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Twins tackle prostate cancer times two

Merle (left) and Merlyn Henricksen, both of Lakefield, wrapped up two months of radiation therapy for prostate cancer at Sanford Care Center Worthington on Friday. The twins were diagnosed with prostate cancer one day apart. (RYAN McGAUGHEY/DAILY GLOBE)

WORTHINGTON ­— Alliteration and laughs abound when the Henricksen brothers are around.

And lifelong Lakefield residents Merle and Merlyn Henricksen, along with their respective wives Marlene and Maureen, know how to make the most of things — even when it comes to facing prostate cancer.

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“We were diagnosed one day apart,” said Merle of the diagnosis that has dominated the twins’ lives these last several months. “I found out one day…”

“….and I found out the next,” finished Merlyn, Merle’s elder by 15 minutes.

“It was right before Christmas, but we didn’t want to tell the kids until after that,” added Marlene, Merle’s wife of nearly 55 years.

The “boys” (they’ll turn 76 on July 11) knew their late father, Leonard, had suffered from prostate cancer, and each had been monitoring increasingly higher PSA (Prostate-Specific Antigen) numbers for a few years.

But despite their closeness, “We’d never discussed PSA counts before,” said Maureen, Merlyn’s better half for almost 50 years — until that fateful day in December.

Though Merle had been keeping his medical appointments in Fairmont, and Merlyn previously traveled to Sioux Falls, S.D., the two decided the prescribed treatment regimen’s length and intensity (five radiation therapies weekly over an eight-week period) called for a united front.

They mutually discovered that Sanford Cancer Center in Worthington could provide all they needed to help them battle their illness, so the pair decided to take the journey down the road to recovery — not to mention I-90 back and forth between Lakefield and Worthington — together.

“They’re very good here,” endorsed Merlyn on Thursday, the dynamic duo’s second-to-last day of treatment at the cancer center.

“Yes, they’re excellent,” nodded Maureen.

“Great professionals, all of them — and you can take that to the bank,” Merlyn bragged about the staff they’ve come to know and love.

Amber Frisch, the center’s Mayo Clinic-trained chief radiation therapist, has helped oversee the Henricksens’ treatments, making sure the radiation finds its mark and eradicates their cancer.

“We’re very lucky here — we have some great patients,” Frisch said.

“Merle and Merlyn have been rambunctious, but it’s been a pleasure and a really fun experience to have them here — very memorable.”

Memorable is the right word for the identical Henricksens, though they say it’s easier now to tell them apart than it was when they were adventuresome tots straying from their rural Lakefield home in red snowsuits decades ago.

“Alma [their 95-year-old mother who still lives independently in Lakefield] said we ran away one winter day when we were 3, 4 years old,” said Merle.

“We got maybe three-quarters of a mile down the road before an uncle spotted us.”

Dr. H. Jae Yoon, the Sanford Cancer Center’s radiation oncologist who worked with Merle and Merlyn, took to calling the men by their middle names — Art and Harry — in an effort to more easily keep their identities straight.

“They are the first twins I’ve treated for the same cancer at the same time in 27 years of practice,” marveled Yoon, a four-year veteran of the local cancer center.

“I’ve treated a father and daughter at the same time, and spouses together once, but this was a first with twins.

“They’ve been model patients.”

Model, perhaps, but the mischievous twinkles in their brown eyes belie the fun and sense of humor they’ve injected into what many would consider a sobering situation.

“I never give anyone a hard time,” deadpanned Merlyn, even as Frisch looked on, chuckling.

“Double trouble — we’ve been called that all our lives,” volunteered Merle.

Besides possessing matching cancer diagnoses — and similarly responding well to radiation therapy — the Henricksens worked together for decades at the Lakefield Farmers Lumber Company (Merle put in 41 years there, while Merlyn logged nearly 50).

“And I was in the Navy from ’58-64,” said Merlyn.

“National Guard, ’61-67,” Merle said of his own service, not to be outdone.

Being identical twins and sharing interests like gardening and fishing might make Merle and Merlyn special, but having prostate cancer is not much of a distinction, Yoon pointed out. 

“Prostate cancer is very common for men,” Yoon shared. “Lung cancer is No. 1, and colon cancer is also common, but most men age 70 or older have some level of prostate cancer, even if it’s asymptomatic.

“When you are a male and you live long enough, you will likely have some cancer in your prostate.”

Yoon said older men may decide to have prostate cancer treated or let it go, and he noted that all men should have annual PSA tests beginning at age 50 — unless they have a family history of prostate cancer, in which case they should begin screening earlier.

“Frequent urination and a slow or weak urine stream are both signs of a problem with the prostate,” Yoon explained. 

“It’s too early to say the result of the twins’ treatment, but they are doing very well.”

The “M & M” twins completed their eight weeks of radiation therapy at Sanford Cancer Center Worthington on Friday — just in time to observe National Cancer Survivors Day, which is Sunday, and to join in the “Celebration of Life” event the cancer center is hosting on Monday in Jackson for its past patients. 

“We invite all our patients for a catered meal and entertainment, and all our staff are present,” said Frisch, teasing the men that they could “keep their clothes on” for the Daily Globe photographer’s photo session.

“There ain’t enough pictures of us at the post office anyway,” joked Merlyn.

Despite the twins’ jocularity, they are sincerely thankful that the Sanford Cancer Center staff has made their journey through prostate cancer treatment as effective and enjoyable as possible.

“It was very handy to have the treatment right here,” said Marlene.

Agreed Merle, “These people are really good and know what they’re doing.”

It appears the cancer center’s staff will miss Merle and Merlyn’s daily visits, though they’re glad to send them off on the road to recovery.

“They’ve followed instructions well, which helps their treatment,” said Frisch. “We call them the lucky twins.”

“We’ll be back to harass you,” assured Merlyn with a big smile.