Ann’s breast cancer journey: early detection is key

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By Jessica Sly, Communications Specialist

 

One year. That’s how long Ann Immonen has been on her breast cancer journey. It taught her much about her own strength and the strength of family and friends. It also taught her that early detection is key to breast cancer survival.

A picture of Ann with her Coworkers

Ann and her TCHC co-workers.

Late in October 2016, Ann went in for her annual mammogram, utilizing the new 3-D technology at TCHC. Just a year earlier, she had been cleared with a normal mammogram. This one, however, revealed concerning lumps that doctors determined needed further investigation.

Following a diagnostic ultrasound on Oct. 31 and needle-guided biopsy on Nov. 9, the diagnosis came back positive. She had breast cancer.

“Maybe because of my health care background, I really never cried about my diagnosis,” she said. “I was just thankful for the early detection because they have come a long way with breast cancer treatment.”

Then came a choice: to undergo a mastectomy or not. The knowledge of her medical history helped her decide. When Ann’s mother was diagnosed with breast cancer, she chose a single mastectomy but experienced recurrence in her other breast. So Ann opted for a bilateral mastectomy.

Chemotherapy began the first week of January. Because of debilitating side effects – nausea, fatigue, hair loss – Ann was unable to work, but she is grateful for the amazing cancer care program at TCHC, which allowed her to receive chemo right in her hometown of Wadena.

Though wigs were an option, she chose instead to sport a fantastic array of hats and made sure to be open with her family about the changes.

“I was never uncomfortable not having hair. I loved hats and I wore them well, but I felt I needed to tell my grandchildren,” she said. “One of my grandsons told his mom, ‘Grandma took some medicine, and her hair popped out!’

Breast Cancer - Ann Ringing Bell

Ann ringing the bell after treatment.

“That’s what you do this for at this age,” she added. “You do it for your children and your grandchildren. They were amazing.”

Radiation started in May and continued through June, again causing more side effects. Finally, two weeks after the 25-day radiation treatment, Ann returned to work.

“It was amazing to be back around people again,” she said. “And I have gotten stronger and stronger and stronger.”

She will continue chemotherapy every three weeks through December, but the aggressive part of the medication is over, meaning her energy and her hair have returned.

Ann credits the support of her family, friends, church members and coworkers with keeping her spirits high.

“Faith, family and friends with a positive attitude can get you through anything,” Ann said. “That’s my motto.”

As she reflects on the past year and looks forward to the end of treatment, Ann’s message to other women is that screenings matter.

“The biggest thing is early detection,” she said. “It’s amazing how when you sit at a table with maybe six ladies, three have had biopsies and two of us were positive. It happens to people every day, but the biggest thing I can say is early detection.”

 

Ann with her Family at the Relay for Life.

About Ann: Ann Immonen and her husband, Eldon, live in Wadena and have two daughters and two grandchildren. She began working at Tri-County Hospital 39 years ago as an LPN. Over the years, she has worn different hats within Tri-County. Following a Type 1 diabetes diagnosis about five years ago, she transitioned to a part-time float nurse position in the Wadena Clinic.


Paramedic Battles Cancer with Determination and Grace

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On the front lines of medicine, Sharon Heinen has served as a Tri-County Health Care paramedic for nearly 20 years. In 2012, Sharon began her own personal fight for her life.

By Sharon Heinen, Tri-County Health Care Paramedic

Sharon Heinen Relay for Life

Brenda Windels (left) stands beside Sharon Heinen (right) at the annual Wadena County Relay for Life event at Sunnybrook Park.

Cancer, an illness I had hoped I would never have to deal with. I had seen cancer take my brother’s life … his struggles, his strength. My personal journey started at Mayo Clinic in Rochester. I had gone to find out if there was a treatment for Lymphedema, and then I was told I may have breast cancer.

It was here that the journey to fight for my life began.

The next day was filled with more tests – including another MRI which discovered cancer in not just one breast, but both. I couldn’t believe this was happening. In my head questions were spinning – “How is this possible? How am I going to get through this?” Thankfully my best friend, my mother, was with me. She continually reassured me that we would get through this. She reminded me that this would not be just my battle, but that I had an army of friends who would be there to support me.

