Three sisters, three cancer diagnoses: Siblings say they're 'pretty lucky so far'

By Tracy Frank / The Forum GO - "Are we going to play Rummy?" Pat Romsdal asked as her sister dealt out three hands of cards. "First card up is what you get." Romsdal and her sisters, Ramona Lund and Roletta Pantzke, all of Fargo, got together to...

Sisters with cancer
From left, sisters Ramona Lund, Roletta Pantzke and Pat Romsdal play cards on Monday October 13, 2014 in Fargo, N.D. The women were all diagnosed with breast cancer within two weeks of each other. Carrie Snyder / The Forum

By Tracy Frank / The Forum

GO – “Are we going to play Rummy?” Pat Romsdal asked as her sister dealt out three hands of cards. “First card up is what you get.”

Romsdal and her sisters, Ramona Lund and Roletta Pantzke, all of Fargo, got together to play cards recently, all dressed in pink and sporting pink wire bra brooches Pantzke’s daughter-in-law had given them.

The sisters, who are all in their 80s, were diagnosed with breast cancer in September – all within two weeks of each other.

“It’s just strange,” Pantzke said.


Lund found a lump in her breast that she said seemed to grow larger in a week.

“I thought, ‘I better see a doctor,’ which I did,” she said.

Pantzke has mammograms every year and said her most recent one revealed a slow growing tumor.

“I had a mammogram and the very next morning she called me and said I had cancer,” Pantzke said. “That’s kind of a scary word.”

The women then urged their other sister to get checked. Romsdal had a mammogram the following morning.

“They said it was cancer,” she said.

All three sisters had lumpectomies to remove the cancer within two weeks of each other. Romsdal said she also has to go through radiation treatment. Lund and Pantzke are taking medication.

This is the second time Lund has dealt with cancer. She had uterine cancer a year ago. She was tested several months after her surgery and it had returned so she went through six weeks of radiation.


With breast cancer, having a first-degree relative, such as a mother, sister or daughter with breast cancer, doubles a person’s risk of getting it, said Dr. Shelby Terstriep, a medical oncologist and the medical director for Embrace, Sanford’s Cancer Survivorship Program. Having two first-degree relatives with breast cancer triples the risk.

But, she said it’s very unusual for three siblings to not only have the same type of cancer, but to also have it at the same time.

While family history is important, Terstriep said it’s not the only thing that determines a person’s risk.

“Only about 15 percent of the cases of breast cancer have a family history,” she said, adding that being older women, their risk for breast cancer is higher.

Romsdal, Lund, and Pantzke grew up in North Dakota in Dickey and Oakes, living on farms where they took care of the cows and did things like made mud pies, picked chokecherries, swam in a river and tried to get their Shetland pony into the house one day when their parents were gone.

“We found our own fun,” Pantzke said.  

They’re still close, getting together for cards and dominoes and talking often on the phone.

While even one cancer scare in a family can be devastating, the sisters did not let their diagnoses get them down.


“We make the best of each day,” Lund said. “You can get depressed if you let it bother you, but I don’t let it bother me.”

“We’re all pretty lucky so far,” Pantzke said.

“It can always come back,” Romsdal added.

Pantzke’s daughter, Deanna, is a nurse who lives in Moorhead. She was shocked to find out her mom and aunts all had breast cancer at the same time.

But part of it, she said, is their concern for each other. When they were diagnosed, they wanted to make sure their sisters were getting checked.

“They kind of led each other into making sure they had their mammograms,” she said.

Deanna Pantzke said she’s very faithful about mammograms and self-exams because of her medical background, but her mom and aunts’ experience has reinforced her diligence and she has talked to her daughter about it, too.

“We all think that it’s not going to affect us,” she said. “It’s always somebody else until it’s in your family, so I have a different outlook on making sure I have those screenings.”


They are also considering having genetic testing done, she said.

About 5 percent of people diagnosed with breast cancer have a gene mutation that predisposes them to a very high risk of breast cancer, Terstriep said.

Doctors typically test the person who has the breast cancer first, she said. If they have the gene, then other family members will be tested.

“We all know someone who’s had breast cancer,” Deanna Pantzke said. “It seems like every day you learn about more and more.”

October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month, but Terstriep said it’s not enough to just be aware. She said people should think about what it means for them and follow through by doing something about it.

“In this month of October where awareness is touted so much, I think that being aware has to cause some action,” she said. “With these three women, it caused action.”

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