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The Road to Normal

A crisp, winter day in the Minnesota north woods. Susan Berg stood in the kitchen of her cozy log home, phone in hand. Her nurse practitioner had just called with the biopsy report.

"I froze," recalls the youthful 68-year-old. "Finding out you have breast cancer is a very sobering moment. You think it's never going to happen to you."

Her husband stood next to her, waiting to hear the results.

"I turned to him and we hugged," says Susan. "Butch is the kind of guy who doesn't show much emotion, but that day he had tears. His first words were 'Oh no,' then he said, 'We're going to get through this.' I'll never forget that."

From shock to action

A retired nurse whose career included breast cancer surgical patients, Susan never expected to be the one who needed care. "I was the one who was supposed to care for people," she says. "I was shocked and felt vulnerable."

There were other emotions, too, including gratefulness for the routine mammogram that showed the abnormality, leading to an earlier diagnosis.

It wasn't long before determination and courage entered the picture. The same day in February 2011 that Susan learned she had cancer, she was on the phone and on the internet getting information. She wanted to know all her options.

"I wanted that cancer out of me and I wanted it done soon," says Susan. Diagnosed with an invasive type of breast cancer, she wanted a mastectomy -- and hoped breast reconstruction would be possible.

The choice to replace

For Susan, the decision to have breast reconstruction was easy.

"I’m active and outdoorsy -- fishing, hunting, horseback riding. I couldn’t imagine wearing a hot, uncomfortable prosthesis,” she says. “I viewed breast reconstruction as a natural part of getting back to normal. Why wouldn’t you replace a missing part?”

She didn't have to look far to find another example. Years ago Butch lost an eye because of a chisel mishap.

"Butch wasn't going to go around with a patch over his eye for the rest of his life. He got a prosthesis -- a glass eye -- and it looks natural," says Susan. "You do what's needed to get back to normal. For me that meant breast reconstruction."

But who would she trust?

A team of experts

Decades of nursing taught Susan important lessons about judging and choosing a medical team. Even if it meant driving many miles, she wanted a surgeon who specialized in breast cancer. Her research led her to Dr. Michael Bouton at Sanford in Fargo -- 120 miles from home.

She was relieved to learn Dr. Bouton worked closely with a highly trained, experienced team of Sanford plastic and reconstructive surgeons including Dr. Diane Schmidt-Krings.

“Everything just fell into place,” says Susan. “I felt so fortunate to have found a team that really does work together, keeping each other informed and putting the patient at the center. Her team also included Dr. Shelby Terstriep, Sanford oncologist.

Susan’s surgery took place March 21, setting the stage for a breast reconstruction process that took several months. “But it was well worth it,” says Susan. “A mastectomy is disfiguring, but a mastectomy with breast reconstruction? I’m happy with that.”

Support for the journey

Susan decided to be open about her breast cancer. In turn she received fabulous support from her husband, her two grown sons and their families, and many others.

She smiles when she describes her 16-year-old granddaughter’s thoughtfulness: “On Facebook she posted a picture of the two of us together with the words, ‘Cancer won’t kill you.’"

She felt embraced by her medical team, too. “We had hugs, laughs and lots of good moments,” she says. “Their warmth and caring turned a potentially negative experience into a positive one.”

Highway to health and happiness

A sunny September day. Sassy and fit, Susan jumps in her red ’95 Firebird, ready to head home after an appointment in Fargo.

"I feel so good about the future," she says. "My cancer was a bump in the road. With faith, support, family and love I made it through."

Today Susan is cancer free, with just a couple steps remaining in the breast reconstruction process.

"Still a little tender, but I feel great," she says. "There's nothing holding me back!"

Posted Date: October 2011