Wife and Mom Stays Determined to Beat Breast Cancer
Upon hearing a diagnosis of breast cancer, Rachel Hamburger didn’t feel shocked, scared, angry or sad. “I was annoyed,” said the Gettysburg, S.D., mother of six, daycare operator and wife of the county sheriff. “Our lives are so busy – I didn’t have time to be sick.”
Rachel felt a lump that seemed to get larger. She was diagnosed with triple negative breast cancer – a more aggressive form of the disease. She remembered looking at her husband, Curt, and thinking, “Of course I would have that kind. It couldn’t be easy.”
She also felt her natural trait of stubbornness rise to the surface. “I knew it would be a tremendous setback for all of my boys if something happened to me. I’m too stubborn to let that happen.”
Because of that stubborn streak, Rachel says she can be a “difficult patient.” But when it came to her treatment plan outlined by Sreekanth Donepudi, MD, Avera Medical Group oncologist in Pierre, she wanted to follow it to the letter. “I trust my doctor. He’s super smart, he’s got the training and he sees cancer patients every day.”
Rachel wanted to have as much of her care as close to home as possible. Yet Donepudi called upon multiple members of the Avera medical team to ensure she had the best possible care plan.
He first recommended chemotherapy before surgery. Rachel was curious about clinical trials, and so she asked about the possibilities. Genomic testing through the Avera Cancer Institute in Sioux Falls indicated immunotherapy, tailored to Rachel’s tumor type, as a promising option.
So alongside her chemo, immunotherapy was administered before surgery – an emerging treatment for breast cancer. “I loved that my doctor was willing to go outside of the box,“ she said.
This treatment was so successful that the tumor shrank down to nothing. Her breast surgeon in Pierre, Eldon Becker, MD, called her to tell her this miraculous news. “The hope was that it would shrink in size – but it was completely gone,” Rachel related.
She was able to undergo lumpectomy – removal of the lump area – instead of mastectomy – removal of her entire breast.
Becker used oncoplastic techniques that improve the look of the breast at the same time as removing the tissue affected by cancer. This included a small implant to help ensure her breast would appear as normal as possible, with no indentation where the tissue had been removed. It also serves as a marker for ongoing follow-up.
After surgery, Rachel traveled to Aberdeen for daily radiation treatments for six weeks under the care of Kathleen Schneekloth, MD. This therapy is aimed toward preventing any recurrence at the original cancer site. Her radiation took place before the Helmsley Center in Pierre was complete. If it had happened only months later, she could have had this form of care in Pierre as well.
It was a daily drive, but the care she received was worth it. “All my care at Avera was awesome – and it saved my life.”
While Rachel feels good and is back to her career in day care, she’s quick to say that cancer treatment is not easy. “I wouldn’t wish it on anyone.” Alongside the victories, she remembers moments of weakness and discouragement.
During one of those moments of weakness, Rachel felt like giving up. That’s when her son Jeremy stepped in. Jeremy joined their family at age 15 after spending time in the foster care system. “He told me, ‘I finally have an awesome mom, and now I’m afraid I’m going to lose you.’” That changed everything.
Rachel credits her family for being there with the encouragement she needed, as well as a group of good friends. In addition to her husband, she had friends who went with her to every chemo infusion and radiation appointment.
“My friends had a T-shirt printed for me that says, ‘Friends don’t let friends fight alone.’ That was so true in my journey.”
To learn more go to Avera.org/breast.