Courtney Collen (Host): Hello, and welcome to One in Eight. It’s a new podcast series brought to you by Sanford Health. I’m your host, Courtney Collen with Sanford Health News. This series continues and important conversation all about breast cancer awareness because one in eight women will be diagnosed with breast cancer during her lifetime. Today, we’re learning more about the breast cancer mentorship program through the Edith Sanford Breast Center, where survivors become mentors for women going through a very similar journey.
One of those volunteer mentors is Verna Rasmussen in Fargo. Verna, thanks so much for joining me today!
Verna Rasmussen (Guest): Thank you for having me. I’m excited to talk about the mentor program.
Host: Tell me a little bit about you and your journey through breast cancer.
Rasmussen: March of 2014, I went for a mammogram and of course got the dreaded call back and I wasn’t too worried about it. I just assumed that something hadn’t showed up or there was a place they couldn’t read or whatever. So I went back and had another mammogram done. And as I was, excuse me, getting dressed after that the nurse came out and said, the doctor would like to talk to you for a minute. And I thought, okay, he’s just going to say, everything’s good. You can go home. Well, he had a pamphlet and as he was standing there talking to me, my world sort of got turned upside down. I remember him saying a bunch of words, some of which I didn’t understand at the time. And the one word that I did catch was carcinoma. And of course I knew what carcinoma meant.
It meant cancer and soul. As I said, my world was turned upside down for a little bit. There it’s like you suddenly become numb because of you’re in shock. I had no clue that I was going to find out I had cancer that day and it was just such a shock in April. I had surgery. I was lucky enough to have a lumpectomy. It didn’t have to have a mastectomy or anything. After a couple of weeks of healing, I had, I started the chemo and I had six rounds of chemo every three weeks. And then after that I had 33 rounds of radiation. And so I was her two positive, which meant I also had an H to have an infusion until April of the next year. And so it took about a year to get through all of my treatments and now I’m good and doing really, really well.
Host: I’m so glad to hear that you’re doing well. Yes. During those hard days, what kept you going?
Rasmussen: Well, obviously family was my main those were the main people I leaned on my husband, especially my kids and grandkids. I live for my grandkids. We had lots of friends that were there for me. Our church was very good. One of the things I had looked forward to was I had decided in January of 2014 that I was going to retire. And so when I was diagnosed in March, it was like, Oh, okay. This is not the path I had seen. I had have made it to take to retirement, but you, you do what you do, you get through it and you move on. And so I had that to look forward to too. Another thing that really helped for me, and I know this isn’t for everybody, but I started a blog and I made it public for friends and family to follow. I just found that writing was very therapeutic for me. It made me think through and write down how I was feeling. And, and that was a good way to share with my friends and relatives, what was going on in my life at that point. Also one of the things that keeps you going is for me I just knew that if I was going to get through this and, and enjoy life, I needed to have a positive attitude. And so when I would go to have my infusions or have my chemo treatments, I always tried to go with a, with a positive attitude, have a smile on my face. The chemo nurses were angels on earth. They are so wonderful. The greeters at the door, anybody who you come in contact, who I guess, I always thought, if you give them a smile, they’ll give you one back. And it just lifts everyone’s spirits. And even though you’re feeling crummy, if you put a smile on your face, at least you feel a little bit better inside and, and reflect that to people around you.
Host: So at what point did you think I want to help other women who are going through that same diagnosis?
Rasmussen: That’s really interesting that you bring that up. Because as I was going through this, I kept thinking there has to be something positive coming out of this negative experience. I kept thinking over and over and over during my treatments, there has to be something that I can do afterwards to help others get through this. Because when I was newly diagnosed, I was terrified. I didn’t, there’s no cancer in our family. I didn’t know about breast cancer very much. And so my way of getting through it was read, read, read. And so, while I was going through the treatments, I decided, how am I going to make this into a positive experience? How am I going to help others? Because I don’t want everybody else to be terrified towards the end of my treatments, dr. [inaudible] Strip, who is an oncologist here at Sanford who happens to be an awesome person and an amazing doctor asked if I’d be interested in doing something like being a mentor… I said, ‘absolutely’. I have been thinking about how I could do it. So it was almost like prayer answered. She gave me the ability to help others. After I have had to been through the same experiences, people who have not been through this experience, don’t realize how unsettling or afraid. And there’s so many questions when you are first diagnosed there, there’s just an overload of information. And one of the things that happens is you can your soul frozen or terrified or numb that you don’t process all the information. And so for me, I needed to just stop and read and read and read I’m one who lives on knowledge. I need knowledge. I need to know what’s going on. Some people don’t, some of the mentors or mentees that I have spoken to don’t really want to know that much about it. They just say, let the doctors take care of it, but not very many.
