Sisters diagnosed with breast cancer at the same ageSisters Donna Wolf and Deb Peterson of Devils Lake enjoy doing things together — spending time at the lake, hosting family get-togethers, sharing a good laugh.
By: Pamela Knudson, Grand Forks Herald
Sisters Donna Wolf and Deb Peterson of Devils Lake enjoy doing things together — spending time at the lake, hosting family get-togethers, sharing a good laugh.
“We do pretty much everything together,” Wolf said.
They have more in common than they may have wanted or expected. Each was diagnosed with breast cancer at age 47.
“It’s kind of odd,” said Wolf who was diagnosed five years ago.
At Altru Cancer Center in Grand Forks, she’s participating in a study to test an experimental drug that she receives by injection once every 28 days.
She also takes a medication, Exemestane, in a daily pill to fight the disease.
She’s set to complete her treatments in December.
“I have two months left,” she said. “Then, we’ll celebrate, absolutely. I’m looking forward to that.”
It was pain that alerted Wolf to the presence of cancer in 2007.
“I had a lot of pain,” she said, in her arm and armpit.
It was summer, and she’d been playing hard at the family’s lake place. She chalked up the pain to overexertion.
“It lasted a few weeks,” she said.
She went in for a mammogram, which led to lumpectomy surgery at Piper Breast Center in Minneapolis. She went through another surgery.
Now, coming to the end of her treatment, she’s considering reconstructive surgery.
Peterson’s experience was much different. She had no pain, but found a lump in her breast around Thanksgiving 2001.
“I didn’t go in (to the doctor) until January,” she said. “It was my New Year’s resolution. It took two months to get the nerve up. Thank God, I did.
“You go through denial. The denial thing is huge,” she said. “I thought it was an infection… I was coming up with any ideas other than breast cancer.”
‘I felt so alone’
When she received the breast cancer diagnosis in early 2002, “I was sitting by myself in the doctor’s office. I felt so alone. It was horrible.
“The doctor said, ‘You need to contact your surgeon,’” she recalled. “I didn’t have a surgeon. It was awful.”
She was told she’d have to wait a month for a mammogram. She knew the toll in anxiety that a month would take on her peace of mind.
She turned to Towner County Medical Center in Cando, N.D., where a physician assistant, Vicky Buskirk, “was right on top of it,” Peterson said. “She took care of me.”
Armed with a physician referral, the PA got Peterson in “much sooner” for a mammogram in Devils Lake.
“The lady who did the mammogram knew right away that I was in trouble,” she said.
Peterson had a biopsy followed two weeks later by a lumpectomy. In that surgery, her lymph nodes were also removed.
“To this day, I’m still numb. I don’t have much feeling in my armpit” where nodes were removed, she said. “But it’s something you can live with.”
Peterson took six rounds of chemotherapy, once every three weeks, and 33 radiation treatments at Altru Health System in Grand Forks. She also was prescribed tamoxifen in a pill she took daily for five years.
She remembers how the radiation treatment left blisters on her skin.
“Your skin is so sore,” she said. “It hurts, stings, burns, cracks.”
Treatment ended in 2007, the same year her sister was diagnosed.
Her sister’s diagnosis “was a shock,” Peterson said. “It’s still a shock.”
On a recent trip to Fargo, she and Wolf ventured into a tattoo parlor to get matching ink to commemorate their journey as breast cancer survivors.
A heart with the pink ribbon, signifying breast cancer awareness, and the word “Sisters” permanently decorate their feet.
“We’re ‘beachy’ people, lake people,” Wolf said. “We’ll be able to show them off in our flip-flops next summer.”
Through it all, the sisters say they’ve made the best of it.
When Wolf goes to Grand Forks for treatments, the sisters often travel together, sometimes taking their mother Joyce Mikkelsen of Devils Lake along with them.
“We’d get something good to eat or go shopping, have our nails done or get a pedicure,” Wolf said. “Sometimes, we’d spend the night and have a good time.”
The ability to laugh at the illness is essential to coping with it, they agreed.
“Humor is huge,” said Wolf. “Humor and attitude are important.”
“You have to have humor to get through it every day,” Peterson said.
Yet, fearing the chances breast cancer could strike her daughters, ages 28 and 36 — “is always in the back of your mind.”
‘Lots of angels’
Peterson is grateful to people who made the experience easier.
“There are lots of angels out there,” Peterson said, such as Dahlen Green of Devils Lake with whom she drove to Grand Forks for chemo treatments. He too was battling cancer at the time.
“He’s so kind and giving and thoughtful,” she said.
She praises “all the nurses at the chemo center” at Altru, she said. “There’s something unique about them.”
On the last day of her chemotherapy, she recalls, “I got up off the chemo table, went around the corner, and there were the nurses blowing bubbles. They were celebrating too.
“Those girls at the cancer center, they rock. They’re so compassionate.”
The sisters are staunch advocates for Relay for Life events which promote breast cancer awareness and raise funds for research.
“We are huge in Relay for Life. We look forward to it every year,” Peterson said. “We go way out. When the salons offer it, we put pink in our hair.”
Wolf even has a “Relay for Life bedroom” in her home, replete with breast cancer memorabilia, she said. “It’s full of things people have given me.”
She and Peterson freely discuss their experiences with breast cancer, reflecting what they see as a positive trend toward openness by cancer patients.
“It the past, so many people wouldn’t go public with it. They wouldn’t share, like in a support group,” Wolf said.
“We didn’t try to hide it. It was hard, but it was reality.”
Call Knudson at (701) 780-1107; (800) 477-6572, ext. 1107; or send e-mail to email@example.com.