Breast Cancer: ‘Nothing prepares you for it’

Jan Wann, The New Prague Times

“You never think it will happen to you,” said New Prague resident DeAnna Hendricks. “I’ve been healthy all my life, and then you get that dreaded phone call with the news, ‘You have breast cancer.’ Nothing prepares you for it.”

DeAnna is in the process of fighting her disease. Since October is National Breast Cancer Awareness Month she agreed to share her story. Her goal is to, “help other women from hearing that diagnosis by heightening their awareness of the importance of early breast cancer detection.”

The American Cancer Society recommends women age 40 and older should have a screening mammogram every year and should continue to do so for as long as they are in good health.

At age 41, DeAnna had never had a mammogram. “It was on my ‘To do’ list, but when I discovered a lump in my breast I scheduled one right away.”

Her initial mammogram came back abnormal, so another, more extensive one was scheduled. That test showed more and a biopsy was done the same day, per DeAnna’s request.

“On April 18, 2005, I received “the call” from my local physician. When she asked me where I was I knew something was wrong. I left my office, found a quiet spot, and called her back. She confirmed my worst fear, that I had breast cancer. She also offered me options for local treatment or going to Abbott Northwestern Hospital in Minneapolis.”

Sharing the news

After processing the news she had just received, DeAnna called her husband, Scott.

“We were devastated,” said DeAnna. “Unfortunately you think of the worst case scenarios at a time like this.”

Next step

Within a week DeAnna was at Abbott Northwestern and began numerous tests. She learned that she has the same type of breast cancer 30% of women have. Her cancer includes a “her-2 neu positive” factor which is more aggressive in nature and feeds off the estrogen in a woman’s system.

The surgeon she met with suggested chemotherapy before any surgery, to hopefully reduce the tumor size and kill any floating cells. Based on the reading she was doing, DeAnna decided to get a second (and even third) opinion. All the doctors were in agreement. The surgeon then posed a big question, “Are you comfortable keeping the tumor and doing chemotherapy first?”

After experiencing the positive interaction between the doctors DeAnna decided to pursue this treatment regime and became one of 350 women across the country who are part of a study through the Virginia Piper Cancer Institute at Abbott Northwestern.

“Getting started was important to me,” said DeAnna. “Waiting was the hardest part.”

The children

During this time DeAnna and Scott also told their children— Jenny, now a ninth grader, sixth grader Alex, and Katie, who is in first grade. “We sat them down and explained what was happening. We told them we would be fighting this with chemotherapy and surgery and felt very positive that we could beat it,” said DeAnna.

She also contacted the children’s teachers so they were in the loop. “Our children have been wonderful,” said DeAnna. “Every time I go for a treatment I find a note in my purse from Jenny. I have taken each of the older two along for one of my treatments so they can see what it’s about. Although Katie is only in first grade she recognizes the breast cancer symbol and has told her friends about me.”

Treatments begin

Thirteen days after her first treatment DeAnna faced a mental setback—losing her hair.

It happened over Memorial Day weekend while their family was camping. DeAnna had gotten her hair cut short and purchased a wig before going. “But it was traumatizing for me and I think it was even tougher on the kids.”

Benefits of a small town

“I can’t imagine going through this without a support system and mine has been wonderful,” commented DeAnna.

She and Laurie Wiebusch of New Prague, who was diagnosed with cancer 7-1/2 years ago, have become close friends. When Laurie learned of DeAnna’s cancer she called and told her she was now part of the pink ribbon club.

According to DeAnna, “It’s a club you don’t want to belong to, but it’s a wonderful club for support and you don’t realize how big it is.”

DeAnna says Laurie’s support has been invaluable. Neighbors, friends and members of the Hendricks’ church family at Holy Trinity Lutheran Church, have also shown support through meals, rides, phone calls, cards, and of course prayers.

“Ann Sletten of New Prague, became my point person at church, sharing with other members when my treatments were taking place and setting up meal schedules. She’s been a great gatekeeper.”

Tough stuff

Beyond the initial diagnosis and treatment DeAnna feels there are other tough things to deal with.

“It is very humbling to accept someone’s help because you can’t do it yourself. I just can’t do everything and it’s very hard for me to let go. I’ve continued to work through this time and balancing my family and career have been as much as I can handle right now,” said DeAnna.

Always one to volunteer at church, school or in the community she hasn’t signed up for anything since April. That’s been a tough mental adjustment for her.

Positive experience

DeAnna truly feels she and her family have had more positive than negative experiences since her diagnosis. Not only has it been faith-growing for them she feels they have become closer.

“Scott has been wonderful. I know he has been dealing with his own feelings, but he’s always there for me and the kids.

“On Mother’s Day our family did the Komen Race for the Cure. I hadn’t started my treatments yet and I really wasn’t interested in going, but they made me. It was the most overwhelming event I’ve ever attended. We’ll be back there next year.

“I also feel we are more sensitive to each other and others.”

What’s ahead?

DeAnna has completed five rounds of chemotherapy that she received every three weeks. She is now in the eighth week of receiving different chemotherapy every week for 12 weeks and should finish those treatments around Thanksgiving.

Then she faces surgery within six weeks of finishing her chemotherapy. Because of the aggressive nature of her cancer she has opted to have a double mastectomy.

Following her recovery she will have six weeks of radiation, five days a week.

Since she is part of a study group she will then be able to take a new drug. “The bad news is I have a cancer that is aggressive; the good news is it will allow me to take the new ‘wonder drug,’ Herceptin,” said DeAnna. “The study results have shown great promise in keeping the cancer from moving to other organs.”

DeAnna’s top lessons learned

When asked what she had learned from this life-changing experience DeAnna shared the following:

• Get an annual mammogram beginning at age 40. (Or earlier due to your family history.)

• Do monthly breast self-exams

• The value of health insurance

• Call or send cards to those facing tough times—acknowledgement is important

• Your best advocate is yourself

• Learn to “let go”

• Think positively

• Everyone needs their hand held at some time in their life

• Don’t worry about trivial things

Greatest lesson

“Enjoy every day! I thought I was doing that, but I wasn’t. Each day is a good day, no matter what’s happening,” said DeAnna.

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