eggeman and Didier won their first match 6-0, 6-1 to advance to the championship round. Two nights later they played magnificently, winning every long rally to take the title 6-1, 6-1.
``I loved the feeling,'' Eggeman said afterward. ``I feel so much better than when I was in high school because I feel like I've gotten past so many obstacles. It feels so much better. It's just amazing. It's like I'm not only alive, I'm really alive!''
With the help of friends and family, daughters Samantha and Lauren and the steady support of husband Russ, Eggeman had overcome so much to achieve her goal. She'd developed an interest in healthy eating and continuous exercise, walking to lunch or with Russ in the evenings, and playing tennis with Didier whenever possible. Besides working as a public information officer for the Fort Wayne Parks and Recreation Department, she's also going to earn certification as a health and wellness counselor, something that has become another challenge and also a hobby.
``I just hope my story will make people not as afraid of hearing those terrible words, `You have breast cancer,'' she said. ``There is life after breast cancer. We've heard it all before and I'm proof.''
Not only has she survived, with a city championship to prove it, but now she needs a new goal.
``Maybe I'll play singles next year,'' she said with a laugh.