In October 2006, Wendy Erlandson’s life took an unexpected turn when she received a breast cancer diagnosis even though she only had a single aunt in her family previously diagnosed.
“I truly believe that it is not genetic,” Erlandson said. “My good friend Julie had found a lump and was going through all the medical treatment when I realized that I had not been good at keeping up with my self-exams, so I did one and I found a lump. I kept checking and checking but a few weeks later I decided that it wasn’t going anywhere so I knew it was time to seek medical advice.”
Erlandson followed through with the regular course of treatment for diagnostic purposes, mammogram and biopsy, and it was then confirmed that she indeed had a low stage breast cancer, which she says she was fortunate to have caught early. She credits Julie for the early detection. Erlandson had a lumpectomy to remove the medullary carcinoma, which is a brain tissue that forms in the breast. She underwent chemotherapy locally and travelled to Fargo every day for six weeks for radiation therapy, as the cancer center was not available at that time.
“Honestly, because I’m a strong woman of faith, I thought there is never a clear cut path to life and when you get a diagnosis like that you say, ‘OK, let’s just go to work and take care of this,’” Erlandson shared of her initial reaction to her diagnosis. “People always ask if I ever thought, ‘Why me?’ but no, I never did. It was, ‘OK it’s me now, I have to deal with this.’”
The hardest part of dealing with breast cancer and treatment, were external to the disease itself, though certainly impacted by it.
“I had just started being the administrator (at New Dimensions) and I just wanted to show up and say that I can still do this. That was the hardest thing,” Erlandson recalled. “ The scare that you put your family through is also hard. I still had a kid at home and it was hard to put him through that. You don’t like to worry your kids.”
A unique aspect of Erlandson’s story is that she walked the path alongside her mother, who was diagnosed with lung cancer within days of her own diagnosis.
“It was special in a weird sort of way. We had to lean on each other in a very fatigued, sick way,” Erlandson said, stating that they relied a lot on family and friends during their individual courses of treatment, which they were fortunate enough to endure together whenever possible.
Erlandson (and her mother) has been cancer-free, though the fear of recurrence was a common thought in the years following her remission.
“For the first five years you (worry about recurrence). You go in for that mammogram and breast exam and you think, ‘Oh, they found something, here we go again and it could be worse this time.’” Erlandson had a few scares, but every concern was addressed and resulted in noncancerous results.
“What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. It boosts your faith even more. You know that God is in control of this and your faith gets stronger,” Erlandson reflected on the positive takeaways from her experience with breast cancer. “The blessings and support of other people are really incredible, in the way they love on you.”
The best advice Erlandson has encompasses not only breast cancer, but any scary diagnosis. “You really have to advocate for yourself and have someone as a support person. When you’re under stress your mind gets discombobulated and you only hear half of what’s said. Make sure that you have the right information and don’t think you’re going to have every effect, side effect and long-term effect of the treatment,” she stated, adding that the information highway is extremely accessible today, but that it is not always correct and it is much to easy to worry yourself sick over misinformation or information that is not pertinent to their individual circumstances.
One in 8 women and 1 in 883 men will develop breast cancer over the course of their lifetime. Breast cancer is the second leading cause of cancer-related deaths in American women, following lung cancer. It is also the leading type of cancer diagnosed in women following skin cancers. The best prevention is early detection.
“Do your breast exams,” Erlandson stressed.
For more information on self-exams and to get questions and concerns addressed, make an appointment with a health care provider or visit a reputable website, such as www.breastcancer.org.