By Tiffany Sweeney
October is all about pumpkin spice, apple cider, and pink for breast cancer awareness—pink in a multitude of colors to remind us to perform breast exams and support those that have been affected by the disease. However, many also believe that this is a disease that will not affect them. It is a disease that affects older women or women who have a family history of the disease. The fact is that breast cancer is the leading cancer in women, affecting about 12% of the population, and it is not limited to only women. Science is learning more and more about the disease, proving it to be more complicated than originally thought, while also advancing treatment for those facing the challenge.
Catching Cancer Early
Nora Bergan, resident of White Sulphur Springs and owner of the local Hair Hut (salon), was diagnosed with Stage 1 breast cancer in 1999 at the age of 39, after noticing a slight dimpling of her nipple. Testing was able to indicate that the cancer was estrogen fed and did not have a genetic factor. Due to early detection, Nora did not require chemotherapy, and instead of radiation, she chose to have a single mastectomy. (She would have preferred a double mastectomy, but at the time, it was determined she was too young, and evidence suggested that the cancer would not spread to the other breast.)
The initial surgery went well, and feeling positive, Nora returned to work. Unfortunately, it proved to be too early. While working in the salon, she tore her stitches. She opted for reconstructive surgery, an aggressive surgery which rebuilds the breast using portions of the patient’s stomach, and repairs were made to her torn stitches. It took her months to heal, and her treatment was not yet complete. She had to take medications which inhibited her estrogen for an additional ten years, allowing her to step into the path of healing that leaves her cancer-free to this day.
Nora is thankful for her early detection and her limited treatment. Medical providers have recommended continuing regular annual exams and have encouraged her daughter to begin mammograms at 29. More than 20 years post-diagnosis, Nora would not change a thing about her journey if she had to do it again.
See a Victory
Katie Yeisley, a teacher in Great Falls, has a very different story. One day in January 2020, she was feeling extra sore after a workout. Upon further examination, she discovered a small lump which was later confirmed with her husband and friends. She immediately called for an appointment and the tests began. In February, a very painful biopsy was performed, and Katie received her official diagnosis: Stage 2 breast cancer with no genetic indication or family history. She was only 33 years old. By the end of that month, she started chemo, as the community shut down due to COVID. Ultimately, Katie felt this sudden change in events was a blessing. Due to all the shutdowns, she was able to spend more time with her family and did not have to worry about adjusting her work schedule, as her job went remote.
The blessings continued. The community rallied around Katie, and her small yet powerful support group ensured she had meals, playdates for her kids, and would even fast with her on her treatment days.
Katie began with four rounds of chemotherapy known as the “red devil,” a treatment given every other week that resulted in a gray complexion and nausea, with no aid from anti-nausea meds. Her chemo was then switched, allowing for healthier but very tired days. This time, twelve rounds for twelve weeks. With COVID restrictions, she sat alone with no visitors and no interaction among the other patients. She was simply dropped at the door by her husband and children, and had to rely on her faith. She prayed before and during every session, and maintained a positive attitude throughout; “because you can’t walk into chemo with a bad attitude.” Every time she walked out of her chemo session, her family would be there blasting the song “See a Victory.”
Katie ended chemo in July 2020, was allowed three weeks to rest, and had a single mastectomy with lymph node removal performed the first week of August. Tests confirmed that the cancer had spread to the lymph nodes and her team went back in to remove an additional twelve nodes. Two days later, she started a new job.
The chemo may not have worked on the lymph nodes, but it did shrink her tumor. Katie met with her oncologist, and it was determined they would implement an aggressive treatment
of radiation at five days a week, for six weeks. Katie developed swelling in her right arm. Her skin darkened like a sunburn. She began seeing a physical therapist twice a week to help regain mobility in her arm and was fitted for a special sleeve. Throughout all of this, her positive outlook remained; yet, she was ready to be done.
In mid-December 2020, she finally got the word: the doctors officially declared Katie cancer-free and in remission. Her treatment was still far from over though. Every six weeks, she had to go in for bloodwork. She will take a hormone blocker for at least five years because her cancer was fueled by estrogen and progesterone. She had a full hysterectomy in April 2021. She is 34 years old, going through menopause, and learning to understand and accept her new body and life. She is scheduled to have reconstructive surgery in December 2021, her fifth surgery in a year and a half.
Katie’s faith was challenged, but throughout her many obstacles she solidified her relationship with God, her relationships with family and friends became stronger, and she learned that it was absolutely acceptable to ask for and to accept help. Katie is not sure what the future has in store for her and her family, but as her chemo song says, she is going to “take what the enemy meant for evil and … turn it for good.”
Strength in Community
Terri Gordillo, a school counselor for Great Falls Public Schools, was inspired by a teacher in the district to perform a breast exam almost ten years ago at the age of 43. Regular exams were not within her usual routine, and she had begun to develop a sharp pain when she raised her arm. She performed a self exam and immediately found a lump. Within two weeks, she had her official diagnosis: Stage 3, triple negative. All three hormones were present causing a “firestorm within her body”—a treatable, yet aggressive form of cancer.