The next step was biopsies of both breasts, and the thought of ‘I just cannot believe this is happening, why me? Why is God allowing this to happen? My mother lost a son, and now may lose a daughter to cancer … why are you doing this to my parents God?’

The results of the biopsies came back positive, and I needed to return to Mayo for a class about breast reconstruction. I did not want reconstruction – let’s just get this poison out of me, now. Surgery was scheduled for the following Monday at 6 a.m. That Sunday night I drove down to Mayo Clinic with my parents and youngest sister. Sleepless nights filled with prayers, tears and fear. The time arrived for surgery and I was prepped, hugged by my parents and sister and through the surgical doors I went. I woke up in recovery late in the afternoon with three drainage tubes and bottles secured to my chest; the IV which had been started in my left hand was now in my foot. And, the nurses were great about making sure the pain was under control. Finally, at 7 p.m. that night I was brought to my room where my family was waiting. The surgeon arrived later to tell me that the cancer on the right side did not affect my lymph nodes; unfortunately, the left side of the sentinel lymph nodes was involved, as well as 36 other lymph nodes. More tears, My God, how am I going to get through this?

The next morning after breakfast, the IV was removed and my mother was taught how to drain the bottles and keep the area clean. Once the discharge was less than five cc’s, the tubes could be removed – which could take up to a month and so I prepared for the ride back to Richmond as I would now be living with my parents for the rest of my journey. Initially, my first few weeks were confined to a recliner with walks around the house every so often to prevent blood clots. Pain was minimal, and now I was feeling like a burden needing to have my mother take care of me.

On the bright side, I received hundreds of cards, plants and care packages from friends, strangers, co-workers and firefighters I trained with. It was unbelievable to receive so many cards every day. To this day, I have a large tote filled with cards that I still have and pull out to read on my tough days.

About a month later, the discharge is finally under five cc’s and the tubes can come out. The local clinic and hospital refused to take the tubes out, so I called Tri-County Health Care’s Emergency Room and asked the ER nurse if they would remove the tubes if I were to Sharon Heinen hugging at benefitgo there. The ride to Wadena would take 90 minutes versus the ride to Rochester which would take closer to three hours. Thankfully, Tri-County staff did not let me down. My mother drove me to Wadena, and what an awesome experience I had. When I arrived, I walked into the lobby and some of my co-workers were there to greet me with gentle hugs and positive energy. For the first time I felt like, yes, I can get through this. The tubes were finally removed and so I went out for dinner with many of my friends joining us there. I realized just how many people were there to help me get through this.

The next step was chemotherapy. Every other Monday, starting in June, one of my family members would drive me from Richmond to Mayo Clinic where I would sit in a recliner for about six hours as the poison was pumped into my body in the hopes the cancer cells would be destroyed. The side effects were numerous and I was given medication that would help with the pain, as well as the nausea, vomiting and diarrhea. I was fortunate that between treatments I was usually only really ill for about two days.

The second week of treatments, as I was showering, my hair fell out in clumps. I do not have words for how I felt. My mother came into the bathroom to check on me to find me sitting there with my hair in my hands. Again, she held me telling me that it would be okay – even though at the time I felt like  a freak, some kind of monster. And, so she shaved off the rest of my hair. What an awful day.

After six treatments (so 12 weeks), chemo was finally over. And now I needed to give my body a chance to recover. So, for the next month I would spend time between my parents’ house and my home in Wadena.

I will never forget walking into Tri-County and Dr. Steve Davis coming down the hallway, giving me a hug. Again, the tears flowed. I felt like a freak, with no hair, and Dr. Davis made me feel beautiful.

Sharon Heinen smiling at benefit

Sharon visits with guests at a benefit organized in her honor.

During this time a benefit was also held in September in St. Ann’s. People from Richmond rented a bus and drove up here. People from all over the area attended. And, again the fears flowed. But, this time not because of pain and embarrassment, but because of all the love I felt.

