"You are given this life because you are strong enough to live it." Christopherson shares her store in this Breast Cancer Awareness special.
The past 17 months have been quite the experience for Kandy Christopherson of Devils Lake.
Initially she had an appointment around the first part of March 2018, at the Breast Center in Grand Forks for one of the new 3-D mammograms, but a winter storm caused that to be rescheduled for April.
Then the doctor called and had to reschedule that appointment to May 4. There was no school that day, so Kandy and her son, Jackson, took a road trip to Grand Forks to make a day of it together.
The scan was a “breeze” she said, taking about 15 minutes and she was told everything looked “all good” so mother and son enjoyed a day of shopping before heading back home to D.L.
The following week they called. Dr. Soma from the Breast Center wanted “another look.” In reviewing Kandy’s scans, she “saw something,” something that wasn’t there before. After answering a number of questions she told Kandy to bring someone along in case they decided to do a biopsy and scheduled her return visit for May 15.
Best friend, Cindy Halverson, went along, just in case, and after a repeat 3-D mammogram, they performed an ultra sound, going over and over the same area numerous times. Then the doctor came in and did the ultra sound herself, looking again and again at that same area.
She asked Kandy if she’d brought someone with her and Kandy told her that Cindy was outside in the waiting room. They brought her in and Kandy says it was a good thing they did because the only words Kandy heard were “invasive mammary carcinoma” the rest of the words were like Charley Brown’s teacher’s “wa wa wa wa wa . . .”
“I don’t remember hearing anything after those first three words, her lips were moving and Cindy was asking questions, but I really didn’t hear what they said,” Kandy recalled.
By this time Kandy was upset and alarmed.
A biopsy was performed and even while laying there with the pressure from the biopsy held together with steri strips, Kandy asked, “Are you sure you have the right person?”
They wrapped her up and sent her home to await the test results that would come in three to five days. Kandy had asked that whatever they did, “Please, do not call me on my birthday!” It would be May 18 and she would be 46 years old.
They called the day before her birthday, reaching her at work in the Ramsey County Auditor’s office. She took the call privately in the commission meeting chambers and got the news, it was invasive mammary carcinoma with a mixture of ductal and lobular and it was Stage 2. She was told there was no way self examination would have found it because it was like popcorn throughout her breast tissue.
She was to select a primary doctor here in Devils Lake at Altru, selecting Christy Syvertson and she was given the names of two or three general surgeons and oncologists to research. By Monday she was to give them her decision.
After doing some reading online and talking to a relative for advice Kandy selected Dr. Debeltz as surgeon and Dr. Dentchev as oncologist letting the Breast Center know right on time. They set up the appointments.
An MRI was set for May 23 and best friend, Cindy, went along again. That scan was quite uncomfortable, Kandy said, 45 minutes face down, all locked in and unable to move. The contents of the IV she was given made her sick to her stomach, that and some motion sickness from being inside that big machine on a movable “tray” left her gagging and apologizing for getting sick. That horrible taste in her mouth, she says she will remember forever.
Kandy and Cindy made the remainder of the day as fun as they could with shopping, lunch and the ride home - just to lighten things up a little. It had all been pretty intense so far.
May 29 was Kandy’s first day at the Altru Cancer Center and this time she brought her parents and her mate of over 20 years, Dennis Strong. They met Dr. Dentchev and talked with him. He had questions about family history.
They told him Kandy’s grandmother had been treated for ovarian cancer, but nobody else in the family had experienced breast cancer.
The family and Kandy had questions, too, for the doctor, then it was time to schedule the PET scan. Kandy asked if there was any chance they could do it that same day, since they were already in Grand Forks and she hadn’t eaten or drank anything for a couple of days.
After getting the pre-approval from her insurance and learning there had been a cancellation, they went ahead with that scan later that very day.
Kandy recalled that it was done in a room in the basement and it was cold. Some sort of injection was given to spread throughout her body to help with this scan, so they covered her with warm blankets and left her in a recliner alone. She relaxed and even napped for a while, they had to wake her for the 20-minute scan. Then they met with Dr. Debeltz where they discussed whether she should have a lumpectomy or a double mastectomy. He took his time with Kandy, explaining everything, answering all her questions but she says her decision had been made earlier on the ride from Devils Lake, she was not going to go through this again, “once is enough!”