Most of the people who ask for a mentor are ones who really want to know what it is like most of them say, did you experience this? Or what happens when, or I am not, I am not understanding this. And so you just sort of rephrase it and tell them from your experience, which may not be identical to theirs, but it gives them less fear and tension and anxiety and just supports their emotional, mental health. And you know, that when your emotional health is better, you’re going to heal faster and feel better. And so I always, I really wanted to help people and soul. One of the first things that I had done when I was diagnosed was I had a friend who I taught with. I was a first grade teacher for many years. I had a friend who I taught with that had experienced breast cancer. And so the first thing I did was run to her and ask questions. I can remember one of the ex the appointments I had with dr. Tear strip very much towards the beginning of my treatments. I went to her with three and a half questions, three and a half pages of questions. And because I I’m one who needs to know. And so she was very patient, walk me through all the questions and answers. And so it’s, that’s what led me to help others. I just really wanted to help others not be so fearful, not have so much tension and anxiety. And I just wanted to be the person who was been there, done that, and walked on a similar path for a newly diagnosed person.
Host: Give us a little bit of an idea of how that, how it works once a woman is diagnosed, what can she expect? Is it a phone call? Does she get referred?
Rasmussen: Doctors or the oncologists at Sanford or Roger Maris Cancer Center ask if they would like to speak to someone who has been through a breast cancer, sort of as a mentor, or just a person who has been there and done that. And so what happens is I will get a a message from one of the people at Sanford with, cause all of this is confidential. Anything that is said between our mentor and mentee is confidential. So I get her first name and her age and a little bit about the treatments that she’s going to receive or is receiving. They try to match us up with people who have had similar similar experiences or similar age, or, you know, I wouldn’t be a good mentor for someone who’s 32 and has three little kids at home because I’m a grandma and passed that. So they try to match us up with people who are in the same stage of life with the same similar type of cancers. And the treatment plans often they said, did this happen to you? And I say yes or no. And we always refer them back to the doctors or the nurses or whomever at Sanford. If there’s a medical question, we don’t offer medical advice. We do offer a lot of support and get practical, practical advice and tips about any of the treatments they’re getting. Like one of the things that happens to a lot of women with breast cancers, they’re going to lose their hair. And that’s a really traumatic moment. I remember standing in the shower one morning and shampooing my hair and I, all of a sudden I ended up with a handful of hair and as the hair fell, so did the tears. I’m thinking, unless you’ve experienced this, you don’t really understand the impact it’s going to have. I was prepared. I knew it was going to happen, but it’s still hard when it happens. The nurses and doctors are wonderful about giving advice, but they they’ve not walked the path we’ve been on. So, you know, things like buy a wig before you lose your hair because you’re not going to want to do it after you lose your hair, you’re going to feel strange or what do I take to chemo? What do I really need there? What, what don’t I need? Another thing, how do you keep your wig on, in the wind? That’s a big one in the fall. They answering questions about your port. Did your port do this or feel like that? And, and again, we don’t give medical advice, we just answer questions and give support in areas that they they wonder about or ask about.
Host: So what does it mean to you now to be able to help others have a more positive experience?
Rasmussen: Well, for me, it’s just the personal satisfaction. As I mentioned before, I had been thinking or wondering what I could do while I was going through treatments, what I could do to help someone after I was done. And just the personal satisfaction and the, the goodness that you feel, knowing that you’ve helped someone through their fear or, you know, trying to make it a little easier when they’re feeling so apprehensive about undergoing surgery or what’s that first chemo treatment going to be like when you’re newly diagnosed, you have so much information, but when you get information from someone who’s been in the same shoes that you have, or the same experiences that you’re going through now, it just makes them feel like, okay, now she, she has shared with me what it might be like. And now I feel like I have a little better understanding of what I’m going to be facing and what’s what it’s going to feel like. So, just the personal satisfaction has, is something that I so much appreciate. Sometimes people say to me, but doesn’t it get you down? Doesn’t it remind you over and over. And maybe the first one or two or three calls when I was done with my treatments, brought some back some memories, but now it’s bringing, it just brings more joy to know that I have helped someone alleviated some of the fear that I remember having that was, it was a very scary time because I didn’t know anybody or didn’t know what I was going to be facing. So just the, the satisfaction of, of knowing that you have helped someone is what, what makes me want to continue to do this? And I always am delighted to help anyone who asks for help or not even help, but just for understanding or clarity, or what do I do now, or how is this going to feel, or what’s going to happen when I go for this appointment,
Host: If there is a woman listening who has just been diagnosed with breast cancer and she may or may not have the opportunity to meet you, what do you want her to know right now?
