The Courage to Heal



Jean Borneman grabs a tissue from her handbag. She knows that talking about her personal battle with breast cancer can bring back a flood of emotions.

“The moment you find out you have cancer, your world stops,” she says, chopping the air with her slender hand. “You have all the daily stuff going on around you -- your work, your this, your that -- but when you hear that word, the most important thing becomes living -- just living.”

Invasive cancer, aggressive treatment

Jean’s diagnosis came when she was 52. For years she’d been faithful with yearly mammograms and breast self-exams. A suspicious cyst in 2008 led to a needle biopsy and several more tests.

“That’s a scary time,” she says. “My surgeon at Sanford was very thorough before giving the diagnosis and we really appreciated that.” Dr. James Wagner explained her particular type of cancer and treatment options. He also took the time to answer every question asked by Jean and her husband, Mitch.

“The choice was entirely mine,” she says. “Based on my family history and the invasive nature of my cancer, I knew the more aggressive treatment would be best for me. I also knew that if didn’t have a double mastectomy, I’d continually think about when I’d get cancer in the other breast. I didn’t want to live like that.”

But losing both breasts? “It wasn’t an important issue for me or my husband,” she says. “Our focus was on getting through treatment and getting past cancer. Like Mitch said, ‘The most important thing is you’re here.’”

One step at a time

Cancer surgery took place at Sanford Medical Center in Fargo in June 2008. Next came months of outpatient chemotherapy at Sanford Roger Maris Cancer Center. Every two weeks Jean and Mitch traveled two hours to Fargo from their northern Minnesota home.

“My husband was at my side every time,” says Jean. “We worked on staying positive. He had a saying: ‘One step in front of the other, rock and roll, here we go.’”

She braved one challenge after the next: first the disfiguring surgery, then chemotherapy-related hair loss, nausea and fatigue. She put every ounce of energy into healing and returning to normalcy. She wore bandanas to cover her bald head, grew accustomed to her prostheses and continued working as a dental receptionist. Support came from all corners -- family, friends, coworkers and more.

A strong faith anchored her, too. “At the start of this journey, we put my life in God’s hands,” says Jean, dabbing her eyes. “It gave us peace to know everything would work out, no matter what happened.”

A new view

Endless beaches, tropical breezes, lush landscapes… More than two years after her daunting but successful cancer treatment, Jean and Mitch took a trip to Hawaii to celebrate their 35th wedding anniversary.

That’s where Jean had a surprising realization born of practicality. She bought a sundress, but never wore it because it didn’t look right. She saw swimsuits she wanted to wear, but couldn’t. She saw cute tops, but not for her.

“With prostheses, you have clothing restrictions -- there are certain styles you just can’t wear. That’s what got me thinking about breast reconstruction,” she says. “It was something I wanted to do just for me. I was ready.”

At a checkup with Dr. Shelby Terstriep, her oncologist at Sanford Roger Maris Cancer Center, Jean asked about the possibility. Dr. Terstriep connected her with Dr. Diane Schmidt-Krings, plastic and reconstructive surgeon at Sanford.

Worth it!

Jean met with Dr. Schmidt-Krings and immediately liked her approach. “Very patient- focused. It was clear she really felt good about what she could do for me,” says Jean. “After weighing all the benefits and risks, I decided to move forward.”

Surgery to begin the lengthy process took place in March 2011. For the next several months Jean returned to Fargo every couple weeks so saline solution could be added to the temporary expanders, stretching the skin in preparation for the permanent implants. In September she underwent the final surgery.

“It was all such a positive experience -- no infections, no complications and a natural-looking result I’m very pleased with,” she says. “Now that I’ve had breast reconstruction, I can honestly say it makes a difference in feeling normal. Even though I was secure with my body before, now I feel complete again.”

Pretty in pink

Jean was never much for pink, but in the past three years it’s become a favorite. Today she wears a necklace with a pink stone. Her beaded bracelet -- a gift from her grown daughter -- has an imprinted pink ribbon of hope.

“I wear pink proudly,” she says. “I’m a cancer survivor and I’ve been given a second chance at life!”

Posted Date: November 2011

The Courage to Heal

Jean Borneman felt lucky to be alive after her battle with invasive breast cancer. But what would it take to feel normal again? Breast reconstruction three years later made a surprising difference.