WOLSEY — “It was April 10, in 2015,” said Kristi Neuharth. “I remember it was a Friday and I was at work when I got the call.”
Neuharth’s call was to receive the results of testing that had been completed at Sanford Hospital in Sioux Falls. The diagnosis was that she had breast cancer, it was Stage 3 and she would need to begin treatment immediately. “I must have shut down for a second,” she recalls now, “because my boss at M-O Federal Credit Union came into the conference room where I had taken the call, as she heard my voice change when I got the report. I don’t remember her coming in.
“It was like my life had come crashing down around me.”
April 10, 2015 was her low point, but just as it has taken hard work and perseverance to climb out of that hole, how she got there is just as much about persevering to find the truth. This is a story about believing in yourself, what your body is trying to tell you and the search for the correct answer.
It starts about two years earlier than her call.
It was then that she first felt a mass, a lump, on the lower portion of her right breast. Neuharth said that she had gotten regular mammograms as part of her employee insurance wellness exam and that she had done “frequent, but not what you would call regular” self-examinations. Finding the lump prompted a call to Huron Regional Medical Center for a mammogram. “I was so proud of myself,” she said. “I was being proactive and getting the test scheduled.”
“A few days later, my primary care person called and said that my mammogram needed to be checked into further,” Neuharth said. After discussing what to do next with her husband, Larry, she called back and asked to be referred to someone in Sioux Falls.
“I was told, ‘We refer you to a local prominent surgeon in Huron, or you are on your own.’” Neuharth said she wasn’t wild about the idea, as there was a prior family instance with the referred surgeon. “But I thought ‘OK, I’ll get it checked here. If it’s nothing, no problem. If they find something, I’ll head to Sioux Falls.” But, as it turns out there was a third scenario to the story.
“I went to see the surgeon, who said in their opinion it was nothing,” Neuharth said, “nothing but fibroid tissue.” But the surgeon decided to draw fluid from the lump for testing that day. Neuharth noted that the procedure was done by “feel, rather than with ultrasound.” Fluid was drawn and tested. “I was told it was nothing” she said. “I thought ‘Great! Nothing to worry about.’”
But there was a nagging thought in the back of her mind. “I knew it was something.”
A year later, it was time for another mammogram. The same surgeon looked at the mammogram and told Neuharth that nothing had changed.
“But I knew the lump was still there and was getting bigger all the time,” she said, “but, like most women, I believed what my doctor was telling me, without getting another opinion. Which, as it turns out, was a near fatal error.”
That was the third scenario. Being told there is nothing when, in fact, there was a pretty serious something taking place.
A year later, it is April of 2015 and Neuharth said she had constant pain radiating from the underside of her breast. “It was keeping me up at night with such excruciating pain,” she said, “so I just took it upon myself to call and make an appointment at Sanford in Sioux Falls, to come down to one of their satellite clinics on a weekend to get a basic mammogram.”
She said that the person scheduling the appointment asked some questions to get things set up, and after learning the amount of discomfort Neuharth was in, suggested that perhaps she would be better off seeing her primary doctor, as it sounded as if more than a regular mammogram may be needed.
“By this time I had started seeing Dr. (Erica) Gillette at the Huron Clinic,” Neuharth said. “My appointment with her was on April 2.” Neuharth said that Dr. Gillette took one look at her breast and said that she was likely a very sick woman, and immediately set her up for a 3-D mammogram and ultrasound at Sanford for the following week, on April 8.
“During the ultrasound,” Neuharth said, “the technicians took many biopsies. But I still believed it was nothing - I had been told for two years that was the case. There was some discharge from the breast, and I thought it was some sort of infection.”
Then came the call.
“I was numb,” Neuharth said, as her eyes pooled with emotion. “I was only 53 - actually not even 53 for a couple months yet. The youngest of our three children was graduating from technical school and I had two grandchildren who I wanted to see grow up. It knocked me for a loop.”
Neuharth learned that the lump in her right breast was ‘invasive ductal carcinoma,’ the most common form of breast cancer. Tumors form in the milk ducts of the breast, then spread into the surrounding tissue. In addition, the tests had found ‘invasive lobular carcinoma’ in her left breast. The ‘lobular’ descriptor describes a tumor that forms in the milk lobes of the breast.
“I felt the lump in my right breast, as the ducts are further removed from the center of the breast and are closer to the surface. I never did feel the lump in my left breast as the lobes are more in the middle of the breast, more internal, and feed into the nipple.”
The tumor in her right breast had grown to such a size that the course of treatment called for chemotherapy to attempt to shrink it before it was removed. She met with Dr. Michael Keppen, an oncologist at Sanford, the following Monday, as well as with Dr. Paula Denevan, who would perform Neuharth’s surgery. On April 15, five days after receiving the diagnosis, she was getting a PET scan and had a port installed to administer the chemotherapy. “On April 17, I had my first chemotherapy treatment.”
