Classmates brought back together through breast cancer

“There we were, two in our class (of 21) with breast cancer."

By: Jane Heilmann .

High school classmates Peggy Haken (in purple) and Marcia Johnson (in blue).
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Storden (Minnesota) High School, class of 1969. They are a close-knit group of 21 classmates: 13 men and eight women. While most of those childhood relationships usually fall by the wayside over 50 years, two of the classmates, Marcia Johnson, of Jackson, Minnesota, and Peggy Haken, of Windom, Minnesota still live within 20 miles of each other and keep in touch often.

In February 2014, when Marcia had her regular mammogram, an abnormality was found, a biopsy taken, and she was diagnosed with breast cancer. Early treatment included surgery and chemotherapy at Sanford Cancer Center in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. This was followed by radiation. She chose to have her radiation treatments close to home at Sanford Worthington Cancer Center in Worthington, Minnesota.

A few months after Marcia’s breast cancer diagnosis, Peggy, who had recently lost a lot of weight, noticed a little bump on her breast that didn’t go away. Her doctor ordered a mammogram and, as a precaution, scheduled a lumpectomy for the day after. When she had a mammogram, she was told it was a cyst, probably benign, and there wasn’t a need for the lumpectomy. But Peggy didn’t feel comfortable with that decision, so she called her doctor. He said to err on the side of caution and do the lumpectomy anyway. It was stage I breast cancer.

“They say that one out of every eight women will develop breast cancer in her lifetime,” Marcia said. “And there we were, two in our class with breast cancer at the same time.”

Survivorship between classmates

Peggy’s treatment was radiation only. As word spread among the classmates, Marcia found out she and Peggy would both be receiving radiation treatment in Worthington at the same time. “I asked her what time she had her treatment scheduled, and I scheduled mine right after so they would see each other.”

Peggy’s husband, another one of the high school classmates, was always there in the waiting room with Marcia’s husband. “They saw each other more than we did,” Marcia said, laughing. “We were like two ships passing in the night. We said ‘hello’ and then have to go in the back.”

Having a friend go through the same thing at the same time was very comforting to the two of them. “When people find out you have cancer, they are very kind and ask how you’re doing,” Peggy said. “But they don’t really understand the emotions you’re going through. The stages. How you think about it 24/7.”

Marcia agrees.

“You send a card, tell them you’re thinking about them, you’ll pray for them. But until you actually go through it yourself, you don’t understand what it’s like. Peggy and I could talk about it, and share our experiences. That meant a lot,” she said.

“It’s always nice to have another reference,” Peggy said. “Someone you know, someone you trust. A doctor sees so many people, and everyone reacts differently. It’s helpful to talk to someone one-on-one and say, ‘Did you have this problem?’”

As they completed their treatment, they celebrated together, too. On Peggy’s last day of radiation, they all went to Ground Round for lunch. Marcia finished her treatment two weeks later.

Experience at Sanford Health

Another advantage of going through treatment together close to home was the small-town feel of the Worthington Cancer Center. Marcia’s mother was the third grade teacher of the nurse who worked with both women, and her brother was a classmate. There were many connections. “It just made it so much easier to talk to someone you see often, who knows you well,” Peggy said. “We were very comfortable there. The staff was great.”

Both women are also thankful their cancers were found through screenings.

“I was lucky that my lump outwardly showed,” Peggy said. “I knew I had to get it checked out. And even though they told me it was just a cyst, I had to go with my gut that it wasn’t. I had faith in my doctor, too. I’m forever grateful to him for taking out that lump.”

“When I was diagnosed, they told me the cancer had been there for a long time,” Marcia said. “They went back and looked and it didn’t show up on any previous mammograms. Nowadays with digital 3D mammograms, it’s much clearer and easier to find it at an earlier stage.”

Today, four years after treatment, both Peggy and Marcia are doing well. They don’t get together as often as they’d like but occasionally connect at local basketball games when the grandkids are playing or at the county fair. They still check up on one another.

“When I know Peggy’s going in for an appointment, I follow-up and ask how it went. We continue to communicate back and forth,” Marcia said.

Both are thankful for their great care and for the friendship that got them through their treatment and beyond, which now includes another chapter in this lifelong story.

Both recently had knee replacement surgery. Peggy first, of course. “I told her, you need to quit following me,” Peggy said, laughing.

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