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Published on July 14, 2015

For Two Survivors, Friendship – not Cancer – Has the Last Word

SIOUX FALLS (July 12, 2015) – Having been diagnosed with the same two types of cancer at the same stages of life placed Kristi Vander Veen and Cathy Nielson in an elite “club” that no one would choose to join.  

Yet sharing the everyday struggles and victories of cancer is also what led to a lifetime bond that neither would trade for the world.

While one is blonde and the other brunette, both women have bright eyes and radiant smiles despite the struggles they’ve been through. It’s hard to not be amazed by all the other similarities they share. Nielson is from Sioux Falls; Vander Veen is from Sioux Center. Nielson works as a physical therapist; Vander Veen as a physical therapist assistant.

Both have three children and husbands who work in agriculture. Both were diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma in 1998. Both had tumors in the same location, and were treated with surgery that left a scar down the middle of their chest. Both overcame Hodgkin’s, only to be diagnosed with breast cancer later in life as mothers of young children. Both had double mastectomies and reconstructive surgery.

Both were patients of Julie Reiland, MD, breast surgeon with Avera Medical Group Comprehensive Breast Care, and that’s how their parallel lives intersected.

When Vander Veen consulted with Reiland in January of this year, something about her story sounded familiar. “I’ve only had two patients in 16 years that involved breast cancer that was secondary to Hodgkin’s. The whole time I was talking with Kristi, I was struck by her resemblance to Cathy. Not physically, but in personality and outlook,” Reiland recalled.

Neither gave the impression of being a victim, Reiland remembered. Both sat on the edge of their seats, saying, “OK, let’s go, let’s do this,” in discussing their treatment plans. “I was in awe of these women and their spectacular attitude in the midst of a diagnosis that would be crushing to many patients.”

Nielson was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma at the age of 24 as she was planning her wedding. “I had a tumor in my chest about the size of a fist, right by my heart, and also two small tumors by the clavicle.” After surgery to biopsy the tumors, she had radiation treatment to kill the cancer and prevent its spread.

“They told me then that I would have a chance of secondary cancer and to start mammograms early, beginning at age 30. I did what I was supposed to do, but I didn’t think it would happen to me,” Nielson said.

Thanks to this plan for early detection, her breast cancer was caught in its early stages. But due to her history of cancer and radiation, the best treatment course was a double mastectomy. “One in eight patients who have mantle field radiation to the chest develops a secondary breast cancer,” Nielson said.

During the six years that passed since her breast cancer treatment, Nielson hoped there would be some purpose for what she had been through. “When you get better, you want so badly to do something good for someone else,” she said. “I had been waiting to meet Kristi for a long time… I just didn’t know she existed.”

Vander Veen was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s as a college student. When she was referred to Reiland for the same breast cancer surgery that Nielson had experienced, Reiland knew she had to get the two together. She immediately called Nielson to see if it would be OK to share her contact information.

It wasn’t long before Nielson heard from Vander Veen. “She texted me and asked if it would be OK to call her and I said ‘sure.’ She texted me back and said ‘how about now?’ So she called and we chatted for an hour and a half,” Nielson said.

The two first met in person last January when Nielson came to Avera McKennan Hospital & University Health Center to visit Vander Veen after her surgery.

“I felt instantly better when I met Cathy,” Vander Veen said. “We instantly clicked and bonded. For her to have gone through the exact same thing I did was just so encouraging to me.” Nielson agreed, saying, “I needed Kristi as much as she needed me.”

The two could talk about things that few others would understand – the life-changing aspects of cancer survivorship, as well as the little things, like how to put a shirt on if you can’t lift your arms after breast surgery.

As time moves forward, the friends stay in contact at least weekly. “We have too much in common for it to be a coincidence. We were truly meant to cross paths in life,” Nielson said. 

“It’s a comfort to know anytime I have a down day, I can call or text Cathy and she’ll bring me back up,” Vander Veen said.

“Cancer didn’t get to have the final say,” Nielson said. “Instead it was the beginning of a great friendship.”

Pictured are Kristi Vander Veen, left, and Cathy Nielson.

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