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Cancer care: Patient stories

Our patients and their stories

These stories paint a picture of the expert medical care and excellent experience we provide to our patients and their families.

Harley Bradley

Harley Bradley: Two-time cancer survivor

Firefighter Harley Bradley had not been afraid when he was treated for prostate cancer. But things were different the second time around when diagnosed with non-Hodgkin's lymphoma.

Breast cancer

Josephine Chung says, My being here has everything to do with early detection.

Mammograms in your 40s? Our experts say yes.
And so does Josephine.

Although the value of screening mammograms for women in their 40s has been debated, there is no doubt that mammograms save lives. Just ask Josephine Chung.

The motto

Don't avoid breast cancer: Tami's story

Sooner is better than later for detecting breast cancer. Many statistics support this, but Tami Strantz of Cambridge, Minnesota, knows firsthand how important early detection is.

Lavaan in her garden

Beating breast cancer and setting a new breast care standard: Lavaan's story

Shortly after losing her husband to cancer, Lavaan Stutzman found herself in a fight against breast cancer. She was in a clinical trial at Piper Breast Center that led to a new standard for breast cancer care.

Sue is in her 40s

Early breast cancer leads to healthy living: Sue's story

When diagnosed with early-stage breast cancer, Sue Gregerson decided to lead as healthy a lifestyle as possible. She shares how LiveWell Fitness Center's Take Action program helped her succeed.

Kristin with son and daughter

Early detection is the best protection: Kristin's story

During a self-exam four years ago she discovered a lump in her breast, which turned out to be breast cancer. At the time she was 42 years old, a busy mother from River Falls with two young children.

Prostate cancer

Robert with his grandson

Retired doctor chooses robotic surgery for prostate cancer: Robert's story

When Robert Jensen, MD, found out he had prostate cancer, he chose to have robotic surgery. Now he continues to enjoy spending time with his grandson.

Neal Prochnow with his wife

River Falls resident spent just one night in the hospital thanks to robotic surgery: Neal's story

Two years ago Neal Prochnow discovered he has an aggressive form of prostate cancer. He needed surgery and had a robotic procedure.


Colon cancer

Karen's colon cancer story

No family history of colon cancer: Karen's story

Karen Sonnenberg had no worries when she scheduled a colonoscopy last March. But this time, her doctor found a polyp. A few days later, she learned it was cancer. That was a shock. “I have no cancer history at all in my family,” she said.

Ruth speaks about colon cancer screening

Saved by colon cancer screening: Ruth's story

In 1999, Ruth Edstrom got the news that changed her life. She had stage 4 colon cancer. Today she says, "The most important thing is for people to go get screened."

Esophageal cancer

Rick stands by his aircraft

A difficult surgery made easier: Rick's story

Rick Meyer beat esophageal cancer with the treatment and care he received at Virginia Piper Cancer Institute®. He was one of the first patients in Minnesota to have robot-assisted surgery for cancer from the esophagus.

Ovarian cancer

Jeanne works in Minneapolis

What every woman needs to know: Jeanne's story

Jeanne Karnowski feared abnormal menstrual pains were a sign of cancer. She asked her gynecologist to test her. Early diagnosis led to early treatment, and now she's cancer-free.

Janice Roohan

Great treatment without travel: Janice's story

Janice Roohan, an ovarian cancer survivor, enjoys everyday moments. Roohan was diagnosed with cancer and received most of her treatment at the District One Cancer Center.

Harley: Two-time cancer survivor

Harley Bradley has recovered from prostate cancer and lymphoma

Harley Bradley is a retired firefighter who lives with his wife Betty at their home in Belle Plaine, Minnesota. He is also a two-time cancer survivor.

Prostate cancer, then non-Hodgkin's lymphoma

About a week after his 65th birthday and shortly after finishing treatment for prostate cancer, Bradley was diagnosed with diffuse large b-cell non-Hodgkin's lymphoma of his left maxillary sinus.

A quick cancer diagnosis

During a routine hearing test with Craig Nystrom, MD, an ear, nose and throat doctor at St. Francis Regional Medical Center, Bradley happened to mention that sometimes when blowing his nose, blood would come out. Dr. Nystrom took a look and immediately realized that something was wrong.

Bradley attributes his success in beating non-Hodgkin's lymphoma to the fast work and attention of Dr. Nystrom.

Bradley was impressed with how quickly the test results came back and the diagnosis was made. Initially, it was thought that he had Stage I lymphoma, an early form of the cancer. But further testing showed that he had Stage III. The cancer was not only in his left sinus, but also an area in his back and in his stomach. Fortunately, his bone marrow was free of disease.

Fighting non-Hodgkin's lymphoma

As a firefighter, Bradley was used to seeing death and destruction and was trained to compartmentalize it. He had not been afraid of the prostate cancer, but things were different the second time around when diagnosed with non-Hodgkin's lymphoma.

This time, Bradley was not sure what to expect. He wanted to learn more about his second cancer diagnosis and tried searching the Internet.

Overwhelmed and unsure of what information he could trust online, he decided to take Dr. Nystrom's advice and follow up with Joseph Leach, MD, medical director of St. Francis Cancer Center.

