Cheer Talk: I am a Breast Cancer Survivor by Jennifer Ritchlin

January 01, 2015  •  Leave a Comment

I have been training intensively in dance and cheer for over 35 years, which is almost my entire life. I started competing heavily at the age of 10 and have not stopped since. I taught at many dance studios in the state of Colorado and have coached at over 10 high schools, JV, Varsity Poms & Varsity Cheer Teams. I was also the Colorado State Director for COA- Cheerleaders Of America and ran my own convention company. From then, my business was born.

In 2004, I opened Dancetech Training Center in Thornton, Colorado. We specialized in dance, All-Star cheerleading and tumbling for ages two through adult, competitive and noncompetitive programs. When I was younger, I always wanted to own my own dance and cheer facility and when my daughter was born in 2003, she was born early at 26 weeks. I then knew I could not go back to my day job, the typical "corporate America" and since I was teaching at three different facilities and had contracts with four different high schools I decided to open my own facility. Ten months later, Dancetech Training Center was open for business. Along with my family, it took everything we had to open the doors. Considering we leased out an abandoned movie theater, we had to build the studio from scratch. When we signed the lease, our space actually still had the movie theater seats and the concrete floors were still severely slanted thus having to start with several sets of architectural plans, city permits, construction bids and the list goes on. Finally, the day we opened we started with approximately 150 students, three competitive dance teams and four competitive cheer teams.

In August 2013, we decided to make a drastic change. We felt that if we were going to keep up with the industry major changes needed to be made to allow us to do so. For instance, we moved to a larger facility and installed a spring floor & gymnastics equipment so our cheerleaders could get serious in regards to their training. We also changed the company's name to DTC Global Athletics.

 Our competitive teams began entering competitions in our very first year of business and have done extremely well over the years. Even my varsity pom team that I coached placed 3rd out of 58 teams at the CHSAA State High School Competition. That was a huge accomplishment considering the team had never made it to the final round nor had they ever placed before.

My all-star cheer and dance teams have been competing four to six times a year every year locally in the state of Colorado for the past ten years. My dance teams and dance soloist have won numerous overall high score awards including highest score of the day, numerous first-place and grand championship titles. The cheer teams have also been very successful winning numerous first-place awards, judges’ choice, paid registration bids and grand championship titles. The highlights of our competitive years occurred in the past three years. In 2012, we headed to Las Vegas & that was the first time we had ever traveled to a national championship. Between our dance & cheer soloists, our cheer and dance teams, and our production dance team, we had entered a total of 26 routines. That year, we came home with 18 first place championships titles, five 2nd place titles, & three 3rd place titles. We also won not one, but two Overall Grand National Titles for our soloists & teams. In 2013, a year later we returned to the same competition and did it again. Last season, in May 2014 we attended a different national competition in Las Vegas, American CheerPower. Again, entering several dance routines, soloists and cheer teams, we came home with two Overall Grand National Championship titles. One thing that makes us so different is that we accept anyone onto our organizations. Making my job so rewarding is to be able to teach a child who has never done cheerleading in their life and six months later they are winning first place and national championship titles. I preach all the time "it's not what you do, it's how you do it" and to be able to help children be successful & accomplish their goals completes me.

We have been featured in many local newspapers in Colorado such as the Denver Post, Adams County Hub, Arvada Hub, Westminster Welcomer and also including national exposure in the CheerBiz magazine. We were also awarded the “Best Business in 2012” by the local Chamber of Commerce. 

During so many years of accomplishments and success, I was diagnosed with stage 3C breast cancer. I was diagnosed in 2005 just six months after we had opened our facility and started our journey. I first discovered the small lump while moving furniture into the facility. I immediately went to the doctor the next day and I was told it was a torn chest muscle. At the time, I was only 27 years old and breast cancer was unheard of for someone my age. At that time, mammograms were only offered to women over the age of 50. In time, I had dealt with the pain and hoped that the "torn chest muscle" would heal itself. One year later, the tumor had grown so large you could actually see it through my T-shirt. One Saturday morning I woke up to go teach class and I could not even lift my arm over my head. I was in so much pain that I immediately went to the emergency room. In the emergency room they performed an ultrasound and told me I needed to go see a general surgeon for a biopsy immediately. Four days later I had a biopsy done and was told I was positive for breast cancer. They not only found one tumor but after waiting an entire year two tumors had formed and grew together and the cancer was in Stage 3 just 1 stage away from it metastasizing through my entire body.

My treatment regimen shortly began. Since I had two tumors, my pathology report confirmed that one tumor was hormone negative and a second tumor was hormone positive and since they were growing together my treatment would be more aggressive than most to save my life. Immediately I had a bilateral mastectomy followed by double the treatments of chemotherapy, 30 days of consistent radiation, two years of Herceptin injections and five years of tamoxifen. Most breast cancer patients do not receive all of these treatments. Due to my unique situation, the doctor's main goal was to save my life so I agreed to take every treatment possible in America. Even if it meant several surgeries and losing my hair.

During my treatments and shortly after they began, with the tremendous help and support of my family, I was still able to run the business. When I first started chemotherapy before I lost my hair, I had bought a wig that matched my hair on my head before I had lost it. When my hair was completely gone, I had worn the wig with a baseball cap or a bandanna for almost eight months. Nobody ever knew I was sick. My students and their parents had no idea. As a matter of fact, after my mastectomy surgery, two days later I taped ice packs to my side over my staples and judged a COA Cheer competition in Denver. 

The scariest part of the entire journey is when I began to lose my hair. This is when it finally sank in of what was really happening to me and how scary it was. I was sitting at the reception desk at the studio and I went to stand up, and literally half of my hair was stuck to the chair from falling out of my head. I was so embarrassed and did not want any of the kids to see it so I immediately went home in shock and later that evening I shaved my head. 

Although I kept teaching and doing as much as I could, there were some days I was so extremely ill from the chemotherapy I just could not do it. If it were not for the support of my mother, father and my family, the business would never have survived. Through everything, my family and my students were the main reason that kept me going and not to give up. From the beginning, it was never an option to give up because I was so young and I had a two-year-old daughter to raise. 

Because I kept working and since my job was physically demanding I inspired a local news station and soon appeared on a local TV show called "Living The American Dream". An episode was featured on me on how I was living my dream and overcoming a tragedy at the same time.

It has now been eleven years and I have been cancer free for nine. Every year, I have to get a mammogram as a standard checkup. I still struggle from time to time with the damage the disease did to my body but for the most part I feel amazing again. I'm proud to not only be a survivor but a young survivor. I was featured on the front page of the Denver Post Newspaper while attending a Race for the Cure and at that moment I realized that breast cancer is more common now than it was ten years ago as I was standing in a crowd of over 500 fellow survivors. 

If I had to do it over again and my advice to women today would be to get checked and to get checked regularly. Nobody is immune and it can strike anyone!

Jennifer Ritchlin


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