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Lump in the road: Woman pens children's book based on personal breast cancer experience

Yvette VanDerBrink holds a copy of the children's book she wrote, "My Mom Looks Like a Turtle," and a marble, which she uses to illustrate the most common size of a breast cancer tumor.1 / 2
"My Mom Looks Like a Turtle"2 / 2

HARDWICK -- Yvette VanDerBrink is continually losing her marbles. In fact, she gives them away.

But Yvette always has more in her pocket, a reminder of the cancerous lump she found in her breast in 2007.

"My tumor was the size of a marble," explained Yvette, an auctioneer/broker by trade. "That's the most common size when a woman finds a lump in her breast. So I give out a marble, and it helps to open up the dialogue."

Let the bidding begin

Yvette's business, VanDerBrink Auctions, specializes in collector cars and antique tractors, although she does everything from small estate and land sales to huge collector events. Her work has taken her to 13 states, and she takes advantage of technology and social media to promote the events.

The business is a good fit, explained Yvette, because she grew up on a dairy farm near Garretson, S.D., as a "motorhead tomboy," and her father owned and operated Nordstrom's Auto Recycling and was an avid collector himself. After working at McKennan Hospital in Sioux Falls, S.D., for 11 years, she was compelled to attend auctioneering school after an encounter with a "modern prophet" at her church.

"I had filled out the paperwork for school, but hadn't sent it in. I just put it in the Hoover cabinet in my kitchen," she recalled. "Tom Stammon was speaking at Faith Temple in Sioux Falls, and he said, 'I have something to tell you. Why haven't you mailed the papers in your kitchen cupboard? Why haven't you done it?' When I told him it was because I didn't have the money, he said, 'It's in your purse.'"

Yvette had just sold some tractors with her father and did indeed have a large sum of money in her purse. So she sent in the money, attended school, came home and booked her first auction.

"The first two years were so hard," she said. "Nobody wanted a lady selling guy stuff. I got squeezed, pinched, death threats, had a stalker, and I almost quit. But the word of mouth grew and grew each year. I never know how many auctions I'm going to have or where I'm going to go. It's more of a mission than a job."

Dealing with diagnosis

Yvette was in Colorado, preparing for a meeting about an auction, when she found the lump in her breast. She immediately called back home and scheduled a mammogram, then went to the meeting, although the future suddenly felt very uncertain.

The mammogram gave credence to her sense of foreboding.

"When I first got that phone call, I went to the shop and got my husband, and we went out into the country and sat on a gravel road. I was sure I was going to die, and I told him, 'You'd better not remarry within a year.' After I said that, after I claimed my territory, I felt better."

Instead of a biopsy, Yvette opted for an immediate lumpectomy, wanting to get rid of the tumor -- whatever it was.

"It was triple negative breast cancer," she said. "It's quite rare and pretty aggressive.... Since I was young and because of the type it was, we did chemo, radiation -- the whole shebang. But I did 19 auctions in five states while doing chemo and radiation. I probably shouldn't have."

Pushing herself so hard did have repercussions, and Yvette ended up with internal bleeding and appendicitis, in addition to the normal side effects of the treatment.

"On Valentine's Day, I had to get a land deal signed, and my hair started falling out. ... By the time I got home, it looked like a raccoon had died on the floorboard of my pickup. That night, I took a razor to my head. My husband came in and pretty much sheared me like a sheep."

A wig helped Yvette maintain a normal appearance for her customers, although she has anecdotes about static cling making the synthetic hair in her first wig stand on end and another wig blowing off in a parking lot.

"When I got wet, I looked like a drenched clown," she said, "so I went bald most of the time, except for speaking engagements. It didn't bother me, but it is traumatic. ... When it did start to come back, it grew in curly and blue-purple because of the medications I was on."

Throughout her treatment regimen, Yvette tried to keep it business as usual both at home and at work, but it was never easy.

"I had a customer tell me that one of my competitors had said, 'Don't go to her, she's dying,'" Yvette related. "That put me into fight mode, and I got aggressive."

With the support of her family -- husband Steve and children Emily and Johnathon -- and other relatives and close friends, Yvette looked for the humor in her situation.

"I learned not to be around people who were depressing," she explained. "We made fun of things, put the wig on the dog. My dog knows a lot of conversations I had with God."

