FULDA — Don’t think breast cancer is slowing down Karmel Holinka.
Admittedly, it has caused her to change up her pace — but only a bit.
“I’m walking five miles at a time now instead of running five miles,” said Holinka.
A lifelong athlete, Holinka believes regular, vigorous exercise can help her body fight the unwelcome invader while also providing her with peaceful headspace to keep her mind centered and calm.
“I read that your physical health is a big factor in how well you tolerate the chemo treatments, and I think that’s true because I’m doing well with it so far,” Holinka said.
Encircled with the powerful triumvirate of faith, family and friends, Holinka has two primary messages to impart during National Breast Cancer Awareness Month: gratitude and get ‘er done.
“I’d like to thank people for everything they’ve done for me,” said Holinka.
“There are a couple ladies in Fulda who have helped, a teacher friend who recently finished breast cancer treatment gave me a gift basket and letter about what to expect, we’ve received lots of food and many supportive cards — it was so refreshing just to hear people’s encouraging words,” Holinka listed.
“And my husband, Brad, is supportive and helps me get to appointments,” she continued.
Friends say it’s typical Holinka would first mention the helpers rather than the hassles and worry that have been unexpectedly thrown her way, and Holinka also sees her current bout with a common but dangerous disease as a means of encouraging others to stay on top of their own health.
“I want women to remember to go in for their yearly checkups,” exhorted Holinka.
“If I’d waited any longer, it could have been Stage 3 or 4, but it was just outside of Stage 1 and my oncologist has given me a more than 90% chance of survival.”
The American Cancer Society reports that one out of every eight U.S. women will develop invasive breast cancer in their lifetimes, and at the start of 2020 the ACS estimated that 276,480 U.S. women would be newly diagnosed this year.
Holinka had no idea she would contribute to that statistic.
Holinka, a 1985 Fulda High School graduate and the daughter of Pat and the late Ken Honius, is a reading interventionist at Worthington’s Prairie Elementary.
With Brad, her husband of 30 years, Holinka has three young adult children: Mari, a dental hygienist; Myah, who works with autistic children; and Michale, who is currently student teaching a fourth-grade class in New Ulm.
“I was diagnosed at the start of July,” said Holinka, explaining that her annual gynecological exam was postponed for a couple of months due to COVID-19.
“Some time ago, I’d had a cyst that needed to be drained, and I thought there was another one that might need draining,” said Holinka.
But when Holinka finally saw her provider (Katie Smidt, CNM at Avera Medical Group Worthington), Smidt detected a mass and sent her to Dr. Connie Morrison for a biopsy.
“I was out running one morning when Dr. Morrison called,” said Holinka, who was a high school state track competitor in the two-mile relay and mile run.
“I was wearing my Bluetooth headphones and Dr. Morrison asked, ‘What are you doing?’” reported Holinka.
“I told her, ‘I’m running; that’s what I do,’” laughed Holinka.
But when Dr. Morrison said she was calling because Holinka had tested positive for cancer, she was momentarily stopped in her tracks.
“They sent me to the Avera Cancer Institute in Sioux Falls,” said Holinka, “and they called that evening; it was a long day.
“Brad and I cried, of course, that first day, and we were both teary-eyed the second day — but by the third day, I thought, ‘I have to stop crying and do what God wants me to do,’” Holinka continued.
“My job is to make people aware, and to let others know you can work your way through it. I don’t want people to think it’s easy or that you always feel good, but I try to capitalize on all the good times I have — even if it’s just an hour on certain days — and I try to do the most I can each day.”
Diagnosis and treatment
Doctors placed Holinka’s cancer, which is confined to her right breast, at a Stage 2, Grade 3.
“I was just outside of Stage 1, so that was good, but I have the fast-growing HER2-positive cancer, which meant they had to move quickly,” recounted Holinka.
During the second week of August, Holinka began a six-phase course of chemotherapy treatment, with infusions scheduled every three weeks.
“The first one lasted six hours,” said Holinka, “because it included a loading dose of one of the drugs, and that took longer.”
Subsequent treatments are five hours each, but Holinka is already at her fourth round and feeling hopeful.
“The doctors believe the mass is shrinking, and I have surgery scheduled for late December — but after the chemo, it may be all gone,” said Holinka.
“They want to make sure when I go in for surgery that the chemo is working, and then they’ll also check all my lymph nodes and determine if there’s a need for radiation.”
Meanwhile, Holinka has continued with an active exercise regimen — she regularly walks five miles and also participates in yoga and a weightlifting class — and keeps working full-time, to the extent her treatment allows it.
“I have the chemo on Thursday, and I still have energy on Friday,” said Holinka.
“Usually I crash on Saturday and Sunday, and then make my way back on Monday and Tuesday — though Monday is challenging.”
Holinka’s oncologist recommends a double mastectomy, and Holinka intends to have reconstructive surgery performed, too.
“I’m getting excellent care, and I’ve been very impressed,” said Holinka of her team at the Avera Cancer Institute.
Holinka mentions everyone from her Breast Patient Navigator (“I call her my best friend,” said Holinka) to Diana the wig person.
“Diana has been super, and she is gifted at her job,” endorsed Holinka.
“I have one wig from Diana that I wear to school — I need to have hair with the kids — and then I usually wear hats and scarves on weekends and off-days.
“Losing my hair was the hardest part of it all,” admitted Holinka. “It was very emotional, and it still is at some times.”
Most distressing, Holinka says, was that her hair began falling out in earnest only a few days before the late August wedding of her niece Kara Honius.
“It was a mess, but Kim Schroeder fixed it in a French roll and made it look like nothing was going on,” said Holinka.
“She was an angel, and then my good friend Renee Baerenwald came to help me cut my hair and fix my wig.”
A community of support
Holinka’s husband Brad — who, though retired, keeps busy as a multi-sport coach, bus driver and more — escorts her to appointments and serves as her primary supporter.
Her mother Pat unfailingly provides dinner for the pair when they return from chemo treatments, and Holinka’s golfing friends hosted a “Pink Night” fundraiser to aid with the purchase of scarves and hats.
“It’s been wonderful to have the support of family and friends,” said Holinka, who also mentioned several groups of people, both far and near, who regularly pray for her.
“So many people care and are loving, and that’s one of the positives,” said Holinka.
“On my frequent walks, I listen to Christian music and connect and talk with God, looking for strength.
“I’m learning a lot, both medically and personally, and I urge every woman to get to her yearly exam because it’s so important to catch something like this early.”