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Dee Powers and Tricia Demmin

From surviving to thriving

Tricia Powers Demmin often jokes with her siblings that she is "mom's favorite." Though favorite may be a bit of an exaggeration, Tricia and her mother, Dolores (Dee) Powers, share a lot in common.

They share a love of children. Dee was a kindergarten teacher for 38 years at West Side Elementary in Mauston, the same school Tricia began her teaching career. They share a wonderful sense of humor. And they share a diagnosis that left them both stunned—breast cancer.

In December 2011, at age 79, Dee was the first to receive the shocking news. "I have a history of non-cancerous breast lumps, so when I felt another lump in 2011, I wasn't worried at all. I was expecting my Gundersen surgeon to say 'no problems.' When I was told the lump was cancerous, I was dumbfounded. I just didn't know what to do," recalls Dee.

Just one week later, Tricia (44 years old at the time) received the same appalling diagnosis. "You never expect news like that. Up until this point, mom always had benign lumps. This was my first. I figured it couldn't be anything serious," Tricia says.

Given her family history, Tricia had always been faithful about doing monthly self-breast exams and scheduling yearly mammograms. She felt a lump (just four months following a normal mammogram), and was referred to Gundersen Health System's Norma J. Vinger Center for Breast Care, where both she and her mother received treatment.

Drawing strength from each other

Though Dee and Tricia would never wish this disease on anyone, they formed a strong bond because of it. "People have an idea about what breast cancer is and how it impacts your life. They are supportive and mean well, but sometimes only mom could understand how I was really feeling. She was my 'bosom buddy,'" says Tricia.

Dee required radiation therapy and finished treatment on March 17, 2012—the same day Tricia started chemotherapy. Together, they made it through good days, bad days and days they couldn't bear to hear another mention of their "new normal." But they are quick to count their blessings.
In addition to having each other, they say cancer brought out the best in others. Family, friends, colleagues and even strangers offered homemade meals, words of wisdom, cards and transportation to appointments. "They should call cancer the disease of gratitude because through it came so many wonderful connections," says Tricia.

"My students were huge to me throughout treatment," Tricia adds. "They would say things like, 'If you don't feel good, we'll take care of you.' Sometimes, I would ask, 'Do you want to see how bald I am today?' and I'd take off my wig. Their reply, 'Wow, you're really bald, Mrs. Demmin!' We could make light of the situation."

Another source of support came from Gundersen's Center for Breast Care team. "Everyone was so welcoming from the moment we walked in. They made it known that we were not alone and everything was going to be okay. We formed friendships, and still think of the staff today," says Dee.

Breast surgeon Jeffrey Landercasper, MD, left a lasting impression on Tricia. "He was the first face I saw after my mastectomy. I thought about how hard it must be to walk in his shoes. He had to tell me I had cancer in my lymph nodes. I thought, 'What keeps him going?' This has to be the hardest job in the world!"

Having experienced cancer, Tricia understands better now, "Dr. Landercasper is just so dedicated to figuring out how to make this disease go away. That's what motivates him."

Prevention saves lives

As proud breast cancer survivors and chairs of Steppin' Out in Pink in 2014, Dee and Tricia will do everything in their power to make the disease go away, too. For starters, they encourage prevention. Schedule a mammogram every year, and don't forget about monthly self-breast exams.

If you or a family member is diagnosed with cancer, Dee honestly says, "Accepting your 'new normal' is not easy. You have to resign yourself to the fact that this is how it is now. You have to tell yourself, 'This is how I am going to handle it.'"

"Today, we can say breast cancer has led us to a better place," Tricia says. "It has led us to a place where we find more joy in life…more joy in the simple things."

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