He put his trust in Dr. Leach's hands and underwent six cycles of chemotherapy.

The hardest part of treatment for Bradley was not feeling up to visiting with family and friends. Fortunately, Bradley responded well to chemotherapy. After his first treatment he noticed that the lump in his mouth had completely disappeared.

Cancer changes everything

Almost a year later, Bradley was feeling like his old self again. He enjoys chatting with friends on the golf course and spending time with his family.

As Bradley says, "Cancer changes the way you look at everything."

After battling cancer twice, he feels that his life is a gift and he is grateful for the support of his wife, family, and friends.

If Bradley could depart one bit of wisdom, he says he would urge everyone to get regular check ups. Early detection is key to beating cancer.

Learn more about...


Source: St. Francis Cancer Center 2008 Annual Report
Reviewed by: Timothy Sielaff, MD, PhD, FACS, president, Virginia Piper Cancer Institute®
First Published: 08/17/2009
Last Reviewed: 08/17/2009

Retired doctor chooses robotic surgery for prostate cancer: Robert's story

Robert Jensen plays outside with his grandson

When Robert Jensen, MD, found out he had prostate cancer, he chose to have robotic surgery at United Hospital in St. Paul, Minnesota.

"The long-term outcomes are the same as traditional surgery, but the expected recovery time is better using the robotics," says the retired doctor from Stillwater, Minnesota.

Prostate cancer

Every year, more than a quarter of a million American men are diagnosed with prostate cancer. When prostate cancer is caught and treated early, there's a 90 percent five-year survival rate.

Surgical removal of the prostate (radical prostatectomy), is one of the most common treatments for prostate cancer.

Traditional surgery for prostate cancer usually means being in the hospital for several days and a long recovery period. It also carries a risk of incontinence (the inability to fully control urine) and impotence (erection problems).

Robotic prostate surgery is available at Abbott Northwestern, United and Unity hospitals.

Robotic surgery for prostate cancer treatment

Surgeons at United Hospital use the da Vinci® S HD™ Surgical System to treat prostate cancer. The device allows them to operate more accurately and less invasively than traditional surgery.

  • Seated at a console, the surgeon controls a number of robotic arms that make small incisions.
  • A tiny camera and special surgical tools go through the incisions.
  • The camera provides a detailed, 3-D view of the prostate on a screen.
  • Miniature robotic "hands" allow a range of motion and a level of steadiness that would be impossible for human hands to duplicate.

"Robotics is the next era of surgery," says Urologist Peter Sershon, MD, medical director of United's robotics program. "Data for prostate cancer patients show that recovery for urinary incontinence and impotence is more quickly improved."

Jensen agrees, "I came home with four tiny incisions instead of a large incision that would have separated tissue and muscle. I only had to stay in the hospital overnight, and my recovery time was substantially less."

Jensen's quick recovery meant getting back to what he enjoys most: spending time with his grandchildren and handcrafting fine cabinetry from 18th century designs.

Learn more about...


Source: United Hospital, Healthy Communities Magazine, winter 2008
Reviewed by: Timothy Sielaff, MD, PhD, FACS, president, Virginia Piper Cancer Institute®
First Published: 08/17/2009
Last Reviewed: 08/17/2009

Saved by colon cancer screening: Ruth's story

Ruth Edstrom speaks with another woman about colon cancer screening

In November 1999, Ruth Edstrom got the news that changed her life. She had stage 4 colon cancer, and it had spread to her liver.

The news overshadowed an otherwise happy life. Edstrom, then 50, had a new husband, a new grandchild, and a job she loved at a Minneapolis advertising agency.

A history of digestive problems

Several years before her colon cancer diagnosis, Edstrom began having digestive problems – bloating, a change in bowel habits and pain after eating.

Two years before her diagnosis, she had even had a sigmoidoscopy and a barium enema – two tests used to screen for colon cancer. At the time, doctors believed she had irritable bowel syndrome.

Colonoscopy shows cancer

In 1999, Edstrom began to have rectal bleeding along with her other symptoms. A colonoscopy showed cancer.

A few days later, she went to Abbott Northwestern Hospital for surgery to remove the cancerous section of her intestine. That's when doctors found that the cancer had also spread to her liver.

"Fortunately, the cancer on my liver was in a place that was operable," says Edstrom.

Timothy Sielaff, MD, PhD, president of the Virginia Piper Cancer Institute® and a liver/pancreatic surgeon performed the liver surgery. After this, Edstrom went to Minnesota Oncology for seven cycles of chemotherapy.

Colon cancer risk factors

The average American woman has a 1 in 20 chance of getting colon and rectal cancer. Men have a 1 in 18 chance.

You may be at risk of getting colon cancer if you have:

Edstrom knew that an uncle died of colon cancer in his 70s, but she was not aware of any other risk factors.

Screenings save lives

Starting at age 50, people who have no risk factors for colon cancer should have regular colon cancer screenings. Individuals at higher risk should begin earlier.

"While colon cancer is rare in people under 40, it's very common after age 50," says Robert McCabe, MD. "The goal of screening is to find the cancer early so it can be cured with surgery."