The last part of my journey started that October with 36 radiation treatments. The treatments were every day, except Saturday or Sunday. The radiation made me very tired, weak and most days were spent on the recliner sleeping. As the treatments continued, the burns from the radiation were becoming more tender and the redness was getting worse. I asked my doctor in charge of radiation about giving me something for pain, or something to put on the burns that were now becoming very uncomfortable. Without success, I was back to Tri-County as I did not know what to do. Thankfully, Dr. Shaneen was able to see me and scheduled me with Rose Lorentz. They were my heroes who finally gave me something for the pain and a cream to put on the burns. In early November, I finally finished my last treatment.

December 26, 2012 … nine months after the cancer was discovered, I finally returned to work for a few hours at a time to build my bSharon Heinen at benefitody strength back up, and also just to get back into the swing of working on an ambulance again. I received so much support from Administration telling me I will have a job when this was all over and my manager Allen, again reassuring me that they will work with me at my pace. My co-workers were there to support me as I would get frustrated when it seemed like I would never get back to working a shift as I would sometimes become so exhausted that I had to take naps. Finally, in January I was able to take over my shifts.

This journey lasted about 10 months. When I went to Rochester the first time, the farmers were in the fields working the soil getting ready to plant their corn and oats. I had seen young calves running around, enjoying the warmth that spring was bringing. The next time I drove to Wadena to work, the fields were harvested, the little calves were now young stock. And, when I thought about it, I realized that I had lost 9-10 months of my life fighting this battle called cancer.

But, with the bad, came a lot of good as I realized how lucky I am to have so many people who also walked this journey with me. And, to all of you, I say “Thank you!”

Sharon large group Relay for Life

The Tri-County Health Care Relay for Life team is a snapshot example of the many people who rallied with Sharon in her fight against breast cancer.

 

About the Author: 

Sharon Heinen

Sharon Heinen, a valued Tri-County Health Care Paramedic since 1996.

Sharon was born in 1963 at St. Cloud Hospital, is the oldest of five children born to Eugene and Bernice and was raised on a dairy farm between Richmond and Cold Spring, MN. Sharon came to Wadena in 1995 to attend Wadena Technical college to be a Paramedic. She graduated in 1996 and was hired in November of 1996 at TCHC as a Paramedic. Sharon lives in Wadena with her cats, Blue and Bandit. She also teaches Confirmation Class at St. John’s in Bluffton and is a Communion Minister there as well. Sharon still continues to spend as much time as possible at the farm raising sheep, which she has been doing since 1990. In her free time, Sharon enjoys fishing, riding four-wheeler and spending time with family. 

Sharon Heinen EMS class

Sharon Heinen, Tri-County Paramedic, teaches kids basic safety skills at an annual Babysitting Clinic

 


Breast Health Navigator Eases Patient’s Concerns

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By: Shannon Brauch, RN, Women’s Health Coordinator

It wasn’t that long ago that patients with questions or concerns related to their breast health would rely heavily on their family and their own research to compliment what their doctor was telling them about an abnormal mammogram or other breast concerns.

When faced with a possible breast cancer diagnosis, women’s heads fill immediately with questions and concerns or frightful statistics they find when surfing the web. I have witnessed women whose minds were going 100 miles per hour. It’s these women who have found it nice to have someone else “be in charge” and guide them through this overwhelming process.

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My role as a breast navigator is to try to pave the path for a woman who have breast health concerns. I help with referrals and scheduling appointments. I also work with our medical team to try to help women understand what their diagnosis really means. And, despite the fact that one in eight women will be diagnosed with breast cancer during her lifetime, there is some good news—98% of women will survive if their breast cancer is found early. More woman are getting regular mammograms, cancer is being detected earlier and breast navigation is gaining in popularity because it fills so many gaps in the current American health care system.

The original concept of patient navigation was pioneered in 1990 by Harold P. Freeman, MD, a surgical oncologist at Harlem Hospital, for the purpose of eliminating barriers to timely cancer screening, diagnosis, treatment and supportive care. Since Dr. Freeman’s groundbreaking work in Harlem, the concept of navigation or advocacy has grown far beyond cancer and now covers almost anything being done to help patients and families find their way through the maze of our health care system.

The role of the Breast Health Navigator has evolved to meet the changing demands of breast health care. The complexity of breast health treatment and the growing demand for out-patient services requires a trained nurse case manager with the ability to increase patient outcomes and patient satisfaction while containing costs. The Breast Health Navigator serves as a consistent coordinator throughout the continuum of care assessing the physical, educational, psychological and social needs of the patient. And, if the patient is diagnosed with breast cancer, I work seamlessly with our surgical team and I am always available as a resource to the oncology team when needed.

