Maybe it's the scenic beauty of the Wisconsin River valley. Maybe it's because you need only walk a handful of steps to run into someone you know. Or maybe it's because people truly care about their neighbors' health and well-being in this picturesque part of southwestern Wisconsin. Whatever the reason, there is something about Boscobel that brings out both vulnerability and strength in its residents and the community's care for its own in their time of need.
The four women you will meet here, these indomitable 'Sisters Through Survival,' share breast cancer stories with heartbreaking familiarity. But they are grounded in positivity and hope from the care of their providers, support of family and friends, and the backing of this amazing community. Each woman hopes others understand the importance of regular exams, know breast cancer care is available close to home, and experience the same level of love and support they received from their community and caregivers.
"Life during breast cancer is a roller coaster of emotions"
As a nurse, Theresa Braudt knows the importance of knowing her body. When she noticed dimpling on her skin during a self-breast examination in late October 2015, Theresa's gut told her something was wrong. Just a few days later, her gut reaction was confirmed: Stage I breast cancer.
"My first thoughts were 'What is this going to do to my family? What is this going to do to my employees?'" the Boscobel native and director of Nursing at Gundersen Boscobel Area Hospital and Clinics shares. "I knew I wanted to get this addressed right away, especially after my husband said 'I've searched my whole life to find my best friend. I'm not going to lose her." I told him 'I'm not going anywhere.'"
Within a month of her diagnosis, Theresa had a double mastectomy, followed by regular check-ups with providers at Gundersen Boscobel. "My appointments were coordinated to ensure I did not have to make multiple trips to La Crosse. The entire staff felt more like my family than healthcare professionals," Theresa says.
Life during breast cancer is a roller coaster of emotions," Theresa continues. "Sadness, fear, anger, guilt, determination, courage, strength are all emotions I felt, and, as a nurse, are all things my own patients experience during their own breast cancer diagnoses. I have learned to take better care of myself so that I am now able to take better care of others. I enjoy sharing my story with other women to ensure they understand the importance of regular screenings and provider visits."
"The diagnosis took my breath away."
Michelle Farrell went from the highest of highs to the lowest of lows within minutes in November 2015. The Boscobel area native and owner of Boscobel Pharmacy had just stepped from the stage after being inducted as the president of the Pharmacy Society of Wisconsin when her cell phone rang. Results from a mammogram around her 40th birthday showed she had Stage II breast cancer.
"I was at the top of my profession, the top of my life. The diagnosis took my breath away," Farrell remembers. After talking with her family, her regular provider, Michelle Peterson, APNP, Gundersen Boscobel, and with Gundersen Oncology specialists, Michelle decided on a double mastectomy less than a month after her diagnosis.
"I wanted to get on with my life," Michelle says. "The referral process to Gundersen specialists went so well. I saw an oncologist, surgeon and plastic surgeon on the same day to develop a plan, including post-surgery appointments in Boscobel. It's an hour and 15-minute drive to La Crosse from Boscobel. The value of seeing everyone in one stop is so important."
The support from her family and from Theresa Braudt (see her story above), who was diagnosed just two days before Michelle, raised Michelle up during her breast cancer battle. "Theresa and I immediately bonded and established a great foundation of support," Michelle says.
"I knew I could talk to her about anything," Theresa adds. "With Michelle, I knew it was ok to be vulnerable, but that it was also ok to not be that strong, professional woman. We put our heads and hearts together to get through our journey."
A naturally active person, Michelle is now running regularly, including completing her first half-marathon, and has a renewed focus on taking time for herself and her family, while maintaining regular medical check-ups and self-examinations.
"Cancer was a gift for me," Michelle says. "It forced me to take time and recognize what really matters personally and professionally. With the help of family, friends and providers, you can get back to life after a breast cancer diagnosis."
"How can this happen twice?"
