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Perseverance and purpose: Breast cancer survivor chosen Relay for Life Honorary Chairwoman

WORTHINGTON -- It's been four and a half years since Jill Koopman underwent a bilateral mastectomy in response to her breast cancer diagnosis. Four and a half years to ponder the why and to work through all that comes with losing half of what mak...

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Jill Koopman, named the the 2019 Nobles County Relay for Life Honorary Chairwoman, will speak during the opening ceremony Saturday evening at Chautauqua Park in Worthington. (Tim Middagh/The Globe)

WORTHINGTON - It’s been four and a half years since Jill Koopman underwent a bilateral mastectomy in response to her breast cancer diagnosis.

Four and a half years to ponder the why and to work through all that comes with losing half of what makes her a woman. Four and a half years to know her purpose in battling breast cancer is to now be a listening ear and a source of comfort for other women facing the same devastating diagnosis.

Koopman was 42 years old, still reeling from her older brother’s suicide in February, when she got the call after a routine mammogram in early November 2014. There was an abnormality found on the image, and she was requested to have a 3-D mammogram in Sioux Falls, S.D., the following week. A week after that, she returned to Sioux Falls for a biopsy.

On Nov. 20, she was given the diagnosis - invasive ductal carcinoma. It’s the most common type of breast cancer, making up 70% to 80% of all breast cancer cases, and starts in the milk ducts. The term invasive means the cancer has broken through the cell wall of the ducts. In Koopman’s case, it was caught very early and hadn’t spread to her blood vessels or lymph nodes.

Koopman said she never would have found the cancer on her own, and credits her annual mammogram for the early detection.

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“When I hear women who have said, ‘I’ve never had a mammogram,’ I just cringe,” she said. “One year it’s fine, and the next year there’s something abnormal. I’m just very grateful they caught it when they did.”

Upon the diagnosis, the plan was made to have a lumpectomy. Then doctors encouraged her to get an MRI. When that came back showing spots on both breasts, Koopman and her husband, Brian, decided on the bilateral mastectomy.

“We both wanted the best outcome and the best possible chance of surviving breast cancer,” Koopman said. “There are a lot of things that can be done now for breast cancer. Having a mastectomy gave the best chance for sticking around for a while.”

The surgery took place Dec. 11, 2014, at the Edith Sanford Cancer Center in Sioux Falls. Koopman credits her lifelong physical fitness and otherwise good health for her post-surgery recovery, though she still suffers from random pain after nerve endings on both sides of her chest were cut through to reach lymph nodes.

Active before her diagnosis, Koopman now says she’s adamant about exercising on a regular basis, and she’s also changed her diet.

“I’m that person who absolutely loves a good burger and fries, but I don’t order burgers a whole lot anymore,” she said. “I’ve pulled back from red meat, and we eat a lot more chicken. I used to enjoy a good steak, too, and I haven’t had a good steak in years.”

She and Brian also simplified their lives, moving from their large single-family home into a condo.

“After losing Dean and after losing my breasts, I was ready to move into a condo,” Koopman said. “I said, ‘Let’s simplify - take advantage of life and all it has to offer.’

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“I enjoy hiking, kayaking and golfing, and this (condo) allows more of that,” she added, noting she’s replaced jogging with walking and weight training with suspension training.

“After work, I always go for a walk. I really watch my stress levels,” said Koopman, who works in creative marketing for Bedford Industries.

In a nutshell, Koopman said she’s learned to “just really enjoy every day for what it’s worth.”

What got her through the dark days of 2014 - processing Dean’s suicide and then facing breast cancer - was her faith.

“I wasn’t happy and I wasn’t upbeat. At the time my glass was half empty as opposed to half full,” she said. “I really relied on God.”

She also sought therapy at the Southwest Mental Health Center, where for months it was Dean she needed to talk through.

“It wasn’t until 2016 sometime that I really started to deal with the emotional side of breast cancer,” Koopman said.

While she didn’t need to go through chemotherapy or radiation, Koopman has been on a prescription for Tamoxifen since her surgery. She will need to take the medication for 10 years, as it keeps estrogen from getting into her blood cells. It does cause some side effects, and some days are worse than others, but Koopman is grateful for each day.

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Koopman will share more of her story as the Honorary Chairwoman of the 2019 Nobles County Relay for Life Saturday evening at Worthington’s Chautauqua Park. The opening ceremony begins at 6 p.m.

Julie Buntjer became editor of The Globe in July 2021, after working as a beat reporter at the Worthington newspaper since December 2003. She has a bachelor's degree in agriculture journalism from South Dakota State University.
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