As a Breast Navigator at Tri-County Health Care, I feel privileged to be able to support and guide our patients, and their loved ones, through their journey. The support and guidance starts with our initial conversation and continues we me as the point of contact each step of the journey. I like to think of myself as a proactive patient representative who provides support, education and guidance through complex health care issues and treatment as they relate to breast health, and sometimes the diagnosis of breast cancer. I like to think of myself as a communication link between the patient and other care providers.

During our first conversation, I like to share with my patients that I value open communication and reassure them that I will be with them through every step of the journey. It’s important that my patients know that I will visit with them, occasionally on the phone and sometimes in person, before, during or after appointments, testing and surgery.

breast cancer awareness

Breast health concerns are a priority for women and at Tri-County Health Care we value the experience of our patients and believes it’s important to develop individualized treatment plans for our patients. This individualized approach assures that patients receive timely, quality care and I work diligently to remove barriers that stand between the patient and effective, comprehensive care. Part advocate, part teacher, part problem solver, part advisor, part friend, the nurse navigator provides one-on-one emotional support and services to help ease the burden for breast health patients and their loved ones.

As their trusted breast navigator, I believe it is important to be intricately involved with all areas of care related to my patient’s health. I work closely with our Tri-County Health Care surgeons, Dr. VanBruggen and Dr. Kloss and their nurses to schedule consultations, biopsies and follow-up appointments. When it’s the wish of the patients, I will go with the patient to their breast biopsy and offer support as needed.

The benefit of working with a nurse navigator is that there is never any pressure or rush put on the patients during their visits and if they forget to ask a question during the appointment, they can always call the breast navigator later when they think of it.

As a registered nurse, I am qualified and honored to provide not only information that helps patients navigate through their journey, from diagnosis to recovery and beyond, I also provide emotional support. By helping women through this process, I believe we provide hope.

If you or someone you know would like more information about the breast navigation program at Tri-County Health Car or about breast cancer screenings, diagnosis, treatment or follow-up care, please call me at 218-632-8182 or 218-639-4517.

Shannon, Brian and their beautiful three children.

Shannon, Brian and their beautiful three children.

About the Author:

Shannon is a lifetime resident of Wadena. Her husband Brian and her have three beautiful children Mason 9, McKenna 6 and Aubrey 3. They’ll be welcoming their fourth child in December. Shannon is currently the Women’s Health Coordinator and Breast Navigator at Tri-County Health Care. In her free time, she enjoys spending time with her family and friends and doing anything outdoors.


Mammogram Parties – A party with the potential to save a life

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By: Shannon Brauch, RN, Tri-County Health Care Women’s Health Coordinator

Every year, cancer claims the lives of more than a quarter of a million women in America. Breast cancer is the most common cause of cancer and the second most common cause of cancer deaths in American women.

As the leaves turn color and we approach fall, I like to take this opportunity to remind women that October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month and to highlight the warning signs of breast cancer. The warning signs that should alert a woman to visit with their primary care provider include:

  • Lump, hard knot or thickening inside the breast or underarm area;
  • Swelling, warmth, redness or darkening of the breast;
  • Change in size or shape of breast;
  • Dimpling or puckering of skin;
  • Itchy, scaly sore or rash on the nipple;
  • Pulling in of your nipple or other parts of breast;
  • Nipple discharge that starts suddenly;
  • New pain in one spot that does not go away;

About one in eight women will develop invasive breast cancer over the course of her lifetime, with 85 percent of breast cancer occurring in women with no family history of breast cancer. Because family history is not a reliable indicator, the American Cancer Society recommends that annual mammograms should begin at the age of 40 and continue for as long as a woman is in good health. Mammograms are the best way to find cancer early, even before it can be felt and when it is easier to treat. Some women, because of their family history, genetic tendency or other factors, should talk to their provider about the need for additional tests at an earlier age.

breast-cancer-ad-1-in-8

Cancer is a scary word and sadly the fear surrounding cancer can keep people from scheduling a life-saving appointment. Research shows that by visiting your medical provider and scheduling a cancer screening test you could greatly improve your odds of survival. Screening tests can detect certain cancers early, when they are the most likely to be curable. Knowing the benefits, it’s alarming that less than 51% of women ages 40 and older reported having a mammogram in the last year. And, recent studies suggest that women are getting their first mammogram later than recommended, not having them at recommended intervals or not receiving appropriate and timely follow-up of positive screening results.

