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Local woman fights cancer one laugh at a time

justine wettschreck/Daily Globe Pat Swenson of Chandler has been living with her mother in Wirock as she battles cancer. Shown here are daughter Bobbi Jo McGowan, left, Swenson and mother Dora Biegler.

WIROCK -- Pat Swenson has cancer, but is more eager to discuss the handsome helicopter pilot who flew her to a Sioux Falls, S.D. hospital than to talk about the details of her disease.

After all, she's always wanted to ride in a helicopter, and having a cute pilot was just icing on the cake, as far as she's concerned.

"Hey, I got my ride and the pilot was good-looking," she laughed. "What's not to like about that?"

Pat was diagnosed with cancer in early November and knows her treatments of radiation and chemotherapy can only slow down the growth of the bad cells in her bones, lungs and liver.

"There's no cure," she stated simply, sitting at the kitchen table in her mother's house in Wirock.

Pat and her husband Bob live on an acreage in Chandler, but because Pat needed some extra care when she got out of the hospital, she moved in with her mother, Dora Biegler, whose house was already equipped with handicapped equipment. Pat's daughter Bobbi Jo McGowan, who lives in Edgerton, spends the majority of her time in the little white house in Wirock with her mother and grandmother.

Bob, who drives truck for Prins Grain, comes as often as he can, but needs to keep things going "back on the reservation," Pat stated. And money needs to keep coming in, because there are medical bills to pay.

Until she got sick, Pat handled all the catering and backroom parties at Brian's Supper Club in Fulda. Brian VanderBeek and his parents Terry and Jim are all "sweethearts," she said, who let her know constantly how much they miss her at the restaurant.

"Everybody can be replaced, but it is nice to know you are missed," Pat said. "A lot of this is a blur. All of the sudden, kabang, it just hits you basically out of the blue. One week you're working and the next, you're in the hospital."

The cancer diagnosis came Nov. 8, but Pat said she knew something was wrong. It started with melanoma on her stomach.

"She didn't tell anybody because she wanted to go to my son's football game," McGowan explained, giving her mother a stern look.

The day after the game, Pat visited the doctor and was told she could have a perforated bowel.

"That's how she ended up in the helicopter," McGowan said.

"It was a beautiful day with no wind," Pat laughed. "They let me sit up and watch out the window, which was great, and I had the best looking pilot."

Surgery was done the following day to remove the tumor, and Pat was sent home that night.

She was told to come back in late November to have her stitches removed.

"I dropped her and dad off at the front door and went to park the car. When I came in the front, I could hear Dad screaming and Mom was screaming," McGowan said. "She was lying on the floor with a broken femur."

"I slipped and fell," Pat explained. "That's pretty much how they found out about the bone cancer."

From what she has learned, the melanoma on her stomach led to bone and lung cancer, along with a spot on her liver and her lymph nodes.

Then doctors preparing for treatment put in a port, and a lung was nicked.

"I was in ICU for a few days," Pat chuckled. "Other than all of that, I'm fine."

At first, McGowan stayed at the house in Wirock "pretty much 24/7," Pat said.

Spending so much time with her 67-year-old mother and 94-year-old grandmother has been interesting, McGowan laughed.

"I wouldn't have it any other way, but some days...," she stated, rolling her eyes and mumbling about sharp objects.

Keeping Pat away from sharp objects is a running joke in the house, because after breaking her leg, Pat was put on blood thinners for a time.

"Her blood clotted nine times slower than what is normal," McGowan said. "We basically wanted to wrap her in bubble wrap and leave her on the couch, far away from all sharp objects."

The positive, fun attitude in the house is important to all of them, and Pat said she wants to make the most of the time she has left.

Her treatment schedule is planned out for the next several months, which is a good sign, Pat joked, because it gets her to summer and camping season.

On her "bucket list," she said, is seeing a Professional Bull Riding event.

A long-time bull riding fan, Pat has never had the chance to see "the big boys."

Riding a helicopter was on her list of things to do someday, but she got that one taken care of, she stated with a chuckle.

"And you're going to Sturgis in August," McGowan reminded her.

"Sure, if I make it that long," Pat replied, then snickered. "Of course, my doctor gave me a handicapped parking sticker that is good until 2017, so she's thinking positive."

She admits she gets tired easily, and the chemo treatments leave her feeling a bit ill, but she has enough energy to argue with her daughter, go out for lunch now and then, and make plans for the summer.

"She will tell you she's on her way out, and she's not afraid of that," McGowan said.

"But why dwell on the negative if I can't change it," Pat chimed in. "My spirits are good and I'm not afraid of dying. It bothers everyone else, of course, but this is my time and I want to make the best of it."

Having "Grandma Dora" around has been a Godsend, McGowan said.

"Without her, Mom would have to be in Hospice or a nursing home," she explained. "I still have my kids and a life, but Grandma is here and still drives."

With weekly treatments, various doctor appointments and lab work, Pat needs rides to Slayton, Worthington and Sioux Falls regularly, which is taking a toll.

Between medical bills, the occasional need to stay overnight out of town and the soaring cost of gasoline, the Swensons are struggling to meet financial responsibilities.

Still, when Terry VanderBeek first approached Pat with the idea of having a fundraiser for the family, Pat was hesitant.

"I don't like to ask for help -- Terry knows how independent I am," she admitted. "But I don't have supplemental insurance, and Medicare isn't covering everything. When the bills start coming in from everywhere, you just want to sit down and cry."

She gave the OK for the fundraiser, and a call for assistance went out.

"Pat is a generous, hardworking lady, known to many people in the area and is very deserving of our support," a letter from 'The Friends of Pat Fraternity' states. "Her friends request your help, so we can help (her family)."

Pat is flabbergasted by the items that have been donated for a silent auction/hog roast event.

Twins tickets, certificates for oil changes and restaurants, movie tickets, toy trucks, gift baskets, groceries and more -- more than 30 items, she's been told.

"People are donating wonderful things," Pat said. "Bob has driven truck for years and knows so many people, and so many are willing to help."

Now they just need the public to come out and bid and eat.

The fundraiser will take place from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Sunday at the Fulda Legion Hall.

An account for donations has also been set up at the Fulda Credit Union. Pork sandwiches, beans and chips -- all donated -- will be served.

Pat said she is looking forward to the event and plans to have fun visiting with people.

"It's just amazing to me that (the VanderBeeks) have taken all of this on and gotten it all rolling," she said.

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