As the treatment plan progressed, Yvette experienced a reaction to the radiation that turned into a staph infection. She went into the doctor for what she thought was just a rash and ended up in the hospital. The infection changed her treatment plan.

"The doctor said it would probably happen again, so I had a double mastectomy at Thanksgiving last year," she said.

Because of the reaction, she also couldn't go the traditional route of silicone breast implants for reconstruction. Instead, they removed her own fat, "chewed it up," and implanted it in her chest -- a much more painful process with a longer recovery.

A book is born

At the time of her diagnosis, daughter Emily was 14, and son Johnathon was 11.

"It was really hard on my daughter," Yvette recalled. "We had planned to go to New York for New Year's Eve, but of course we couldn't go. She was my best helper, but one time she said, 'I just want my old mom back.' My son, he went into attack mode, reading everything he could about it."

Although her own children were old enough to understand what was happening, Yvette realized there were few resources that explained breast cancer to younger children.

"I was at my brother's house and was visiting with my young niece, and I asked her, 'Do I look like a turtle?'" related Yvette. "So I sat down and decided to write a children's book. Everything in the book actually happened to me, but it's written from a little girl's point of view, from their perspective in kid-friendly language. ... My daughter's an artist, so I asked her to illustrate it, and for the longest time she wouldn't do it. Finally one day she went up to her room and came down with the sketches for it."

Initially, Yvette self-published her book, "My Mom Looks Like a Turtle," printing 1,000 copies. It was recently picked up by Tate Publishing Co. and released on Dec. 13. Emily's original drawings were used as the basis for the illustrations in the new edition. A portion of the proceeds is being donated to the Avera McKennan Foundation in Sioux Falls. Yvette did a book signing before Christmas at the Sioux Falls hospital -- and handed out lots of marbles in the process.

"This really made me realize what's important," Yvette said. "Life's really short, and I looked at my kids and saw the things I missed."

Back to normal

After several years dominated by treatment, reconstruction and recovery, it took a while for Yvette to readjust to "normal" life.

"When I got done with the treatments, I didn't know what to do with myself, and I was between auctions," she recalled. "The doctor told me I had a type of post-traumatic stress disorder. When you have every day planned for you, you can understand how when a soldier is always on high alert what they come back with."

With a full mastectomy, less than 2 percent of the original breast tissue remains and Yvette had no lymph node involvement, so the odds of the cancer returning are minimal. But she still feels the after-effects of her ordeal.

"I have aches and pains," she admitted. "When you're totally rebuilt, like a vehicle, you're going to have scarring and pain."

She was forced to slow down a bit during treatment, and now Yvette is back in full swing in her professional life, dividing her time between auctions, the Nordstrom family enterprise and helping out her husband at T&S Truck Repair in Lismore.

But auctioneering is her passion.

"We set a world record in August, selling a Rumely Oil Pull tractor for $211,000 in Corsica, S.D.," she noted. "We started at $125,000, and in five minutes we were done. There are only 375 of them left, and it ran. We posted a video of it on YouTube. The Internet is an amazing tool. We get buyers from all over the U.S., and we also do auctions online at the same time."

Yvette's goal is to get the best price possible for her client, but she also stresses that it's a faith-based business.

"In 2009, I burned all our bid cards," she said. "I reordered them with a salvation message on the back. It's my way of paying back for making it through. So far, we've handed out more than 3,000 bid cards with 3,000 messages on them. We don't know where they go or who they might reach.

"At auctions, we also have the book available, and I always remind people to have regular mammograms and PSA tests," continued Yvette, whose dad has also been battling prostate cancer, which is detectible through the prostate-specific antigen test. "This has to be a platform for awareness."

Yvette takes the education and awareness even further on the public-speaking circuit. She's willing to share her message with any group that is willing to listen and writes a regular blog/newsletter via her website, with more than 4,000 people on her mailing list.

"You don't ever expect that something like this is going to happen to you," she reflected. "You think you're invincible. But when it does happen, you realize how fragile life is, what's important and what's not."

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Beth Rickers

Beth Rickers is the veteran in the newspaper staff with 25 years as the Daily Globe's Features Editor. Interests include cooking, traveling and beer tasting and making with her home-brewing husband, Bryan. She writes an Area Voices blog called Lagniappe, which is a Creole term that means "a little something extra." It can be found at  

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