At Tri-County Health Care, we value mammograms and want to make them a little less intimidating for women. In October, we are hosting six Mammogram Parties, each designed to help minimize fear and anxiety for women.

Mammo Party 2015 FB Ad

Women age 40 and older are invited to a Mammogram Party and are welcome to bring their friends, co-workers, family and of course “the girls” for a festive and party-life environment. While at the party women will enjoy massages, margaritas, munchies, and of course, receive their mammogram. There will also be neck and shoulder massages; bra fittings; hand massages/reflexology and representatives from Mary Kay and Healthy Living Oils. Each party can accommodate up to 12 people and the Tri-County Caring Heart Boutique Gift Shop will stay open later to allow the women some time to shop if they choose.

The parties will be held Thursday evenings in October (1, 8, 22) from 5-8 p.m. and Saturday morning, October 10, from 9 a.m. – noon.

Registering for a Mammogram Party is as simple as calling 218-631-7466. Call soon as space is limited to 12 women per party.

Cancer screenings can be very scary. We hope these mammogram parties minimize anxiety and encourage women to get their screening in a safe and fun environment.


My cancer diagnosis story…

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By: Deb Miller

Deb and her family.

Deb and her family.

This April, I had a suspicious mammogram at TCHC that was followed immediately by an ultrasound. Two days later I had a biopsy done at TCHC and three days later I got the results of the biopsy that showed I had triple negative breast cancer. I am so thankful for the knowledgeable staff at TCHC and how quickly they took care of me. Because this is a more aggressive type of breast cancer, the providers I work with at the Henning Clinic and my family strongly encouraged me to get a second opinion at a breast cancer center. I spent the week of April 27th in the Twin Cities with appointments at Virginia Piper Breast Center and Minnesota Oncology and started chemo the first week of May. By the time I am done, I will have a total of 16 chemo treatments, followed by surgery and possibly radiation.

“God’s Got This” is something I have always believed, and a promise that our family has clung to in the last 3-½ years. In October of 2011, our daughter-in-law Leanne was diagnosed with breast cancer. She was 26 years old and pregnant with their first child. She was a young woman with an amazing faith in God and she lived her 2-½ year cancer journey totally trusting that “God’s Got This.” God continually showed our families in countless ways that he would provide what we needed for each day of that journey. Leanne was always ready to share her faith and the promise that “God’s Got This” with those she met. The last time that Leanne was at our home was Easter, April 20, 2014. I was diagnosed this year on April 20th, which was exactly 11 months after she went to heaven on May 20th, 2014. While it seemed almost impossible that we could be going through this again so soon, I also knew that I had no better example of how to live my cancer journey than Leanne and there was no doubt, “God’s Got This”!

Deb with her co-workers wearing the t-shirts they had made for a fundraiser to help her offset her medical expenses.

Deb with her co-workers wearing the t-shirts they had made for a fundraiser to help her offset her medical expenses.

I have worked for Tri-County Health Care since 1994 at the Henning Clinic in Lab and X-ray. After my diagnosis, I found out that Amy Severson and my co-workers at the Henning Clinic had arranged a fundraiser. I showed up at work one day and they were wearing these “God’s Got This” t-shirts they had made. I can’t even put into words how special that was to me. I work with the best people and their support means the world to me. They have been with me through all the ups and downs of the last 3 ½ years and they are like my second family.

Words of wisdom to give to newly diagnosed? You will be inundated with information at a very emotional time. Take someone with you to your appointments so you have a second set of ears to listen to everything. Ask them to take notes. It’s ok to get a second opinion, you want to be as informed as possible and then choose the provider you feel the most comfortable with. For me, once my treatment plan was in place, it was very overwhelming to think about how many months all this was going to take. I do my best to take one day at a time, be thankful for the blessings of that day and with my family, friends and God by my side, I will get through this.