It was a typical January Friday night for many families in Minnesota and from the outside, the Horner family of Cushing appeared no different. Myra and her husband, Rodney, and daughter, Shelby headed to a St. Cloud State Huskies hockey game. It was their last family activity before Shelby headed back to college at Southwest Minnesota State University in Marshall the next day.
Yet underneath that sense of normalcy was a gnawing concern. Myra, 50, had just gone to Lakewood Health System’s Pillager clinic for a physical — something she hadn’t done for a couple of years. As part of that process she had a 3D mammogram. An unusual mass was spotted and a biopsy was scheduled for the following Monday.
“I kept thinking that it’s nothing until it’s something,” Myra recalls. “But in the back of my head, I thought I could have breast cancer. For some reason, I have always been drawn to helping breast cancer patients, so that was in my mind.”
At 5 p.m. on Wednesday, Jan. 13, 2016, Myra received the dreaded call: it was cancer.
The dark mass the clinicians saw was a 2.3-centimeter stage 2 triple negative breast cancer. According to WebMD, only about 10-20 percent of breast cancer patients have this type. Those most at risk are young, African-American or Latina women with a change in their BRCA1 gene. On the surface, Myra didn’t really fit that profile, but that didn’t matter. She spent the next two days in bed grieving.
The providers at Lakewood Healthcare System didn’t let her stay in bed for long.
A series of procedures, operations and genetic testing
A routine colonoscopy scheduled for the end of January got bumped up to Jan. 18 to make sure the cancer hadn’t spread to her colon. Fortunately, that screening went without a hitch. Nine days later, she had a lumpectomy and was rewarded with good news on Feb. 1. The entire tumor was removed and the cancer hadn’t spread to her lymph nodes.
“Myra had great family support, but I wanted to make sure to explain all the risks involved with surgery. Everyone does better when they know what to expect,” says Jay Lenz, M.D., the surgeon who performed Myra’s colonoscopy and lumpectomy. “I also reassured her that this was treatable – and beatable.”
But that wasn’t the end of her journey. Between March and June 2016, Myra endured “dose-dense” chemotherapy – two doses of chemo on the same day every two weeks instead of single doses weekly. In the midst of all that, Myra was advised to undergo genetic testing to see if she was positive for the hereditary gene mutation, BRCA-1. More bad news. The results came back positive, somewhat of a surprise given that no one in Myra’s extended family had breast cancer.
It also meant more surgery. She had an ovary and her fallopian tubes removed during the summer (she had undergone a partial hysterectomy in 2005). A double mastectomy and reconstruction followed in the fall.
To top it off, Myra had to encourage her daughter Shelby to undergo genetic testing, which she did in Nov. 2016. She, too, found out she was BRCA-1 positive.
“My daughter is going to have to make some difficult decisions,” Myra explains through tears. “It’s changing the course of her life, but at least she has the information.”
Watching her mom endure so much has been a sobering and eye-opening experience for Shelby. “It really didn’t hit me until I came home from school on a break and she didn’t have any hair. I gave a lot of consideration to dropping out, but my mom wouldn’t hear if it,” she says. “She is my best friend… the one I go to with life’s problems, and now she needs me.”
The power of “we”
Myra’s recollections of the last 21 months frequently include the word “we” with continual references to her husband, Rodney, Shelby, many family and friends, and of course, the medical team at Lakewood Health System.
Rodney, a self-employed handyman, insisted on attending every appointment and every chemo treatment. All decisions were made as a family.
Then there were the myriad of Lakewood providers who were at Myra’s side every step of the way. She received all her care in Staples, except for the genetic testing and double mastectomy and reconstruction, which were completed in St. Cloud.
Myra chose to not go to another health system to receive a second opinion. What kept her at Lakewood?
“I knew everyone there cared about me. I wasn’t just a number; I was a human being. The relationships I have with all the providers and the nursing staff has been key,” Myra explains. “They could read how I was feeling, I never felt rushed, they answered all my questions.”
Those relationships mattered a lot to Shelby too, who had to monitor everything from a distance. “The consistency in the providers was so important. They created such a friendship with my mom. It was so reassuring to know they were there for her.”
“You have to have faith in your healthcare team,” Myra adds. “I trusted and believed that they were looking out for my best interests.”
“We really take a team approach at Lakewood. From the oncologists and nursing staff to the receptionist in my office, everyone is here to make the patient experience the best it can be,” Dr. Lenz notes. “Everyone truly loves their jobs. It’s rare to not see someone with a smile on their face.”
These days, Myra has returned to work as a child development home visitor for Pillager Family Center, and she’s resumed an old hobby, photography. She relishes the ordinary times she has with Rodney, Shelby, and her beloved dog, Harley.
She’s regaining strength and stamina each day. For the most part, her thoughts are positive and she looks forward to her future. With the triple negative diagnosis, hitting the three-year cancer-free mark will be huge and right now she’s checking in every six months.
“With Lakewood’s help, I know I did everything possible to beat this and I find comfort in that. I don’t wallow in it. I know that there are others who have it way worse than me.”
As for Shelby, she’s a newly minted sociology college graduate with a full-time job at the Southwest Center for Independent Living. She doesn’t regret her decision to undergo genetic testing. With full knowledge of her BRCA-1 status, Shelby is making different decisions about her own healthcare. She’s started exercising, is eating more vegetables and steering clear of fatty foods. At age 25, she’ll begin exploring options for her own future which could include some preventive surgeries.
Both women are emphatic about getting routine healthcare such as well-checks, mammograms and colonoscopies. “It’s so important to use the tools that are available to us to maintain our health,” emphasizes Myra. “I wasn’t always good about getting into the doctor, but now I urge everyone to get their screenings.”
Talk to your provider about individual risk factors, and when might be the best time for you to begin annual breast screenings. To schedule an appointment, call 218-894-1515.