Posted 9/27/16 (Tue)
(Editor’s Note: In observance of Breast Cancer Prevention Month, St. Luke’s Medical Center asked three local cancer survivors to talk about their experiences as part of a month-long observance aimed at prevention of the disease.)
By Cecile Wehrman
The admonition to get regular mammograms to prevent breast cancer has been around so long it’s almost become easy to ignore.
But three Crosby residents say, if not for their vigilance, their own cancer survival stories could have turned out much differently.
Sandra Wolf, Debbie Axtman and Ken Krebsbach have all passed the five-year survival mark, and each of them credit a mammogram for ensuring cancer was detected early enough for a good outcome. But as each of them learned, despite good health and a lack of family cancer history, they were not immune.
“I was really good about having the annual mammogram every year for many, many years, always,” said Wolf, 63, who learned after a regular mammogram six years ago that she would need a mastectomy.
“It was a shock,” she said, that did not subside through the next nine months of surgery and breast reconstruction.
The diagnosis was much the same for Axtman, at age 59, five years ago.
“It took me totally off guard because you just think you’re immune. I was healthy, active and ate right,” she said.
Axtman spent much of the next year battling the disease -- with a unilateral mastectomy followed by six rounds of chemotherapy over four months, then 33 radiation treatments -- one a day.
“You don’t know how much you appreciate your husband until you go through something like that. He was my rock -- and my driver,” said Axtman, who did her treatments in Williston after surgery in Bismarck.
Seven years ago, when Krebsbach, 68, was diagnosed, the idea of breast cancer was as far removed a thought from him as winning a lottery.
“They say the odds are one in a thousand,” said Krebsbach, who reckons that’s about right. He personally knows of only one other male in Divide County who has dealt with breast cancer.
It wasn’t a diagnostic check that first alerted him to cancer. When his wife insisted he get a lump on his chest checked out immediately, he did so -- with a mammogram.
“I probably never would have seen my last four grandchildren,” said Krebsbach, if not for heeding his wife’s advice.
Like Axtman, he underwent a unilateral mastectomy, but has required no treatment since.
Not a death sentence
Each of these survivors approached the illness on their own terms and are living proof a cancer diagnosis is no death sentence.
Krebsbach admits he went through a short “poor me” period, but then he realized, “it could be worse.”
“I am very lucky. They found it and got rid of it,” said Krebsbach. “As far as having cancer, I probably had it as good as you could.”
For Wolf, the choice to keep fairly quiet about her diagnosis, at the time, had more to do with not trusting her own reactions if people expressed concern about her plight than a desire to hide her condition.
“I don’t mind that sharing, I just don’t want that kind of attention,” she said.
She did her doctoring at the Roger Maris Cancer Center in Fargo, since she could be near her sister, Kathy, and daughter, Erika.
“I said to myself, ‘This is not a death sentence,’” said Wolf.
As a teacher’s aide working with young children for more than 30 years, humor is a constant, and it remained so, even as she battled cancer.
“It’s not the end of your life. It doesn’t have to be,” she said.
Though Axtman’s case -- a 2.7 centimeter lump and Stage 3 diagnosis -- was serious, she never considered the possibility of not beating it.
“From the very beginning, I said, ‘They’re going to fix this,’” said Axtman. “I never let myself ever think this was going to do me in.”
Axtman lost her hair during treatment, but determined to continue working -- without a wig, resorting to caps and scarves instead. There was never a thought of trying to keep her condition quiet.
“In a small town, everyone knows what’s going on with you and you know people are concerned about you,” said Axtman.
She found the attention welcome and appreciated the support of people who brought meals or extended other thoughtful gestures.
Don’t put it off
Even though she was faithful about her mammograms, Axtman remembers times when she may have delayed her regular checkup -- something she now urges women to never, ever do.
“I can’t imagine if I would have put that off and said, ‘Oh, I don’t need to do that this year.’ I would have been in big trouble,” she said.
Axtman is mildly alarmed about guidelines from some experts who say women over age 54 can go two years without a mammogram.
“How are they going to pick and choose who it’s important for,” and who can wait? asks Axtman.
While his breast cancer experience may have been less invasive than a woman’s, Krebsbach nonetheless feels the loss of strength on his left side.
He doesn’t mind being identified as a breast cancer survivor and he doesn’t mind talking about it.
“I mean, half the town knew about it,” at the time, said Krebsbach, plus, hearing of his experience could help someone else.
If not for his wife’s concern, Krebsbach admits, “I probably would have shrugged it off.”
He urges men to give up the notion they are immune.
“It sounds kind of stupid but every once in a while check to make sure you don’t have any lumps,” said Krebsbach.
And if your wife insists you see a doctor, “Better do it!”