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Weight-loss wish results in health crisis “save” for Nieuwenhuis

Judy Nieuwenhuis (center) is shown with granddaughter Jaci Hoogland and family friend and Erin Smith. (Tim Middagh / The Globe)

WORTHINGTON — One of the most relatable wishes shared by contemporary U.S. adults led Judy Nieuwenhuis of Hospers, Iowa, to a life-saving moment.

“The only reason I went in for a mammogram was because I wanted to talk to a doctor about losing weight,” said Nieuwenhuis, a 59-year-old public health nurse.

“I hadn’t realized it had been three years since my last mammogram, so I figured the doctor would be more willing to discuss weight reduction options with me once I’d had a mammogram.”

With that goal in mind, Nieuwenhuis kept the mammogram appointment she made last October.

“They called me the next day and said the doctor would like me to have either another mammogram or an ultrasound,” recalled Nieuwenhuis.

“When I arrived at the clinic, they decided to do an ultrasound right away.”

Nieuwenhuis had the ultrasound and was asked to wait while the radiologist reviewed the readings.

“I was getting dressed, thinking everything was fine, but then it was taking a long time for the nurse to come back,” she said. “Finally she did, and she told me the doctor was concerned with how it looked and they wanted to do a biopsy.”

One week later, on a Thursday, Nieuwenhuis followed through with the biopsy. The following Monday, Dr. Stephen Locker told her she had a cancerous lump that was Stage 2 breast cancer.

“I’d had no symptoms, no discomfort, nothing,” she related. “I have to admit, I wasn’t faithful all the time in doing breast self-exams, but the doctor said that might not have been helpful in my case, anyway, because it was so small.”

With no family history of breast cancer, Nieuwenhuis had been generally aware of the risks for women and had previously made sure to get a mammogram every other year, but her diagnosis nevertheless came as a surprise.

“I just never thought it would be an issue for me,” she said.

Nieuwenhuis had a lumpectomy on Nov. 27, choosing that over a mastectomy, or a mastectomy with reconstruction.

“I had the lumpectomy and went home the next day,” she related. “There were two incisions, about two inches long each — it wasn’t bad at all — and they removed tissue about the size of a tennis ball because they tried to get as much surrounding tissue as possible.”

In considering her treatment options and locations thereafter, the busy Nieuwenhuis took travel time into account and also received input from family friend Erin Smith.

“I used to teach nursing at Northwest Iowa Community College in Sheldon, and Erin was one of my students,” Nieuwenhuis said. “She’s also a good friend of my older daughter — they went to school together — and she’s like another daughter to me.”

Noting that it was a 90-minute drive to Sioux Falls, S.D., or an hour to Sioux City, Iowa, Nieuwenhuis opted for the shorter commute to Worthington, and the Sanford Worthington Cancer Center where Smith was employed as a nurse.

After allowing time for healing, Nieuwenhuis began a six-week regimen of radiation treatments in Worthington under the care of Sanford radiation oncologist Dr. Hee J. Yoon.

“It was every week day for six weeks,” detailed Nieuwenhuis.

“I started treatment on Jan. 6, and amazingly there was only one day I couldn’t make it to Worthington due to bad weather.”

A go-getter with a positive attitude, Nieuwenhuis had another goal in mind besides a desire to stop her cancer in its tracks.

“I told Dr. Yoon I had already contracted for a Holy Land tour to Israel and Egypt with Hartog Tours, and it was already paid for,” she said.

“I finished my treatments on a Friday and left on the trip the following Monday.”

With her younger daughter, Jamie, as her traveling companion, Nieuwenhuis experienced no problems at all during the time abroad, other than that they had previously decided to use backpacks rather than suitcases as luggage.

“I couldn’t carry mine, so Jamie had to carry both of ours, and they were about 60 pounds each,” she revealed. “She was like a little pack mule for almost two weeks, but she was wonderful about it.”

In fact, Nieuwenhuis found an appropriate way to celebrate the end of her cancer treatment while 6,500 miles from home.

“Five days into the tour, we climbed 750 stairs to a small church at the top of Mount Sinai, and I rang the bell in the tower there,” said Nieuwenhuis.

In reflecting on the past year, Nieuwenhuis rejoices in her blessings and good fortune.

“I’m naturally a fairly positive person, so for me this whole thing was more of a minor inconvenience,” said Nieuwenhuis.

“Mostly, I’m pretty glad my instincts told me to go in for that mammogram, and this is a good example of why it’s very important to have regular mammograms,” she continued.

“I was feeling good and healthy but the mammogram helped them catch this at Stage 2; Stage 4 would have been much worse.”

Now, Nieuwenhuis is on a five-year course of Letrozole, an estrogen blocker that she was initially dismayed to learn lists “weight gain” among its possible side effects.

“I thought, ‘Are you kidding me?’” she laughed.

A follow-up exam also revealed that she had osteopenia, a precursor to osteoporosis.

“Then I knew I needed to start doing some resistance exercising because I didn’t want to gain weight,” she said. “I thought, ‘Alright, I’d better get busy.’”

Nieuwenhuis began daily workouts on an elliptical — and the doctor she initially visited last fall to get help with weight loss prescribed Wellbutrin to help with appetite suppression.

“I take that, and it helps,” said Nieuwenhuis, happily announcing that her new healthy habits have enabled a 35-pound weight loss.

Nieuwenhuis and her husband Jim (he farms and has a trucking business) have three grown children: Ashley, a veterinarian in Sibley, Iowa; son John; and daughter Jamie.

Ashley’s one-year-old daughter, Jaci, has occasionally traveled to and from Worthington with Nieuwenhuis to keep her company during her treatments and checkups. John and his wife, Synnove, had their first baby on Sept. 6; and Ashley and her husband Corey Hoagland are expecting their second child soon. (To date, daughter Jamie remains happily single.)

With loads of plans ahead — a trip to Colorado at Thanksgiving to visit her brother, work, book club meetings, quilting and plenty of new grandbabies to cuddle — Nieuwenhuis has lots to live for, and she encourages other women to book their next mammograms during October, which is Breast Cancer Awareness Month.

“I want women to realize mammograms have gotten so much better; they don’t ‘squish’ you like they used to,” she said. “It’s really important, and it’s a great time for women to get in there and have a mammogram — because you just never know.”