McCabe encourages people of all ages to see their doctor if they notice these signs of colon cancer:

  • any change in bowel habits
  • persistent discomfort or bloating in the lower abdomen
  • rectal bleeding.

"The most important thing is for people to go get screened," says Edstrom.

Although she's been cancer-free for years, Edstrom continues to get regular colon cancer screenings. "This has changed my life in ways I could not have imagined. I look at every day as a miracle."

Learn more about...


Source: Abbott Northwestern Hospital, Healthy Communities Magazine, spring 2002; Robert McCabe, MD, Minnesota Gastroenterology; American Cancer Society, Cancer Statistics 2009 Presentation
Reviewed by: Timothy Sielaff, MD, PhD, FACS, president, Virginia Piper Cancer Institute®
First Published: 08/17/2009
Last Reviewed: 08/17/2009

A difficult surgery made easier: Rick's story

Rick Meyer stands next to his aircraft

For Rick Meyer, life is busy and satisfying. The 53-year-old father of two enjoys his work as a tire wholesaler. He's also a power parachute enthusiast who often flies his ultralight aircraft near his hobby farm in Loretto, Minnesota.

But after a week of hunting in October 2006, Meyer was inexplicably exhausted and sought help from his doctor.

After tests at Virginia Piper Cancer Institute® - Abbott Northwestern Hospital, he learned he had esophageal cancer.

"I was plenty scared, but I felt better once I knew we had a plan," says Meyer.

Esophageal cancer

"Esophageal cancer is an uncommon but intense disease," says Daniel Dunn, MD, medical director of Virginia Piper Cancer Institute®'s Esophageal and Gastric Cancer Program. "It often requires aggressive treatment that must be coordinated among many medical specialists, as well as rehabilitation and nutrition experts."

At Virginia Piper Cancer Institute®, the esophageal cancer team uses current clinical research and works to improve treatments. That affected Meyer's care in important ways. For example, he was one of the first patients in Minnesota to have a robot-assisted esophagectomy (surgery to remove cancer from the esophagus).

Robot-assisted surgery

Surgeons at Abbott Northwestern Hospital use the da Vinci® robot-assisted surgical system as a treatment option for esophageal cancer. Robot-assisted surgery offers close-up real-time images and the ability to move the instruments in very tight areas. That means fewer and smaller incisions, which can reduce pain and trauma to surrounding tissues.

A cancer-free outlook

As Meyer recovered from surgery, the staff at Virginia Piper Cancer Institute® helped him modify his diet and prepare for chemotherapy. He also attended a support group.

Today, Meyer is cancer-free, and doctors remain hopeful about his prognosis.

"I'm just very lucky," he says.

Learn more about...


Source: Abbott Northwestern Hospital, Healthy Communities Magazine, winter 2008
Reviewed by: Timothy Sielaff, MD, PhD, FACS, president, Virginia Piper Cancer Institute®
First Published: 08/17/2009
Last Reviewed: 08/17/2009

What every woman needs to know about ovarian cancer: Jeanne's story

Jeanne works in Minneapolis

After surviving ovarian cancer, Jeanne Karnowski, has some advice for women. It has to do with trusting your instincts.

"If you feel abdominal pain that's unusual or severe, you need to explain that to your doctor," she says.

Before her diagnosis in 2003, Karnowski asked her gynecologist to investigate whether her symptoms could be cancer. That led to an early diagnosis, something that is far too uncommon in ovarian cancer.

The advice is echoed by Cheryl Bailey, MD, the gynecologic oncologist who treated Karnowski at Virginia Piper Cancer Institute®.

"Ovarian cancer is rare, but it is almost always diagnosed in advanced stages because the symptoms are so vague," Bailey says.

Ovarian tumors can be hard to find during a routine examination, so ruling out ovarian cancer requires specialized tests. But research has helped women focus on what they need to know.

Early signs of ovarian cancer

Women diagnosed with ovarian cancer often have these symptoms:

  • pelvic or abdominal pain
  • abdominal bloating
  • urinary urgency
  • urinary frequency
  • trouble eating or feeling full quickly.

Almost everyone occasionally has one or more of these symptoms. What is important is if any of the symptoms you have are new, persistent and frequent — noticeably different than how you usually feel. That is what tipped off Karnowski. She felt extreme pain with menstruation.

"The pain became more frequent until eventually it was occurring every day," she says.

When Karnowski's symptoms worsened, she asked her doctor about cancer.

"I was lucky that the pain was so severe that it made me more persistent in getting medical treatment," Karnowski says.

A pelvic ultrasound showed a large ovarian cyst. Karnowski also had elevated levels of CA125, a blood protein sometimes associated with ovarian cancer. Surgery and chemotherapy followed.

Karnowski says she cannot say enough good things about the care she received. "They have a standard of care that is really extraordinary, from the doctors and nurses to the lab techs and receptionists."

Learn more about...


Source: Abbott Northwestern Hospital, Healthy Communities Magazine, spring 2009
Reviewed by: Timothy Sielaff, MD, PhD, FACS, president, Virginia Piper Cancer Institute®
First Published: 08/17/2009
Last Reviewed: 08/17/2009