Schlagel saw positives in breast cancer diagnosis

Pam Schlagel was naturally surprised in late August 1994, when she received the call that the physical she had just had, including a mammogram, had revealed a tumor.

When she got the results back from a follow-up needle biopsy showing she had breast cancer, she was in “complete shock,” she said. But while dealing with that diagnosis was rough psychologically at first, she now cherishes her overall experiences that came as a result.

Schlagel, who grew up in Princeton, and lives here now, was residing in Columbia Heights at the time she had that fateful mammogram.

The diagnosis was so shocking, she said, partly because it was a 180-degree turn from how she had been thinking about her condition prior to the test results.

“I had gone to Weight Watchers, had gotten to my weight goal and was feeling real cool,” she said. She had worked hard for that, walking three miles every day and doing water aerobics in the YWCA in Fridley.

Her father had died of pancreatic cancer and she knew of others who had received a cancer diagnosis, but says that because she was aware of no breast cancer in her family, she was in denial and upset when she got the diagnosis.

“I was really angry,” she said. “I called up a good friend and ranted and raved.”

Schlagel remembers calming down not long after that call, and felt the praying she did that day helped. “It’s not to say I wasn’t simmering under there,” Schlagel said.

Schlagel had a lumpectomy to remove the tumor through outpatient surgery early the next month at Unity Hospital in Fridley. Schlagel said she believes mammograms are “so important,” because the tumor was deep and not something she could have detected otherwise.

After the surgery, Schlagel underwent chemotherapy sessions for six months, into the following spring, and then had three to four months of radiation treatments.

Schlagel was given anti-nausea medication and says she feels fortunate she did not get sick all the time from the chemotherapy. Some of the chemo did make her feel very ill and remembers feeling “extremely cold all the time” toward the end of the chemo sessions which by then were in the winter.

“I continued to work,” she said, explaining that she felt it was “extremely important” to not give up her job and the people she worked with. She lost about a week of work when she did feel ill from the chemo, but says her company was very understanding.

Schlagel, who was 52 at the time of her diagnosis, expresses appreciation today for having a friend, Annette, who took her to the chemo sessions and who, when Schlagel’s hair began falling out from the chemo treatments, shaved Schlagel’s head.

Schlagel wore a wig to church and to her job at Norwest Computer Systems in downtown Minneapolis, where she was a supervisor.

One odd thing that Schlagel noticed two to three months into her chemo therapy, was having developed a “craving for pork chops,” and she gained weight as the sessions went on. Annette read a motivational book to Schlagel during chemotherapy sessions to relax Schlagel, and Annette, who was a masseuse, gave Schlagel a massage twice a week. Annette is a “real super lady,” Schlagel says.

Schlagel’s mother Alice Guyette, who was in Princeton at the time, also cared for Schlagel when Schlagel visited Princeton during her recovery.


Help from other places

Schlagel also found help in the Cancer Resource Center at Unity Hospital, a hospital where Schlagel had been volunteering. Schlagel said that as soon as she could after the cancer diagnosis, she went to the Cancer Resource Center where she picked up information on dealing with cancer and received a “lot of support” from people in the breast cancer support group she attended at the center.

Getting that support was a “big deal,” Schlagel said. She was at that time all alone, having gone through a divorce about a year earlier, and didn’t have a church family. She was attending Immaculate Conception in the metro area, but says she found the church to be so large that she felt “anonymous” there.

But when she walked into the breast cancer support group meeting for the first time, and “saw all the ladies who knew exactly what I felt…it was a very good thing for me,” she said.

Some don’t care for support groups, Schlagel said, but for her it worked. Schlagel called the experience “real powerful.”

She also went to a retreat along the Mississippi River in Otsego where survivors of breast and ovarian cancer would meet together every year. The program includes a ceremony in which someone plants a tree in memory of a fellow cancer victim who had died.

Schlagel learned from the retreat how three sisters had gone through mastectomies and that one of the three had not survived. “Wow, the courage they had was really something,” Schlagel said, noting that the cancer was in the sisters’ genes.

Schlagel noticed a lump four years after her cancerous tumor was detected, but the ultrasound, in 1998, showed it was negative for cancer.

Once a person has been diagnosed with cancer and later gets a follow-up test, the medical staff does not let the patient leave the testing facility until they have been informed of the test results, she said. A second lump was noticed in one of her breasts in 2001, but the test also showed that was negative.

Schlagel returned to live in Princeton 10 years ago and has been active in the Legion Auxiliary all of that time, has been a member of the VFW Auxiliary for four years, and active at Bethany Lutheran. One of her activities that she enjoys is visiting military veterans in the St. Cloud VA Medical Center.


Two decades later

Now, nearly two decades since she was given her cancer diagnosis, she says she is thankful for all the doctors she had in dealing with the cancer, and her supporters during that time.

“I met some of the most wonderful people with this experience,” Schlagel said. “I truly believe having the cancer and being able to receive and give support to others has been one of the most positive experiences of my life.”

The cancer survivors she met, she said, were not just survivors, but also counselors. One of the places where that came through, she said, was the Renewing Life support group she was in for a year at Unity Hospital in 1995. People with any type of cancer and their spouse or friend are able to attend that group, Schlagel said.

A woman named Marsha, who learned that Schlagel was living alone, invited her to attend Renewing Life activities, which included a potluck supper one time and a picnic, another. Schlagel remembers one woman in the group, who was dying of non Hodgkins lymphoma, being younger than Schlagel’s three grown children.

Schlagel says she attended 20-plus funerals for cancer victims over two to three years, and remembers one man younger than her whose wife had just died of cancer.

“It was sad,” Schlagel said of family survivors. “You hope they can go on and have a good life, especially when they are so young.”

Attending the funerals was “pretty intense stuff,” she said, noting that she became “burned out” from attending them.

Today, Schlagel co-chairs the local American Cancer Society Relay for Life survivors committee. Schlagel’s early involvement with Relay for Life was in 1997, in Spring Lake Park. The Relay for Life chairperson was dying of cancer and Schlagel helped take over running the fundraiser that year.

Schlagel says that without all her experiences that she had because of her cancer diagnosis, she would not have become involved in the Relay for Life.

“People care about other people but when you’ve had cancer, you kind of feel like you understand what others feel,” she said.

Schlagel has also provided counseling in recent years, to people she knows who have come to her to talk about their cancer diagnosis. She did some counseling to strangers a couple times through a group cancer program in which a volunteers are each assigned a name to talk to someone with a cancer diagnosis.

“It was different, because you didn’t know these people,” Schlagel said.

Schlagel says she prefers the support group approach over one-to-one support. But she left no doubt last week, as she recalled her cancer experiences, that she will be able to relate to someone else who might come to her and ask, “How might I deal with my cancer?”