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, home daycare operator and wife of the county sheriff. “Our lives are so busy – I didn’t have time to be sick.”
Her diagnosis of triple negative breast cancer came after feeling a lump that didn’t go away and seemed to get larger. Triple negative is a more aggressive form of breast cancer and it doesn’t respond as well to treatment. At her age of 42, she had a 3 percent chance of getting breast cancer, and of that 3 percent, her chances of having triple negative cancer were 20 to 25 percent. She remembered looking at her husband, Curt, and thinking, “Of course I would have that kind. It couldn’t be easy.”
Along with annoyance, she also felt her natural trait of stubbornness rise to the surface. Rachel is the mother of six sons – two in college, one in high school and three in grade school. “My littlest is 6 and he’s too little to be without his mama, and in fact I know it would be a tremendous setback for all of my boys if something happened to me. I’m too stubborn to let that happen.”
Rachel says she can be a “difficult patient” because of that stubborn streak, and in the past has hesitated to go to the doctor and rarely if ever took a sick day. 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.” That trust made Rachel totally fine with an emerging treatment plan that called for chemotherapy and immunotherapy before surgery, rather than the traditional plan of drug treatment after surgery.
Now finished with her initial phase of chemotherapy, Rachel is undergoing chemo immunotherapy, and the next phase of her treatment will be a mastectomy to remove the affected breast along with reconstruction during the same surgery.
She has opted to have all her cancer care close to home in Pierre. “One thing that attracted me to Pierre was that my doctor was willing to go outside of the box when treating my cancer. He didn’t settle for the norm. I asked him if it was your wife, daughter or mom, what would you recommend for her.” She remembers that Dr. Donepudi sat back, crossed his arms and said, “she would do chemo first.” “So I said, OK, let’s do that.”
The plan’s success to date is giving Rachel and her family a lot of hope. “My tumor was 6 cm when I started treatment, and my latest ultrasound showed it had shrunk to 1.9 cm.” Also, Dr. Donepudi could no longer feel the tumor in an exam. “I think he was more excited than I was.”
She’s happy to be able to get her care close to home. “All my care here in Pierre has been awesome. They know me when I walk in. The nurses who take care of me are very warm and help me feel comfortable. I love that,” Rachel said.
“I have to say that chemo was hard. I was tired, sore and weak.” She said these effects were scary for her family. “It wasn’t normal for me to be sleeping during the day, for dad to be doing laundry rather than mom, or for me to not get up to cook supper.” She remembers feeling so weak she couldn’t hold her water bottle or even her phone.
However, her stubborn nature helped with the nausea. “I was too stubborn to throw up. I hate to throw up. So whenever I would feel sick, I would go find a little something salty to eat to stave it off.”
One of the hardest aspects for Rachel was losing her hair, and gaining back the “baby weight” she had worked so hard to lose. “They don’t tell you that it hurts when your hair starts to fall out.” Rachel started her own blog to share such details of her journey with other women who might have to go through the same things. The weight gain was due to taking steroids. “But the hair will grow back and the swelling is just water weight. I will get through it – it’s just the actual getting through it that’s hard.”
She credits her family for being there with the encouragement she needs, as well as a group of good girlfriends. “They check in on me or come and take the boys for me.” That includes her family practitioner, Connie Belford, CNP, in Gettysburg, who will give her a needed pep talk if she gives into feeling sorry for herself.
“You get over that. I’m stubborn and the people around me are just as stubborn,” Rachel said. “I just don’t stop having the willpower to keep moving and keep living.”