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Cancer survivor says process 'changes your life'

A quilt created for Lou Eischens during her cancer treatment, holding hand - and paw - prints, is a treasured possession. (Jean Ruzicka / Enterprise)

Friday's American Cancer Society's Relay for Life will be a time "to imagine a life with more birthdays."

It's a celebration of victory while honoring those who are battling cancer and remembering those who've succumbed to cancer.

When this year's poignant survivors' lap begins, Lou Eischens will be making her first appearance at the Relay for Life event, as a torchbearer.

Diagnosed a year ago in May with breast cancer, it became "the worst and best year of my life," she said of learning of the malignancy nearly concurrently with a new role she was about to assume - grandma.

The symptoms began with a pain in her armpit, but a mammogram came back "clean." When further medical imaging revealed abnormalities, Eischens was sent to Fargo for a more extensive mammogram.

She was diagnosed May 22 and learned the extent of the cancer Friday, June 5. The doctor offered to operate the next day, Saturday, or she could wait until Tuesday (coincidentally her father's birthday).

And she had a choice to make - a single or double mastectomy.

"I had a lot to absorb," she said of postponing the surgery, hoping to somehow come to grips with what was about to happen, questioning if she should seek a second opinion.

But she soon regretted it. "It was the worst weekend of my life."


"It took me a long time to say the C word," Eischens recalled of having to share the news with family and friends. "Hearing it was like taking a baseball bat to my stomach... I don't know what's worse, hearing it or relaying it to my family.

"Tim and I were married 31 years. We had the good; now we faced the bad. I found out the reason I chose him. He's been my rock.

"It was tough watching their eyes, the toughest with the kids," she said of sharing the news. "It's devastating for a family."

And the diagnosis was right before her 50th birthday, June 29 her birth anniversary.

Her radiologist's advice: breathe. Sit back and absorb, the doctor counseled. It takes time to process. He cautioned against heading to the Internet for "a quick fix, answers," the American Cancer Society site the exception.

The "walk" through the process, she would learn, "changes your life." The diagnosis holds extreme physical and emotional challenges. "You learn a whole new language," she said of medical terminology.

And it sheds perspective on life's priorities.

Friends "came out of the woodwork," meals waiting in the refrigerator upon arriving home from doctor's visits.

"I'd taken my health for granted," the water skier and biker said. The acknowledgement, empathy buoyed her spirit.

Since Eischen's diagnosis, three of her friends have been told they have breast cancer; four friends and associates have died.

"It hits you, because you know what they go through."

'Now I'm making plans'

Eischens underwent the surgery, and began chemotherapy treatments in July, documenting her medical journey via a diary.

Walking into her first chemotherapy treatment at St. Joseph's brought home the reality: "This is me." But she considered herself "fortunate," sharing the experience with a neighbor who was also undergoing treatment.

"I can't say enough good about St. Joseph's infusion center," she said of the lab technicians and doctors who tested her and administered chemotherapy.

"Chemo is poison. You just start feeling better and it's time for another dose," she recalled of the regimen, her hair and eyelashes disappearing.

She would learn, alleviating initial concerns, that breast cancer treatment is carefully formulated, determined by stages of the malignancy.

By November, her resistance worn, she contracted a virus, spending time in a hospital at Christmas. "It was worse than anything."

But she recovered. And in March, after three months of radiation, the port was taken out, the doctor giving her a clean bill of health.

"The second happiest day of my life," she said, becoming a grandma a month before paramount.

"I was fortunate...I wake up counting my blessings. It's not controlling me. Talking about the future was hard. Now I'm making plans," she said, reconstructive surgery among them.