When Angela O’Leary received the phone call from her primary care physician, Dr. Joanne Gaul, she was brought to her knees. “Angela, this isn’t good,” said Dr. Gaul. “Based on x-rays and the ultrasound, there’s a 95 percent chance it is breast cancer.” The urgency in Dr. Gaul’s voice told Angela it was serious.
“When people tell you you’re strong, you don’t really know what that means,” said Angela. “Having battled breast cancer and won, I know that I am strong.”
Get It Out
Following her diagnosis, countless scans were performed to see if cancer was anywhere else in Angela’s body. “Waiting was often the hardest,” said Angela. “We kept getting good news that it wasn’t anywhere else.”
Dr. Edward Sauter performed a mastectomy of Angela’s right breast. “I kept thinking, ‘Get it out of my body as fast as you can,’” she recalled. The tumor was six centimeters and was classified as Stage 3 RZ+, an aggressive, fast-growing cancer. Dr. Sauter later performed an elective mastectomy of Angela’s left breast during reconstruction surgery with Dr. Kevin Muiderman.
“They worked so well together,” said Angela. “Dr. Muiderman is top notch in his talents and charisma. I’ve referred others to him, and they’ve been just as pleased.”
Taken Under Their Wings
On her first day of chemotherapy at Altru Cancer Center, Angela had to force herself to get out of her car and walk through the front door. “I couldn’t do it on my own,” she said. “I looked at Sean (now her husband) and he said, ‘We’re going to do this. I’m right here with you.’ And we made it through that first appointment.”
Walking in was a little easier each time, thanks to the doctors, nurses and support staff who worked with Angela. “They’re my angels,” she said. “They took me under their wings. We laughed and cried together. We are so fortunate in our area to have these staff, this facility and these resources to keep you living. They truly gave me my life back.”
Angela worked with medical oncologist Dr. Daniel Walsh and radiation oncologist Dr. Marshall Winchester. “Both doctors were so comforting in their care,” she said. “Your life is literally put in their hands.”
One angel whose halo shone extra bright on Angela was May Thompson, a support associate. “She made sure I was fully taken care of,” said Angela. “May was always right there when I needed her. She’s one of a kind.”
May played a special part in Angela and Sean’s wedding. As a licensed cosmetologist, May offered to style Angela’s hair for her wedding. “Altru Cancer Center had become such a big part of my life, why not go there on my wedding day?” said Angela. “May did such a great job. It was an outdoor wedding and was pouring rain by the time we said our vows, but we didn’t care. It was more about what the day meant for Sean and me.”
Nancy Klatt, cancer services manager, also wore her angel wings for Angela. During treatment, Angela continued working for the North Dakota University System as a financial analyst. One particular morning after radiation treatment, she had to attend a meeting which required putting on a business suit. Her skin was especially tender and raw from treatment. “It hurt like a third-degree burn, it was so painful,” she said. “Nancy recognized this and took me into her office and helped me get dressed. She went beyond her job to make sure I was comfortable. Altru Cancer Center is so blessed to have her.”
“I feel comfortable saying, ‘I am strong. I am a survivor. I am going to live,’” said Angela. “It’s been four years. I want to be saying the same thing in four more years, and four years after that. I have hope and faith to continue living.”
Living for Angela includes getting back to running. This year, Angela participated in the Wild Hog Half Marathon and was able to raise over $1,000 for Altru’s Filling the Gap program. The program supports lodging, transportation and nutritional needs of financially eligible patients receiving cancer treatment at Altru.
“When I was in the waiting room before treatment one day, I met a couple from Bemidji, Minn.,” said Angela. “They drove here every single day for treatment. I can’t imagine going through cancer and having to travel for treatment. It made me realize how lucky I am to have a facility like this.”
While her treatment has ended, the support from family and friends has not.
“Going through cancer has taught me the importance of just being there for people,” said Angela. “I surrounded myself with positive people. It took a whole network of people, but here I am today, standing strong.”
Angela believes Sean was brought into her life at just the right time.
“He’s been by my side since the diagnosis, and at every appointment and treatment,” said Angela. “He always brought his notepad and took notes as to what treatment was being done or what plan was being laid out. When you’re diagnosed with cancer, your loved ones receive the diagnosis, too. There’s never enough that I can do for Sean or the rest of my family and friends. They got me through this, minute by minute and hour by hour. All I can say is thank you.”
Have you had an “angel” watch over you during care at Altru? Share your experience.