Terri opted for a lumpectomy with a full removal of her lymph nodes. She was scared. Her son had just started kindergarten and she needed to be there for him. She took her treatments one step at a time, never looking too far ahead. The treatments were emotionally difficult and physically intense, with Terri comparing them to “killing fleas on a dog by beating it with a baseball bat.” She participated in chemo for three months, scheduling her treatments around her work schedule so that she spent her weekends sick and in recovery, only to start the whole process again on Monday morning. She also had six weeks of radiation, a treatment that proved to be quiet and peaceful compared to her earlier ones. Her husband stood by her side as they both shaved their heads, Terri sobbing as her hair diminished from her treatments. On weekends, the community would step up to help with her son so she could rest.
Ten years later, Terri’s cancer is a distant memory. She has learned to listen to her body and trust what it is telling her.
She performs regular breast exams. Her entire perspective changed; she now gets to experience milestones that she may have previously dreaded and instead believes “every day you are healthy is a great day.”
Angie Schei, another teacher in Great Falls, is also a survivor of breast cancer. She was diagnosed ten years ago after finding a lump the size of a walnut while nursing her five-month-old daughter. Testing was immediate due to the high concern of her case, and in less than a week, she was informed she had Stage 3.5, triple negative breast cancer that had traveled into her lymph nodes. She was only 33 years old, with no prior history and did not fit the typical demographic of this diagnosis. Her cancer was not genetic and was not hormonal. She immediately started chemo, frequently being monitored by her doctor to ensure the tumor was shrinking. She was scheduled to complete eleven rounds, but her treatment had to be stopped at only nine because the strength of the meds were causing additional side effects, including the loss of her toenails and discoloration of her fingers.
The chemo proved to be successful, despite the alteration to Angie’s treatment. The tumor had shrunk to the size of a pea. With such an aggressive form of cancer, however, treatment was far from over. A double mastectomy was completed, with expanders placed for future implants. Angie did two months of radiation, which resulted in her skin being burned so bad that she had to have special burn scrubs on a regular basis. Reconstruction was performed five separate times, as complications continued to arise from ruptured or torn implants or the implants simply falling out of place. Angie eventually had her back muscles constructed into a sling to help hold her implants, and has been informed that her implants will likely need to be removed in the future. All of it became too much, and she knows she would never make the same reconstructive decision again.
She had to have regular monthly check-ups for a year, then every three months, and then every six months, because her type of cancer has an 85% return rate within the first five years. Angie was eventually released from her oncologist’s care, and her appointments are annual now that she has been cancer free for ten years. But, the fear of it returning never really goes away.
Through all of the chaos and pain, Angie’s family was there by her side. Her community rallied around her showing support through fundraisers as well as cards and gifts before every chemo treatment. When she returned to work, she walked into school to find every teacher wearing matching shirts and every student wearing a pink bandana to show their support.
Yet, the guilt she feels still lingers. Guilt over what her family —especially her daughters—had to endure. Guilt over not being there, as she would have liked, for her youngest daughter. Guilt over survival, as she watched multiple friends succumb to the disease.
Thankfully, the song she listened to before every one of her chemo sessions sticks with her today, reminding her to stick her toes in the water and remember the good of the day.
Guidance Patients often find their paths to diagnosis and treatment difficult and frustrating and sometimes even convoluted. When COVID spread throughout our country and shut down communities, treatment became even more complicated, and the Great Falls Clinic discovered that patients were getting lost in the cracks. In July 2021, they hired Gloria Duke, a nurse of 25 years, in a new role known as a Patient Navigator. Gloria immediately hit the ground running to develop a new program with a holistic approach for cancer patients that launched in early September.
Creating connections throughout the community, Gloria was able to form bonds between social workers, dietitians, primary care physicians, specialists, physical therapists, and mental health providers to create a whole team working to care for those diagnosed with cancer. She helps to coordinate and expedite the process to get a definitive diagnosis, which in turn leads to improved health outcomes in the long term. Gloria helps patients and their families tackle barriers, including insurance, transportation, education, lodging, and mental health, and she even runs a survivorship program for those that have completed treatment and need continued care.
The program is still in its early stages. They are currently only accepting new patients, not those that are already receiving treatment. The program started in Great Falls but may expand into outlying communities, where rural residents encounter additional obstacles due to limited resources. Patients can be referred from their physician or oncologist, or they can self- refer. For more information, contact Gloria at (406) 771-3103.
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While each of these women has a different story, their message is the same: Perform breast exams. Know your body. Stay up-to- date with cancer screenings. These recommendations can lead to early detection and ultimately, better long-term treatment and health outcomes.
So, when you see those pink ribbons while drinking your pumpkin spice or apple cider, remember to take a moment to care for yourself. Check yourself and check in with your doctor. You are worth it.