Over the next few weeks and months, Neuharth had a total of 16 chemotherapy treatments, followed by a complete double mastectomy, which was then followed by six weeks of radiation.
Today, Neuharth has no outward appearances of her battle. She has undergone reconstruction surgery and was forced to deal with some complications from that procedure. But there is no sign of the cancer metastasizing in any of her tests. So, she’s cured?
“No, not for 10 years do they consider me ‘cured,’” she said. “Here’s how they explained it to me.”
She holds her hand high above her head. “This was my level of illness when I started chemo. It dropped when I had the mastectomy,” she said with a corresponding drop of her hand, and then drops it still further for the radiation treatment.
“I take a chemo pill once a day now,” she said. “I’ll do that for 10 years. Then, I’ll be down here,” she said with a smile, dropping her hand below her waist. Through it all, she has enjoyed good health, other than the cancer. She continued to work at her job as a receptionist at M-O Federal Credit Union while receiving the chemotherapy.
With a great deal of free time during treatment and recovery however, Neuharth has been able to reflect on ‘what could have been.’
“Well, first of all, I could have died,” she said. “The chemo they did was called “The Red Devil” for a couple reasons. It’s supposed to be the most intensive chemotherapy, plus they said it would knock me on my ass!”
She said in the “what if” discussion, she wonders ‘what if’ the first time fluid was drawn from the tumor it had been done in conjunction with ultrasound, as the biopsies were. “I really think that when the fluid was drawn, by feel instead of ultrasound, that my tumor was missed. That is really the only answer I can come up with. The tumor was there, obviously, and it continued to grow.”
She said that she doesn’t wish to name the surgeon who she feels made mistakes that pushed her treatment two years down the road, causing many painful, sleepless nights and placing her life in jeopardy.
“This person knows what took place and that knowledge is something they have to live with,” she said. “I can’t fix that.”
She said that she has not spoken to the surgeon and has no plans to do so.
What she is thankful for is the family, friends and co-workers who rallied to support her through her ordeal.
“My husband made countless trips to Sioux Falls and back for appointments, and during chemo,” Neuharth said. “He never blinked an eye. And he has picked up the banner, telling everyone that if they love their wife they need to make sure she has her mammogram and keep pressing if the results are other than what she is feeling.”
Neuharth said a close circle of friends and family stepped in on the rare occasion that Larry was not able to make the trip and she is grateful to all of them.
“And my co-workers,” she said as the moisture gathering in her eyes threatens to spill. “They have been so wonderful.” Neuharth said that the entire M-O staff wore pink shirts that said “We’re Here for You” on the day before she would depart for another chemo treatment. “They put together baskets containing snacks, crossword books, gift cards to help pay for gas for the trips and many other items. They did something that was so supportive each week. I can’t thank them enough.”
While there isn’t really a set support group for survivors in the area, Neuharth said she leaned on others she knew had been through the struggle for advice during the process. “And I want anyone to know that they can contact me with any questions they may have. We’re in the book.”
As she continues on the road to recovery, the hills and curves have become flatter and straighter and the ride continues to become smoother. The youngest child will be married next spring and the grandchildren are growing in leaps and bounds.
And because she believed in what her body was telling her, Kristi Neuharth is here to see it all happen.
Breast Cancer Signs and Symptoms
From The American Cancer Society
Knowing how your breasts normally look and feel is an important part of breast health. Finding breast cancer as early as possible gives you a better chance of successful treatment. But knowing what to look for does not take the place of having regular mammograms and other screening tests. Screening tests can help find breast cancer in its early stages, before any symptoms appear.
The most common symptom of breast cancer is a new lump or mass. A painless, hard mass that has irregular edges is more likely to be cancer, but breast cancers can be tender, soft, or rounded. They can even be painful. For this reason, it is important to have any new breast mass, lump, or breast change checked by a health care professional experienced in diagnosing breast diseases.
Other possible symptoms of breast cancer include:
• Swelling of all or part of a breast (even if no distinct lump is felt)
• Skin irritation or dimpling (sometimes looking like an orange peel)
• Breast or nipple pain
• Nipple retraction (turning inward)
• Redness, scaliness, or thickening of the nipple or breast skin
• Nipple discharge (other than breast milk)
Sometimes a breast cancer can spread to lymph nodes under the arm or around the collar bone and cause a lump or swelling there, even before the original tumor in the breast is large enough to be felt. Swollen lymph nodes should also be checked by a health care provider.
Although any of these symptoms can be caused by things other than breast cancer, if you have them, they should be reported to a health care professional so that the cause can be found.