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Cancer survivor grateful for local treatment, eager to pay it forward

Prairie Elementary School teacher Kris Doeden was diagnosed with invasive ductal carcinoma a year ago.

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Kris Doeden has turned obstacles into blessings as she fights breast cancer and urges all women to schedule timely mammograms. (Jane Turpin Moore/The Globe)

WORTHINGTON — “Don’t skip your mammogram,” urges Kris Doeden, a breast cancer survivor who has spent the past year battling the beast.

“It can save your life.”

Trust her on this.

During the 2018 October MEA break, the 28-year veteran teacher (she currently leads a second grade classroom at Prairie Elementary and has spent her entire career with District 518) used part of her time off to keep her mammogram appointment.

“I previously had precancerous cells, and had a lumpectomy in 2015,” she explained.

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The procedure was routine, but the next day she received a phone call asking her to return.

“Then another week passed before a biopsy, and another week before we knew what course would be taken,” said Doeden. “The waiting is gut-wrenching.”

Even so, Doeden wasn’t overly concerned when she showed up for her biopsy because she’d had them before.

“It wasn’t that alarming,” she recalled.

But unfortunately, this time Doeden was told she had invasive ductal carcinoma (IDC), and even though they’d detected the cancer early, it was of a fast-growing nature.

“I had the opportunity to meet with a ‘tumor board,’ which means I met in one day with a plastic surgeon, a breast health surgeon, an oncologist and a radiologist at Sanford in Sioux Falls,” said Doeden.

“Then, later that same day, they met with a team of 25 professionals to review my records, discuss my case and decide what my best options would be.”

It came down to a choice between a mastectomy or radiation.

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“But they told me that if I didn’t have a mastectomy, they would likely see me back in about three years because the cancer was aggressive and likely to return,” said Doeden.

That’s when she made the difficult decision to be just as aggressive in response.

“I chose to have a double mastectomy because even though it was only a Stage 1, I didn’t

want to risk it,” she said.

Dr. Jesse Dirksen, a Sanford breast cancer specialist, performed Doeden’s surgery on Dec. 10.

“He is a fabulous doctor,” endorsed Doeden.

After a few weeks of recovery, she began chemotherapy treatments at the Sanford Health Cancer Center in Worthington.

“Their staff is amazing,” Doeden affirmed. “They were so kind, patient and supportive.

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“I saw the oncologist every other time, while Sabrina (Kingery) Sowles (an APRN-CNP) managed my overall care.

“Whenever I felt sick, miserable and tired, I was so glad not to have an extra two-plus hours of travel time to deal with, and I never missed an appointment due to weather because I was close to home — even though my chemotherapy took place during January, February and March.”

During the course of Doeden’s most intensive treatments, the doctors overseeing her care changed her plan somewhat in order to tailor it specifically to the grade and stage of cancer she was experiencing.

“I had triple-positive breast cancer,” she explained, which is why she has continued to have less frequent but ongoing infusions following the initial intensive course.

Doeden opted not to work during the primary chemotherapy treatment phase, but she returned to teaching in early April. She expressed gratitude to Sheryl Hoekstra, the long-term substitute who handled her class in her absence.

Working with second graders can bring a few darkly comical moments, including some related to the change in Doeden’s physical appearance. Chemotherapy resulted in the loss of her hair, which had always been thick, long and brown.

Rather than wearing wigs, Doeden opted to don hats and attractive scarves, punctuated with large hoop earrings that hadn’t typically been part of her personal style.

Doeden’s newly grown hair, however, is somewhat gray and curly.

“My students from last year don’t recognize me now,” she laughed, “and when this year’s class sees the picture on my school ID badge that was taken previously, they wonder who ‘that’ is.

“This is the new normal to my students.”

Many “new normals” were required for Doeden and her family over the past year.

She and her husband, Tim (a Worthington Middle School science teacher), were shepherding the youngest of their three sons through his senior year of high school. In addition, her brother-in-law Jeff Johnson had succumbed to cancer only six weeks before her own cancer was detected.

“Calling my sister (Sharon Johnson) and mother (Peggy Olson) to have a conversation using words like ‘cancer’ and ‘chemotherapy’ at that time was one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do,” said Doeden.

Still, she felt incredibly supported throughout the entire process, not only by her immediate and extended family but also by the greater community and the health professionals she encountered.

“Best nurses ever,” she said of the staff at Sanford Worthington’s outpatient treatment and infusion center. “They’re the perfect mix of compassion, tough love and encouragement. They were my greatest supporters and cheerleaders, and the personal touch received here is invaluable.

“They’re humble and kind and are true heroes, in my book.”

Another group that sustained and continues to inspire Doeden are other breast cancer survivors.

“They were my greatest comfort,” she said. “One friend told me, ‘It’s hard, but I’m still here,’ and seeing someone who had gone through this and 14 years later is still standing gave me a whole different perspective.”

Doeden now views every day, however ordinary or stormy, as a gift.

“Someone was complaining about the weather recently and I said, ‘I’m alive, I’m healthy

and I’m here,’” said Doeden. “It didn’t really matter what was happening outside; I’ve gained a new outlook.”

Doeden is still more tired than usual, but she’s been told it can take a year or two to feel “normal” after the surgery and chemotherapy treatments she’s endured.

Her final infusion is scheduled for Jan. 1, 2020, and along with her entire family, she is ready to firmly lodge 2019 in the history books.

“This wasn’t pleasant, but I’ve been blessed by the people and experiences I’ve had,” she said, adding that her husband, family, District 518 staff/administrators and the community in general were “fabulously supportive” of her.

“If you have to go through an experience like this, know there is quality professional care

right here in town,” she continued. “I’ve never regretted my decision to be treated locally — so ‘shop local’ and get regular mammograms. My quest now is to pay it forward.”

Related Topics: HEALTH
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