It was May. Pamela Harskamp went in for her routine yearly mammogram. Except this time, she received a call back.
“I didn’t think anything of it. The 3D mammogram catches a lot of things, so I was not particularly worried,” Harskamp said. “But when my nurse told me we were doing an ultrasound, that put me on alert.”
Following the ultrasound, Harskamp also had a biopsy — and then the waiting began.
“That was a scary time between the biopsy and when I got the results,” Harskamp said. “I just knew in my gut something was wrong. It was so tough mentally, and it even wore me down physically. I felt like I had to keep it together. But at night when I was alone, I would just break down. I relied heavily on family and friends to get through.”
Navigating the diagnosis
Finally, the day for Harskamp to get her results arrived.
“For my husband, it was a sense of utter shock. In his mind, he was thinking, ‘My wife doesn’t have breast cancer. That’s not going to happen to us.’ So when we were told I had breast cancer, he was dealing with the same emotions I had dealt with earlier in the week,” Harskamp said. “For me, I felt relieved knowing I could focus on where we go from here.”
Still processing the difficult news themselves, Harskamp and her husband sat down with their sons later that day.
“They both had very different responses,” she said. “My 15-year-old did not say a word, but my 11-year-old took it really hard. That is a moment you never expect to have to go through. But we told them, ‘We have great care. We are going to get through this.’”
Harskamp’s local Iowa physician recommended she receive cancer treatment at Sanford Health. When she arrived at Edith Sanford Breast Center in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, for her first appointment, Harskamp was paired with a nurse navigator.
“I had all these questions in my mind. I had a notebook. I was going to write everything down. But my nurse navigator came in and said, ‘I’ve got this. I’m going to take notes for you. You just listen to your doctors. I have all the information you need in this packet.’ And that just struck me as wow, they really do care about me,” Harskamp said.
‘I want to use my experience to help others’
Because Harskamp had dense breast tissue, she didn’t want to experience anxiety every six months after getting a mammogram. So, Harskamp — alongside her husband and doctors — decided her best option was a double mastectomy.
“Something that made me feel absolutely like this was the right decision for me was the tumor board,” she said. “The fact that over 20 doctors reviewed my case helped me feel completely at peace with what I was doing.”
Now, as Harskamp finishes her treatment, she is focused on the last stages of breast reconstruction.
“I look at my future completely differently after that mammogram,” she said. “I want to use my experience to help others. I have a friend who has decided to have a preventive mastectomy. I want to guide her through and give her all of my knowledge and support.”
This is the latest in a series called “We’re In This Together,” videos and stories from everyday patients going through cancer treatment at Sanford Health. Get an idea of what to expect from cancer survivorship — follow along to their appointments, and see a glimpse of the support in their lives.