Anyone watching Diane Garling move across the tennis court this past August at USTA League Section Championships wouldn’t have been anything but impressed with her game. As she hit drop shots and winners down the line, Garling looked healthy, and was enjoying every minute of it. No one would have expected that she was undergoing radiation treatment for breast cancer.
“I just wanted to continue to play tennis,” Garling said. “That was the light of my life. It made me forget about the cancer.”
Garling, a member of the 40 & Over 3.5 Dominetters from Penn Oaks Tennis Club in West Chester, began her journey of survival back in May of 2013 when she was first diagnosed. Preparing to travel to a wedding in Ireland, she was shopping for a dress to wear when she discovered the lump.
“I’ve gone once a year for mammograms since I was 40,” she said. “Ninety percent of the time it is accurate, but now I encourage women to also self-examine. Had I not felt it myself, it could have progressed and gotten worse.”
Garling, of Glen Mills, Pa., went through with her trip to Ireland. As soon as she returned she met with her doctor to have a portion of the lump biopsied. On May 17, she got the call that it was cancerous – Stage 1 invasive ductal carcinoma. On June 19, the lump was fully removed.
Throughout all of this, Garling continued to play tennis, and her teammates had no idea.
“I didn’t tell them at first,” said Garling. “I just wanted to wait and see. Between May and June, I was in and out of the hospital what felt like a million times. I had MRIs and ultrasounds, but I never gave up my tennis time. I wanted the team to focus on tennis, not worry about me.”
As the team prepared for PATD District Championships in early August, Garling got the good news that she would not have to go undergo chemotherapy, but rather radiation treatment. She needed 33 treatments to start, going Monday-Friday at 7:30 a.m. With League District Championships right around the corner, Garling wasn’t sure if she would be able to participate. That is when she decided to tell her team what had been going on all summer.
“They were saying how amazing it was I was still playing,” said Garling. “Our captain, Andrea [McGovern] was so great. She scheduled my matches for Friday afternoons or weekends.”
McGovern described Garling as courageous and an inspiration to everyone on the team.
“The first thing I asked my surgeon in all of this was if I would still be able to play tennis,” laughed Garling. “Other than experiencing side effects of fatigue, she gave me the go ahead to play.”
The Dominetters advanced to Section Championships, and Garling played and competed the entire time. Although the team didn’t advance to Nationals, the experience for Garling was about more than just winning or losing.
“I got to experience awesome tennis,” said Garling. “The team bonded and it was so much fun. We’re just a very easy-going, laid-back group of women who have great chemistry. One of my teammates even offered to shave her head if I had to go through chemotherapy and lose my hair. Women that play tennis together relate to each other.”
Garling admits she wasn’t sure what to do with herself when the League season ended. In addition to tennis, Garling said she typically spends the summers at the beach or boating with family. But with weeks filled with hospital visits and radiation treatments, tennis was her only outlet.
“It dawned on me that I have been going through this journey and it was kind of sad, in a way, that I felt I had missed the entire summer,” said Garling. “The beauty in this summer was USTA League. It turned out to be a godsend in my life, and I thought how lucky I was to have been a part of this incredible team.”
Earlier this fall, Garling got the news that she was cancer free. She’ll continue to undergo hormone therapy for the next five years, a process that includes taking medication daily and monthly injections. While Garling was hesitant to discuss her diagnosis at first, she now is open to sharing her story with anyone who will listen.
“The best thing I have found to get through this is to talk about it,” she said. “I hope that I can inspire or motivate somebody who is battling this horrible disease to continue to live life. It is the most awful thing you can imagine going through, so to be able to find some positives or a diamond in the rough is a blessing.”
The American Cancer Society designates October as National Breast Cancer Awareness Month. The campaign is dedicated to raising awareness and educating individuals about breast cancer, breast health and the latest research developments. According to the National Cancer Institute, 232,340 new cases of breast cancer were reported in women in the United States in 2013, resulting in 39,620 deaths. When detected early at the localized stage, the survival rate is 98%. Early detection includes monthly breast self-exams and scheduling regular clinical mammograms. Learn more about National Breast Cancer Awareness month here.