So she opted for the double mastectomy. By June 14, it was time to choose a plastic surgeon, her choice was Mr. McMullin, who would do her reconstruction surgery.
“It was like going through the drive through at McDonalds,” Kandy said.
“You could chose what size you wanted, small medium or large and the consistency; soft, medium or firm.”
“I told them I just wanted to be “normal, average.” The plan included going from a double D to a full C cup in size.
The surgeons met to coordinate their schedules and together with Kandy came up with Monday, July 9 for surgery day.
Once again her support team came along; her parents, Dennis and her best friend from college were all there for her.
The surgeries took place concurrently, both the mastectomies and the reconstruction. The surgery took five hours, in all. During recovery, Kandy said she hated the way the pain medication made her feel.
“I couldn’t eat anything, my feet were on fire and my face was hot and beet red,” she recalled.
“I just wanted to be left alone,” she said.
“I was out of it. The nurses would come in and my attitude was ‘It’s you again?’ I couldn’t get comfortable.”
One traveling nurse she had who was from New York was simply amazing, Kandy said. She figured out a way to reposition her without causing too much discomfort to her patient by tying knots in the sheet beneath her and using those as handholds to reposition her during recovery.
Kandy had to be walking and drinking fluids before she could be discharged, leaving with five drain tubes in place, two on one side and three on the other.
Once at home, it was Dennis and Jackson who took care of her and friends set up a FaceBook page to coordinate meals for them for over two weeks. Then it came time to venture out of the house, Kandy was recovering and yes, getting a little stir crazy, she admits.
Jackson had to come along because she couldn’t reach across to put on her seatbelt, for example, but it “wiped her out,” too.
She hated the pain medication so much that she refused to take it after the first couple of pills, turning the remainder into the police department for destruction.
By July 19 she was ready to go back to work so they made a trip to Grand Forks to get the drains removed. Although she had been told by a former schoolmate from Cando, who had been through a similar ordeal that this would be quite painful, nothing could prepare her for it.
“I passed out on the fifth one,” Kandy said.
“No wonder they don’t put that in any of the brochures!”
When she came to, they kept her under observation for a while before letting her leave.
When she returned July 27 for a follow-up appointment she was told that the cancer was close, but not in her lymph nodes. She was to return in five weeks, after continuing to heal, to begin the next phase of her treatment.
Sept. 5 she met with Dr. Seeger, who was the radiation oncologist assigned as her patient care navigator. She was to receive radiation five days a week for five weeks.
Each session was 11 minutes long.
To accomplish this while working for Ramsey County, Kandy would take the last appointment of the day on Monday afternoon and the first appointment Tuesday morning, staying overnight in Grand Forks. She’d do the same for Wednesday and Thursday’s appointments and for Friday’s she had someone to help with driving so they would just drive there and back that same day.
The treatments made her nauseous, so she had to take meds for that, and half-way through her skin began to change color, rather like she had a severe sunburn. The final weeks’ treatments were intense, they gave a “boost” of radiation, causing an even more severe sunburn-like effect that she had special lotion to treat.
Oct. 26 was the last day of radiation. There would be no chemo needed.
With 2018 being an election year so the auditor’s office was very busy — that helped take her mind off what was happening. She goes back every three months for lab work. At some point another MRI may be done to check on everything internally, but for the most part, life has gone back to Kandy’s new normal. If all goes well in her subsequent check-ups, she’ll go to every six months, then every year, and so on.
“I have changed a lot through this experience. I react differently to everything. I don’t sweat the small stuff anymore and I have a totally different outlook on life,” Kandy says.
A quote that helped her through some tough times: “Remember today is a new day to be a little stronger than you were yesterday.”
A frosted giant donut from Devils Lake Donuts and her many friends and supporters celebrated the end of radiation treatments. She said she now takes one day at a time and deeply appreciates the friends she’s come to know who are in a similar battle, like Denice Gage.
“God put us together” Kandy says.
This experience put a whole new light on her years of volunteering with Relay For Life, she says.
She gladly shares advice with others facing a similar battle, “Don’t give up - it could be worse!”
“You are given this life because you are strong enough to live it,” is one of the sayings she quotes as she concludes her story.
It’s been 17 months, now, since her initial diagnosis and though it’s been quite the ordeal, and sometimes a wild ride, Kandy’s made it through and radiates an inner peace seldom seen today. She now knows how strong she is and faces the future with confidence and faith.