Debbie Holmstrom says she wasn’t surprised when she was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2016. The rural Gackle resident had been diagnosed with colon cancer and kidney cancer in 2005.
“I had surgeries to correct those,” she said. “I did not need any chemo or anything, they were both stage 1. And then in 2016, I was diagnosed with breast cancer.”
Holmstrom had a lump on her right breast and had been having ultrasounds and 3D mammograms at Jamestown Regional Medical Center every six months for two years. But at a certain point, she believed the lump was growing.
“That final one (mammogram in September 2016), Dr. (Madhusudhan) Reddy noticed on one of the slices that there was something alarming,” she said.
She was diagnosed on Oct. 4, 2016, with stage 3 invasive lobular breast cancer.
“It’s scary,” she said, of hearing the news. “... being my third time of having cancer, I wasn’t shocked because I was quite sure that the lump was cancer only because of my previous history … but it’s still very scary and I had no idea what to expect. None whatsoever.”
Holmstrom was referred to an oncologist at Essentia Health in Fargo. Because the lump was so large, a lumpectomy was not an option. She would have to decide whether to remove only the right breast or both of them.
“Even though it was only found in the right breast, I decided to take the left also because my surgeon told me … it was possible for it to go to the other breast also, this type of cancer,” she said.
“It really wasn’t a hard choice for me,” Holmstrom added. “... The first thing I thought of is, ‘I want that cancer out of me, I don’t want it in my body anymore.’ So whatever it took to get rid of it, I was ready to do it.”
The treatment plan was chemo, then surgery followed by chemo again and radiation, she said. Ultimately, she did not need the second series of chemo.
“Chemo scared me. That scared me the most,” Holmstrom said.
In November 2016, she began chemo for eight weeks.
“So every two weeks I would travel to Fargo for … about three hours of this chemo infusion,’ Holmstrom said. “Then you’d have like a week to recover, then the next one.”
It wasn’t easy, she said.
“They call it the red devil and believe me it is the devil,” she said. “It took everything out of me, absolutely everything. To be perfectly blunt, I felt like I wanted to die. It was very, very hard. Very hard.”
Holmstrom is quick to add that every woman is different when it comes to treatment.
When her thick hair that always drew compliments started falling out, she asked her husband, Dale, if he would shave her head and he said yes.
“.. we sat down in the bathroom and I watched in the mirror as he shaved it bald. That was pretty healing for me and I think it was healing for him too,” Holmstrom said. “... Because my husband did it and it was something that we did together through the cancer. Even though he cared for me - I wanted him to still love me if I was bald and I could tell that he did after he was done shaving my head.”
At Thanksgiving, her sons-in-law and grandsons showed their support by shaving their heads too, she said.
Following chemo, she had a double mastectomy on Jan. 5, 2017, in Fargo. After recovering from surgery, including a later infection, she began the first of 28 radiation treatments.
“Radiation is every day of the week so you get five treatments and then you get the weekend off and then you start on Monday again, and that was traveling from Jamestown to Fargo every day for those 28 treatments,” Holmstrom said.
She said JRMC Cancer Center is “amazing” and would like to see radiation treatment available in Jamestown, noting it takes only 15 minutes to get the treatment.
“It does get expensive and hard on the person that’s driving you,” Holmstrom said.
Katie Ryan-Anderson, marketing manager at JRMC, said JRMC Cancer Center has saved more than 500,000 miles of travel for people since opening two years ago. In any given month, it has provided more than 200 infusions and serves 34 communities along with Jamestown.
“We’d love to say we could offer radiation for our cancer patients as we know the service requires frequent trips and many miles,” she said. “Those miles matter when you are sick. One of the biggest challenges is specialized staffing. Already, the country doesn’t have enough radiation oncologists to meet the demand. So, if and when we ever have the opportunity to hire someone like that, we’d love to move forward with radiation for our patients.”
Essentia Health gave Holmstrom a certificate when she completed treatment but did not have a bell-ringing ceremony at that time. So Holmstrom’s friends at JRMC arranged for her family to be in the cafeteria one day and surprised her with her own little ceremony that included ringing a bell.
Holmstrom was working at the front desk in admissions for JRMC at the time of her diagnosis and had worked for JRMC for 16 years in several departments before she retired in 2017.
Today, she says she’s “doing great.”
“It feeds off of estrogen, this type of cancer, so I am now taking estrogen blockers once a day,” she said.
Holmstrom said people all have a different cancer journey and all handle it differently.
“I’ve learned that you can get through anything if you really want to,” she said. “It’s very difficult but I’ve learned my faith has brought me through so much and I don’t know what I’d do without that, without my faith. And my family and my friends, they have been right there beside me through the whole thing. And my work family at JRMC was phenomenal. Absolutely phenomenal.”
She thinks of other people who are diagnosed with cancer as well.
“People are there to help you but they can’t tell you what to do, they can’t tell you how to feel,” Holmstrom said. “You just have to learn all that by yourself, that’s all there is to it. And it’s a rough road, it’s a very rough road for anybody that has cancer, any type of cancer it’s a rough road, but you can get through it. You really can.”