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For Vilhauer, cancer a life-changing event for the good

EDITOR'S NOTE: This is the third in a three-part series featuring the three honorary co-chairs for this year's Heart and Sole Cancer Walk in Mitchell, held today at Mitchell Middle School. The event begins at 6:30 p.m.

Kristin Vilhauer is one of this year’s honorary co-chairs for the annual Heart and Sole Cancer Walk on Friday at the Mitchell Middle School. (Matt Gade / Republic)
Kristin Vilhauer is one of this year’s honorary co-chairs for the annual Heart and Sole Cancer Walk on Friday at the Mitchell Middle School. (Matt Gade / Republic)

EDITOR'S NOTE: This is the third in a three-part series featuring the three honorary co-chairs for this year's Heart and Sole Cancer Walk in Mitchell, held today at Mitchell Middle School. The event begins at 6:30 p.m.

"Cancer. I have cancer.

I'm 33 years old, and I have breast cancer."

Kristin Vilhauer sat stunned after getting startling news from a Sioux Falls physician around lunchtime on April 13, 2009. It was the Monday after Easter, and Vilhauer remembers little else about the afternoon. She called her husband to tell him but later couldn't recall doing it.

Today, Vilhauer, 42, is healthy and fine. Married with three children, ages 12 through 21, she says it's still hard for her to say "cancer" in connection to herself.

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Nine years ago, the journey was just beginning.

By Easter of 2009, she had been assured on at least four separate times that her pain - pain at first and then a lump in her right breast - was unlikely to be cancer.

Don't worry, physicians told her, and so she didn't.

"Not once during that time did I stop to think, what if this is cancer?" Vilhauer said.

A mammogram in October 2008 found nothing. An ultrasound about a month later found the source of her pain but raised no concerns. A surgeon sometime later told her that cancer does not hurt, and Vilhauer's lump was almost certainly of the garden variety that attends having babies and fluctuating hormones.

Even the Sioux Falls breast cancer specialist who removed her lump because of continuing pain suggested it was dense tissue and not to worry. Still, the doctor said, her office would call with biopsy results before the weekend.

And then on that following Monday, the results were in: "It's ductal carcinoma in situ (DCIS), it's 100 percent curable, and you are not going to die," the doctor said.

Vilhauer and her husband had an appointment in Sioux Falls for the following morning to discuss options.

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"The rest of the conversation is lost from my mind," Vilhauer said.

If she was going to get breast cancer, DCIS was the right one to get.

D - ductal, found in a milk duct of the breast.

C - carcinoma, a type of cancer that arises from epithelial cells in the skin or the linings of internal organs.

IS - in situ, meaning "in place." It hadn't spread outside the tumor capsule, meaning she wouldn't need chemotherapy. In any case, it hadn't spread. That is the right cancer.

Treatment would entail either the removal of her lump plus surrounding breast tissue and weeks of daily radiation treatment, or, she could forgo radiation and undergo full breast removal.

Vilhauer opted for full removal, a bilateral mastectomy, which provided a greater level of certainty that breast cancer would never return.

"Radiation scares me," she said.

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The lesson Vilhauer takes from her story is one of paying attention to what your body tells you.

"Had I not listened to my body and been persistent, my oncologist is sure it would have spread in another few months."

Vilhauer did listen, and everything turned out, but her story is also a reminder that cancer doesn't always follow the familiar path, and it doesn't always observe the rules.

"Had it not hurt, I would not have pursued it," she said, and yet early cancer typically does not hurt. Sometimes, cancer hides. A probable diagnosis isn't always a definitive one. And a physician's assurances of don't worry - while probably good advice in the vast majority of cases - don't mean ignore everything. Sometimes you're lucky, and sometimes not.

"Why me?" Vilhauer would think on days when she was angry or sad.

"Why not me?" Vilhauer told herself on other days. She was young and healthy. This was beatable. Other women with breast cancer had it worse.

Vilhauer's biggest concern after receiving the diagnosis was telling her kids. She wasn't going to die, and she didn't want them hearing a different story on the school bus or in the neighborhood.

"I didn't have a problem with people knowing right away," she said. "I just wanted them to have the right story."

Retelling her story repeatedly exhausted her.

"The doctor told me at the first appointment it was going to be a six-month rollercoaster, and then I'll be back to my normal everyday life."

The doctor was right, Vilhauer said.

In June 2009, Vilhauer had her bilateral mastectomy and reconstruction surgery. The final touches to her reconstruction occurred in December 2009.

She worried for a while, what if it comes back? Everybody who has ever had cancer probably goes down that road.

But she continued to talk about it.

Some women, Vilhauer said, put up walls and don't want to talk about their cancer. She talked, and she hopes this has been able to help ease the minds of other women who get the disease.

Vilhauer thinks daily about her brush with cancer. The scars are there to remind her if she forgets.

It changed her life.

Before getting cancer, Vilhauer was never one to visit a gym or work out.

In recovery, she was introduced to a workout group.

On the fifth anniversary of her breast cancer, she ran her first half marathon. On the 10th anniversary, she hopes to run a full marathon.

Cancer changed her life.

"I know I would not be in the health I am today had I not been dealt the cancer card."

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