Battle weary, but stubborn and strong
MONTEVIDEO — If there is one thing Donata Baumgartner Ehlenz knows how to do, it’s to fight when life’s obstacles get in her way.
Right now, she’s in the fight for her life — for the second time in a span of 14 years.
The Worthington native, now living in Montevideo with her husband, Tim, is battling Stage 4 metastasized breast cancer that has spread to the bones in her pelvis, lumbar, mid-back and neck. The diagnosis comes just 14 years after her first bout with cancer.
Ehlenz was 28 years old and living in Windom in 2000 when she was diagnosed with Stage 2 breast cancer. The discovery of a tumor came after she returned home from work one day and was trying to sooth sore muscles in her shoulder.
“I discovered a lump in the front part of my shoulder,” Ehlenz recalled, adding that she went to the doctor the next morning.
An ultrasound biopsy proved the suspicions of cancer, and Ehlenz underwent a complete mastectomy, followed by radiation and chemotherapy treatments.
“By Feb. 17, 2001, I did my last radiation treatment and I was told I was good to go — I was in remission and could live a healthy life,” she said.
She’s had her mammogram each year since then. Each time, nothing showed up except for the occasional non-cancerous “caffeine cyst.”
Ehlenz had done just as the doctor ordered and moved on with her life. Things seemed to be going well until about three years ago, when she fell down the stairs leading to her basement. Ever since, she’s suffered bouts of back pain — always attributing it to her fall.
Then, late last year, the pain in her lower back began getting worse. After some doctoring and a couple of injections of lidocaine, a radio-frequency facet block and a spinal block, she was told she could remain pain-free for 219 days.
“It didn’t happen,” Ehlenz said. “It dulled the pain, (which) eventually came back and got worse.”
By early April, Ehlenz underwent a stand-up MRI and another CT scan, and that’s when doctors confirmed she had a tumor in her lumbar region. A full-body bone scan in Fergus Falls on April 24 revealed the cancer not only in her lumbar, but in her pelvis, mid-back and neck.
“The cancer cells laid dormant all these years and something woke it up,” said Ehlenz of what she was told by her doctor. “It could have been the fall down the basement steps, but we don’t know that for a fact.”
Ehlenz said during her first battle with cancer, she had the incentive that “we were going to beat this — this was nothing major.”
“As long as I did everything I was told, I would be fine,” she added.
This time around, her family and friends have offered encouragement when she’s felt like an emotional wreck.
“I’m scared,” she said with a catch in her voice. “My husband has told me I don’t have time to be scared. Family and friends keep telling me I’m a strong woman — I’m going to beat this again.”
Surgery is considered a last resort because the cancer is in the bones. Ehlenz has had 10 sessions of radiation in Willmar and is now taking a battery of pills, including one that attacks and kills the estrogen produced by her body.
“The cancer is surviving off my estrogen levels — that’s what’s feeding it,” she said. Killing off the estrogen helps Ehlenz fight the cancer.
Chemotherapy is anticipated to begin soon, as Ehlenz meets with her doctor on Tuesday to discuss the treatment. She will be able to take chemotherapy at the oncology unit in Montevideo.
Meanwhile, Ehlenz continues to be a full-time student, taking online courses in business management. She is slated to graduate in December with a two-year degree. She also works part-time at the Trailways Cafe in Montevideo.
A 1990 graduate of Worthington High School, Ehlenz is the daughter of Donald and Imelda Baumgartner, who still reside here. She lost her younger brother, Andy, to testicular cancer nearly 21 years ago, at age 25.
Ehlenz lived in the area up until two years ago, when she moved to Montevideo. She married Tim Ehlenz in December, and between the two they have a blended family of seven children. They will mark their seven-month anniversary on Wednesday — one day before she celebrates her 43rd birthday.
Ehlenz’s children include Brandon of Hartley, Iowa, Brittany of Lismore, and Andrea and Marrisa of Montevideo; while Tim’s children include Amanda of Montevideo, Andrea of Windom and Devin of Redwood Falls.
Some of Ehlenz’s children, along with her older brother, Don, are organizing a benefit in her honor from 4 to 8 p.m. Saturday at the Elks Lodge, 1105 Second Ave., Worthington. A meal will be served for a free-will donation, and a silent auction will be conducted.
Daily Globe Reporter Julie Buntjer may be reached at 376-7330.