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Like Mother, Like Daughter

They sit side-by-side on the floral couch, hands folded in their laps. Occasionally one reaches over and squeezes the other’s arm or pats a knee. And when asked a question? One starts, the other finishes; both laugh at the same time. Meet 90-year-old Helen Nelson and her 67-year-old daughter Connie Schmidt.

Connie lives six miles out, but today she’s at Helen’s townhome in Bemidji, Minn. They tell the story of something they never expected to have in common…

Three times, nine years

“It was so long ago I hardly remember it,” says Helen. At age 81, she was diagnosed with early-stage breast cancer following a suspicious mammogram. Successful treatment included a lumpectomy and 30 radiation therapy treatments.

A year later, a different, more aggressive type of cancer emerged in her other breast. Treatment was again successful, but more extensive -- mastectomy, chemotherapy, radiation therapy and immune-therapy injections.

“I got tired from the chemotherapy, but not sick,” says Helen. “I never lost my hair either.”

In 2005, cancer struck again, this time in Connie. Her doctor noticed an abnormality during a breast exam, leading to tests and a diagnosis of early-stage breast cancer. Treatment included a lumpectomy and radiation therapy.

“I knew exactly what to expect,” says Connie. “I figured if Mom could get through it, so could I. It was pretty much a breeze.” Connie also cared for her very ill husband while going through treatment.

Top-notch care close to home

Connie and Helen wholeheartedly agree: Convenience counts in cancer care. From diagnosis to treatment to follow-up, they received everything needed in Bemidji.

Dr. John Bollinger, radiation oncologist at Sanford Clinic Bemidji,, notices the difference when radiation therapy is available locally. “Patients are more likely to complete their full course of radiation therapy,” he says. “That’s especially important because radiation following lumpectomy significantly reduces the chance of recurrence. Evidence shows it’s as effective as mastectomy in treating early-stage breast cancer.”

Up-to-date equipment contributes to good outcomes, too. Helen and Connie benefited from IMRT (Intensity Modulated Radiation Therapy) -- an advancement available at just a handful of cancer centers across the country a decade ago.

Bemidji’s latest upgrade introduces Image Guided Radiation Therapy. “IGRT is the next generation of equipment,” says Dr. Bollinger. “It allows daily tracking on a 3-D basis, resulting in a more effective dose with reduced side effects.”

Support and more

Dr. Bollinger stresses the crucial role of family and friends. “Patients do better when they have good support,” he says.

Helen and Connie were there for each other through every phase. Today they keep one another on track with follow-up care and mammograms. Both widowed, they also share fun times such as travel.

Each has discovered there’s life after cancer. A second-grade teacher for 30 years, Helen is still recognized by some of her students. “I like seeing how they turned out,” she says. She also enjoys playing the organ, sewing quilts for her great-great grandbabies and exercising twice a week at church.

After a long career in banking, Connie took up a new line of work: hospital admitting. She loves it, along with caring for her great grandchildren and playing golf.

Tips for surviving cancer

“Early detection is key -- get your mammograms,” says Connie. And if you’re currently getting cancer treatment? “Hang in there. Try not to let it get you down.”

Helen offers words of advice, too: “Until I was 81, I never had any medical problems. But if you get cancer, you can’t get over it by yourself. You need doctors and you need to keep praying. I thank God every night that I’m still around.”

Connie and Helen nod in unison, still together and still smiling.

Posted Date: March 2011