As a respiratory therapist at Gundersen Boscobel for 45 years and a Boscobel native, Deb Welsh has seen it all. And as a two-time breast cancer survivor, Deb has a unique perspective for those just receiving this life-changing diagnosis.
"When I was first diagnosed in 1993, I was 39, I had two small children, and my husband and I had just built a new home," Deb shares. "My first thought was 'who will take care of my family?' I was devastated."
Deb's cancer was caught early, and after chemo and radiation, she spent the next 20 years cancer-free. That changed in 2013 when a regular mammogram detected cancer's return.
"I couldn't help but ask 'how can this happen twice,' but I was so thankful it was found early again," Deb remembers.
Since her cancer was in the same breast as her previous diagnosis, chemotherapy and radiation were not options. Less than a week after her second diagnosis, Deb had a mastectomy and breast reconstruction. "I had wonderful support from the providers at Gundersen Boscobel and Gundersen in La Crosse," Deb says. "They explained everything to me and to my family so they could understand what I was going through and what to expect. That meant a great deal to me."
Deb also had the support of her niece from a previous marriage: Theresa Braudt, who is also Deb's coworker at Gundersen Boscobel. "She came to me after my second diagnosis, and we just cried together. You get your strength from each other," Deb shares.
"I remember Deb saying to me 'Theresa, it's back.' And I remember telling her 'We will get through this together,'" Theresa recalls.
With Theresa's support and the love of her family and friends, Deb recently reached the five-year, post-cancer mark following her second battle. Her message remains the same as her first experience.
"You feel like you're alone when you find out you have breast cancer. All you want to do is have it taken care of. You think 'the sooner the better' to start healing again, in body and in spirit. Those you love help you get through it."
"I live each day at a time."
Sue Updike had a 50th birthday present to herself picked out: her first mammogram. What this gift gave back left her shocked.
"April 28, 2009, I heard the most horrible words ever: CANCER," Sue remembers. "I can remember the doctor talking, but all I was hearing was mumbling because my brain was screaming 'I have CANCER.' I was devastated."
Sue has a mastectomy and reconstruction in June 2009. While Sue was recovering from surgery, she became a grandma for the first time. Shortly after, Sue also learned she would not need chemotherapy, but instead a regimen of the anti-cancer drug Tamoxifen. "Over several months, my body healed, and everything went back to normal or as much as normal can be knowing you have cancer."
Normal lasted until June 25, 2012, when Sue received a second diagnosis: Stage 4 breast cancer. She was told she had a few months or maybe a year to live. "I thought 'I am going to die,'" Sue recalls. "I wouldn't grow old with the love of my life. I wouldn't see my children grow older. I wouldn't see my grandbabies grow up. My life was ending."
After consultations with her oncologist at the time didn't yield positive results, Sue transferred her care to the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., where she would receive chemotherapy treatments. Sue and her family would make the six-hour roundtrip from Boscobel to Rochester every three weeks for most of the next four years.
Early in 2016, Sue was given an opportunity she couldn't pass up: she could receive her chemotherapy treatments at Gundersen Boscobel Area Hospital and Clinics, in a community she has called home since junior high school.
"Being able to do my treatments at Gunderson Boscobel has taken so much stress out of my life," Sue shares. "This has also taken stress from my husband, who has been driving me to Rochester multiple times every year."
The last decade has brought unimaginable challenges for Sue and her family. Yet, she continues to lean on her family, faith, providers at Gundersen Boscobel and coworkers at Community First Bank in Boscobel for support. She also maintains a supremely positive outlook.
"I live each day at a time, and I expect to continue treatments the rest of my life, but I also expect to live into my 90's," Sue says with a chuckle. "Cancer chose me. I didn't choose cancer. It was a blessing. Cancer has enriched my life. It has led me in a whole different direction. It's shown me the importance of knowing my options. It's shown me it is everyone's job to protect ourselves and our job to get the best options. To anyone who is struggling with a cancer diagnosis, they need to know there is hope along the journey."