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A battle with cancer

WORTHINGTON -- Retired nurse Nancy Teerink never realized how much people cared about her until she was diagnosed with breast cancer.

"I got calls and letters from people I hadn't heard from for years," Teerink said, adding that now, "Every day is a good day."

Teerink will be honorary chairwoman June 24 at the Nobles County Relay for Life.

Her struggle with cancer began the way so many do -- with a routine physical that included a mammogram. On the afternoon of the visit, her doctor called her at home and told her the mammogram didn't look good and that she needed to visit Sioux Falls, S.D., for a biopsy.

Two days later, on Aug. 25, 2009, Teerink headed for Sioux Falls and the needle biopsy. The lump was right next to her lymph nodes, underneath her arm. Its substance had yet to be tested in the lab, but Teerink could tell by the way the medical staff was talking that something was deeply wrong.

Her husband Norman, a positive thinker, believed it was probably nothing, but even then, Teerink knew it was probably cancer.

"It was hard for him," she said, emphasizing how difficult cancer can be not just for the sufferers, but for the spouses as well. Norman, a retired office manager at Rickbeil's, attended support meetings for spouses while Teerink was going through treatment.

In 2009, Norman was diagnosed with colon cancer, discovered when his appendix ruptured and turned out to be malignant. A piece of his colon was removed, along with one or two lymph nodes, and he will finish with chemotherapy at the end of the month.

"We learned together," Teerink said.

Back in 2009, she had to decide whether to have a lumpectomy and have a surgeon remove the dime-sized lump underneath her arm, or have a mastectomy and have a surgeon remove all the breast tissue on one side. Teerink opted for a lumpectomy.

Just after Labor Day in 2009, she went in to have the surgery. She could not eat or drink before the operation, and her medical team had to inject dye into her breast in order for the surgeon to see the lump more easily.

"That was the most painful thing," Teerink recalls. "I don't know that the needle hurt as bad as pushing that dye in."

After the dye process was complete, she had to undergo another CT scan before the lumpectomy could begin. During the surgery, the doctor found the cancer had spread into some lymph nodes and removed nine of them. Teerink stayed at the hospital overnight and was discharged the next day.

"They're careful. They don't take any more than they have to," she said. "I'd had surgery before, so this wasn't that bad."

The surgery was a success, but it stopped the flow of the lymphatic fluid in Teerink's arm. The fluid slowly builds up over time, causing her arm to swell, and she needs to be especially careful with her hand. She wears gloves when she does the dishes and has learned massage techniques to ease the fluid build-ups. Teerink also wraps her arm at night in order to reduce the swelling.

Teerink suffered from an aggressive form of breast cancer in the triple-negative group, commonly found in young black women. That specific type of cancer generally doesn't respond well to long-term drug treatments, so Teerink knew once she finished the surgery, the chemotherapy and the radiation, she would be completely done.

"I knew the Lord was with me, and I was not anxious yet," Teerink said of the surgery.

She started chemotherapy on Nov. 6, 2009, accompanied that first time by her daughter. Both women wore pink T-shirts for the occasion. A nurse practitioner met with Teerink for an hour before the treatment began, telling her what to expect and giving her steroids, benadryl, and anti-nausea medicine.

"It went well. I was really concerned. ... I never had one problem during my treatments," Teerink said.

The chemotherapy took about four hours, and she had to go six times, every three weeks. She never experienced nausea, but she did feel apathetic.

Once the chemotherapy was done, Teerink's radiation treatments began. She saw the oncologist, who measured her carefully and made a plastic mold so the radiation could be targeted with precision.

The radiation treatments themselves took only a few seconds each, but she had to have them every day for 33 consecutive weekdays.

"You get red, and your skin gets really dry. I think I had four different lotions by the end of it," Teerink said, adding she found emu oil the most useful skin care product. "They wanted you to be careful that it didn't get raw. That wasn't bad. I didn't get sick from that either."

Her final radiation treatment was May 2010, and Teerink found herself suffering from a bit of separation anxiety as she realized she would not be seeing her medical staff anymore.

Now she sees a doctor every three months at the radiation center and performs self-checks often in order to be sure the cancer hasn't returned.

"You just do the journey every day. Do what you have to do," Teerink said. "I feel good. Your church, family and all your friends -- they're the ones who keep you going."