Rasmussen: You know, a lot of people go through this thinking, I don’t really want to know about this. I just will do whatever my doctor says, which is fine. And I totally understand that. However, I always think that if you make a connection with someone who is, who has experienced the same thing as you have, you’re going to enter it with a lot less anxiety and a lot less fear. And it just having a little bit of information or a little bit of background always makes things easier for me. And I would hope that that’s what we’re doing for the mentees that we visit with. I remember, well actually one of my very first mentees we visited quite often and pretty soon it was like, Hmm, I think she’s more of a friend than she is a mentee. And so we just had this great relationship. Another mentee that I had needed a lot more support. And so she would just call every time something was a little bit off and she would say, you know, this just happened and you think I should call the doctor. And if they ever say, should I call the doctor? I say, absolutely. Call the nurses, told the doctors and see, but she just needed a little more support and encouragement and saying, you can do this. You can do this. Look at me. I am fine. I went through this very same thing and things you’re going to, you know, this will soon, I’ll be behind you and you will get through this. You just need to if you need to visit with somebody, call me, I’m available. Call me in the morning, call me in. And by this time I had been retired too, so they could call me anytime morning, noon, or night. I just encourage them call if you have a question, Oh, that was another thing I was going to say. A lot of them just had questions about things like, well, what, what will happen when I go home? And so I would give them the hint, like, okay, if you are living alone, or if you have a spouse that doesn’t cook or, you know, go ahead and freeze some meals. Soup is a wonderful thing to freeze. And it’s one of the things you can eat very easily when you’re doing chemo. And so just giving them little tips and helping them get through the next stage of their treatment is what keeps me going. And, and you do need, if you decide you want to be a mentor, you do need to be able to separate your beliefs, because some people don’t want to know a whole lot and other people do. So if you’re one who like me, who needs knowledge, knowledge, knowledge, then don’t, don’t don’t overload them with information or, you know, things that they’re not ready for.
Host: It sounds like that connection is so important. Obviously, Sanford really values that mentorship program. How would you encourage a woman newly diagnosed to make those connections so that she knows she’s not alone?
Rasmussen: I would definitely say communicate with your doctors. I mentioned before I went to Dr. Shelby Terstriep with three and a half pages of questions, ask questions. If you don’t understand something ask questions, they’re there to help the doctors, the nurses that the, the psychologists all are part of your medical team and your team is there to help you. And they really do want to help you. So communication and asking questions is a huge part of the process. I would also say, ask for a mentor who matches your age and your life, where you are at in life. And they’re very good. Sanford is very good about matching people to where you’re at in life and the kind of treatments you’re going to get. So it’s such a great experience and it’s so important to talk to someone. Yeah, you can talk to your family and your friends, but sometimes you don’t want to burden your family with your fears or your insecurities. Whereas when you talk to a mentor and when I talked to my managers, I just say, you know what, ask me anything. I’ve been asked a lot of questions and nothing is going to surprise me or shock me, or just ask questions, ask what’s on your mind. If you have medical needs, communicate that to your doctors and nurses. And I just can’t emphasize communication enough because your, your medical team and your personal support team is there to help you here in North Dakota. People have a hard time saying, yes, I will take your offer of help. Instead we sometimes say, Oh no, I’m fine. But if they offer to get groceries or bring food over it, let them, they want to help you. And that’s one way people can help and just say, yes, I know it’s hard, but just say yes.
Host: For all other women listening, how important is prevention?
Rasmussen: Get your mammogram every year. It’s, you know, COVID, isn’t a good excuse not to get it. No time being too busy is not a good excuse because it’s certainly going to take more time. If you do end up having to go through a treatment and the earlier they catch the cancer, the easier the treatments, the better off you’ll be. And the other thing is do yourself checks a lot of people neglect those, and it’s so important to get your mammogram and do your self-check.
Host: Verna, it was such a pleasure talking to you. We’re so grateful for you, and of course for your time today. Thank you.
Rasmussen: Well, thank you.
Host: I’m Courtney Collen. Catch the next episode of One in Eight. It’s our breast cancer podcast series coming soon. Stay well, have a great day.