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Living a fuller life is one lesson learned by 2016 honorary chairwoman

Nikki Pfeifer

For all breast cancer victims, there is that moment when she hears the news: It's a feeling she never forgets. The life she knew before just ... disappears. And her life after diagnosis begins.

Nikki Pfeifer didn't take life too seriously, before Sept. 10, 2013. But a diagnosis of breast cancer can change a woman - especially a young woman. Nikki, 31, was only 29 when she was told her life would forever be different.

Nikki is the 2016 honorary chairwoman of Steppin' Out in Pink. Now in its 11th year, Steppin' Out in Pink, a program of Gundersen Medical Foundation, has raised more than $3.8 million to aid in the fight against breast cancer and to support victims and survivors. As important as the funds the annual walk generates is awareness of this killer disease. Some 6,500 people take part each year in the 4.5-mile walk. This year, it is Saturday, Sept. 10.

Nikki was in her early 20s when she found a small bump in her left armpit. At her next checkup she had it examined. Since she had no family history of breast cancer, because she was so young and because the bump hadn't really changed, there was no cause for alarm. This repeated for several years, until the bump suddenly turned into a largish lump. She waited a while even then for more diagnostic tests while she was between health insurance coverage.

"I was at work when I heard. I was shocked, I was shaking uncontrollably, sweating, and my heart was racing. I couldn't breathe right," she says. "After I calmed down, I finally called my mom and dad, then my husband, Matt. Then I got back to work."

That night at home, she acted normally in front of her now 5-year-old son, Rylen, and her stepson, Johnathan, now 11, as she waited for Matt to get home. "My husband just held me," Nikki says. "There is nothing you can say when you find out news like this. It is what it is - you have to move forward from there."

Nikki trusted in her Gundersen Health System experts. She opted for a double mastectomy, which gave her the greatest chance of getting rid of all the cancer and lowest chance of spreading or reoccurrence.

"I knew I was in good hands," Nikki said. "That didn't make me nervous at all. I just wanted this cancer out of me.

"There were days I didn't know if I could continue but I did it, knowing that I'm doing it for extremely good reasons - I wanted to be here, for my family, for as long as possible. That kind of made it an easy decision."

Another date she knows by heart is Feb. 27, 2014. That's the day she took her last chemotherapy session and started to get her life together again.

"As crappy as cancer is, a lot of good things came out of it for me and my family," says Nikki. "Life is really good now. It made my marriage stronger. I'm much more of a go-getter and more motivated - even if I'm not comfortable with something - if I know the outcome will be good for me and my family."

She's cancer-free today and still using precautionary medications and will be for several years. She takes good care of her emotional and physical self, and makes sure her family eats right and exercises.

"Cancer pushed me to do a lot of things I wouldn't have done, and going back to college is one of them," says Nikki, who plans to be a radiation therapist. "I never would have guessed I'd want to be in the science field. My diagnosis with cancer prompted me to be more interested in the field, even though I did not have to have radiation."

And she's active in several support groups, including Living in Pink. She also takes time to give back by volunteering, speaking and mentoring as much as she can. "We only have one shot at this life we are given, and it's up to us live it and to do as much good as we possibly can!" She encourages anyone going through what she's survived to seek out others who have been in the same place.

"It's an honor to represent our community as the Steppin' Out in Pink honorary chairwoman, and everyone who has breast cancer or has been affected by breast cancer—to be the voice for them all," says Nikki.


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