GARDINER — About a year ago, Christine Landes was in the fourth month of her job as Gardiner city manager.

It would be a couple of months before the annual city budget season heated up, and the discussion at city council meetings as Thanksgiving approached focused on the merits of converting the city’s traditional street lights to cost-saving LED fixtures and whether to add an economic development director to the ranks of city staff.

In November, Landes had a mammogram, and it was clear.

Around the end of March or early April, as city elected officials started reviewing the proposed spending plan for the next budget year and work on the Gardiner bridge replacement project got underway, she had her annual physical, which included a breast exam. All was well.

But at the end of July, a breast exam at home revealed the presence of a lump.

On Aug. 15, after a mammogram and a biopsy and two days after her 50th birthday, she received the news that she has breast cancer.

“I went through the first few days like, ‘Why me?'” Landes said.

 

THE DIAGNOSIS 

Sitting in her office at Gardiner City Hall two and a half months after her diagnosis, Landes paused her schedule to talk about this turn in her life. She had returned from the International City Managers Association conference in Nashville 10 days earlier. At the city council meeting that evening, elected officials would consider making changes to the city’s snow removal ordinance and renewing a liquor license for a restaurant on Water Street. Earlier in the day came all the routine tasks of her job as head of administration for a small, busy city in southern Kennebec County.

But just for a little while in the afternoon came a short break so Landes, who is a mother and a grandmother, can rest and recharge.

“What have I done wrong to deserve this one thing?” she said, sitting at the small conference table in her orderly office. “You know, there are so many other people out there that never, never get anything. They harm their body with smoking, drinking, drugs, and they never get anything. I don’t smoke; I don’t drink. And here I am now; I get Crohn’s (disease), and now why me? Why me?”

In the United States today, about 1 in every 8 women will develop invasive breast cancer in her lifetime. In 2019, about a quarter-million women are expected to be diagnosed with breast cancer. Other than some kinds of skin cancer, the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention lists breast cancer as the most common form of cancer for women, regardless of race or ethnicity.

Landes’ mother’s family has no history of breast cancer. Her father’s mother was diagnosed with breast cancer in the early 1970s, and died at 56, but that’s not currently considered a risk factor, she said.

Christine Landes is seen in 2018 at Gardiner City Hall. Photo courtesy of the Maine Municipal Association

Following her diagnosis, Landes underwent genetic testing to determine whether mutations to the BRCA genes, commonly called the breast cancer genes, had played a role in her cancer. Her results were negative, so they did not.

Landes has been diagnosed with two types of cancer. One is ductal carcinoma in situ; the other is invasive ductal carcinoma. In the first instance, the cancer exists in the milk duct of the breast. In the second, the cancer started in the milk duct but has spread to the tissue of the breast outside the milk duct.

Landes underwent surgery at MaineGeneral Medical Center in Augusta to remove the tumor, which measured two inches across, almost right away. A partial mastectomy removed about a third of her breast. She’s currently undergoing the second of two different courses of chemotherapy, which is expected to be 12 weeks long. That will be followed by 32 radiation treatments.

Because these two types of cancer are estrogen positive, that means estrogen, a naturally occurring hormone that determines female characteristics, feeds the cancer.

“As the oncologist said, it’s not the best kind of breast cancer to have,” Landes said.

In the future, Landes will have to decide whether she’ll have both breasts removed as well as her female organs, which lessens the chance that her cancer could return.

 

MAKING IT WORK

In the present, both life and work continue. When she started losing her hair, she went to her hairdresser to have her head shaved, with her husband and daughter there, and her two granddaughters holding her hands for support. She’s traded in her signature blond streak for a wig. She’s also apt just to wear a scarf to cover her head.

In solidarity, her 6-year-old grandson, dressed in a cape, has since had his hair cut like hers. She keeps the video handy on her phone as well as photos of her granddaughters at the hair salon.

Now that the holiday season has arrived, Landes is likely to be struggling with her role.

“I’m always the one doing all the family stuff, like family functions,” she said. “How can I make this work?”

In city hall, city workers don pink Team Christine T-shirts every Friday. After her diagnosis, the city council endorsed a plan to name Anne Davis, director of the Gardiner Public Library, and Police Chief James Toman to be her deputies in the event that she’s unavailable to make a decision.

Davis has twice served as interim city manager while the city council undertook searches for permanent city managers, most recently for 17 months before Landes was hired. Toman has also filled in.

“Helping out the city manager is the least I can do during her battle with cancer. Acting as deputy is part of that,” Toman said earlier this week.

All the city’s department heads are willing to help in any way they can, Toman said, so Landes can focus on beating cancer.

“Which,” he said, “she’s gonna do.”

Gardiner Mayor Patricia Hart  Kennebec Journal photo by Andy Molloy

Mayor Patricia Hart said Landes has been inspirational, balancing a full schedule with taking care of herself.

“She’s open with people,” Hart said. “She wants to share her journal and share her gratitude for the support she’s getting. She said if it helps one person, that’s a good thing.”

While she’s balancing her duties in Gardiner, as vice president of the executive committee of the Maine Municipal Association for 2019 and her family, Landes is still reckoning with the impact of cancer on her life.

Her daughter, who works for the surgeon who operated on Landes, has had a lump in her breast for about a year. Because of Landes’ diagnosis, her daughter recently had a biopsy, which came back negative.

“She’s going to have to be diligent, because I’m considered first generation,” she said.

Landes was diagnosed with Crohn’s Disease as child. When she was 28, she had surgery to remove part of her intestines. At that time, her gastroenterologist predicted she’d be back for more surgery in about five years. In the 22 years since, she hasn’t needed another surgery for that.

“My (oncologist) said he can get me 20 years, and I said I’ll take 20 years,” she said. “By then, I’ll be 70, and that’s a good run.”

Landes is the type of person who’s happiest when she has a plan, and she has a plan to treat her cancer for months to come.

“I know I have to do this medication regime or treatment plan. Am I there spiritually or psychology-wise? I still cry. I could cry right now. I have to be here to do this,” she said, tapping her table for emphasis. “I have to find the happy medium. I still sit in the chair at night and cry. My husband will rub my shoulder and say, ‘We got this. You’ll get through this.'”

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