Heart and Sole Cancer Walk co-chairs aim to raise awareness
Trebil, Hohn reflect on fighting breast cancer
Emily Trebil and Keara Hohn have a lot in common.
They’ve both South Dakotans. They’re both in their 30s. They even worked at the same restaurant in Mitchell for a time years ago.
“Steak 'N More,” Trebil said in a recent interview. “In the old mall. It was kind of a hidden gem. It was a really nice place. Not a very appealing name, but it was really good food.”
The two former co-workers share another commonality. They were both diagnosed with cancer in recent years. And having both gone through treatment and come out the other side with a good prognosis, the two will serve as honorary co-chairs for the 2021 Heart and Sole Cancer Walk, which will be held Friday, June 18 at Hitchcock Park in Mitchell.
First held in 1998, the Heart and Sole Cancer Walk features 10K and 5K runs as well as a 1.5-mile fun run/walk, and regularly raises between $50,000 and $60,000 to benefit area cancer patients fighting against the disease. The event has as many as 100 teams with up to 10 members each taking part. The walk is scheduled to begin at 6:30 p.m. and the running events will follow the opening ceremonies.
Both co-chairs have benefitted from the work of Heart and Sole, and are hoping that their experience with cancer can help provide a guiding light to those who may be just starting on their journey against the deadly disease, which kills over half-million people in the United States every year.
Trebil, a registered nurse with Sanford Health in Mitchell, was diagnosed with cancer in the summer of 2020 after a self-check revealed an unusual lump in her breast. Only in her mid-30s, Trebil thought the spot may be a harmless cyst, something with which she had been diagnosed only a year earlier.
But her luck wasn’t as good the second time around.
“I was kind of hoping that would be my situation,” Trebil said. “But the radiologist walked in after the ultrasound was complete and said, ‘Well, there’s no other way to say this — you have cancer.’”
She was informed she had HER2 positive invasive ductal carcinoma in her right breast, and it was so clear to the doctors that it was cancer that they said they didn’t even need to see the results of a biopsy to be sure. So they started her on chemotherapy the very next day, beginning a cycle that saw six treatments over the course of three weeks.
In those frightening first few days, she clinged to the expertise of her doctors, whom she praised for their fast action and planned course of treatment.
“I had a great team of doctors. Their competence and guidance, you can tell that’s what they do and they were very reassuring,” Trebil said.
She was scheduled for a lumpectomy, but further review suggested that a double mastectomy followed by reconstructive surgery was the better route. And it proved to be the right choice. Soon after the surgery, she received the news that she had a complete response from the chemotherapy and that pathology reports showed she was completely cancer-free. Follow-up radiation treatments would not be needed.
“My biopsy came back, and there was no concern in any of the tissue. They took a few lymph nodes on the side that had cancer, but those came back negative. Nothing had traveled,” Trebil said.
Like many cancer patients, she had a strong support team behind her when treatments got tough. Friends, co-workers and even strangers approached her to see how they could help. Donations flowed in. Meals were delivered. And her family, husband Kelly and daughter Hallie, backed her up in every way they could.
“My biopsy came back, and there was no concern in any of the tissue. They took a few lymph nodes on the side that had cancer, but those came back negative. Nothing had traveled."
— Emily Trebil, honorary co-chair of the 2021 Heart & Sole Cancer Walk
Hallie, in particular, took the changes in stride.
“She was 11 at the time, and I remember when my hair started falling out after two weeks of chemo, my husband shaved my head that night,” Trebil said. “It was on a weekend, and Hallie came down and saw me, and she said, ‘Looks like mom shaved her head.’ That was all there was to that. Even when I explained the surgery, she was so mature.”
Trebil said she was not necessarily diligent in her self-checks for cancer and encourages other women of her age to be attentive to their body and to listen to what it’s trying to tell them.
“Women are not routinely scheduled for a mammogram until they’re 40 years old. It’s important to monitor yourself and listen to your body so you can take action and go to your doctor,” Trebil said. “Even if they say nothing is wrong, that’s not a wasted trip. If there is a concern, early detection is key to a good prognosis. That’s what saved me. I truly feel it saved me.”
Like Trebil, Hohn fondly remembers her former co-worker and their time at Steak 'N More, even if there was some confusion over the name.
“Everyone thought it was a buffet because of the ‘More,’” Hohn said. “I was a server and she worked in the kitchen. It’s so funny.”
Their connection from years ago highlights both the fact that it can be a small world in South Dakota and that cancer has a wide reach in who it affects. Hohn, who lives in Plankinton and works for the Krohmer Agency, was diagnosed with cancer in 2018 when she was 37, and like Trebil, she grew concerned when she noticed a small change in her breast.
She admits she made excuses to postpone going to the doctor, but she finally made an appointment, and they referred her to Avera. It was then she received the news nobody ever wants to hear. She actually had two different types of cancer, one in each breast.
Hohn met the news with a combination of worry and dark humor, saying that the diagnosis of two forms of cancer fit in with her overachieving personality.
“I’ve always been an overachiever, so why not continue with that here?” she said.
Her doctors were her first guides, leading her through the treatment process and laying out a roadmap to get from where she was to cancer-free.
“With that first diagnosis, you hear a lot of information but you don’t absorb it. I’ll never forget (the doctor) saying, ‘Here’s what we’re going to do. We’re going to do this and this and this,’” Hohn said. “And then he said forget about everything except the first step.”
Chemotherapy wasn’t fun, but it was effective. After six treatments a 44-millimeter tumor reduced in size to 4 millimeters. That made the following double mastectomy surgery easier, and reconstructive surgery then followed, followed by another round of chemotherapy and radiation.
“My surgeon said if I gave them a year of my life, they would give me my life back. That is what happened from 2018 to December of 2019."
— Keara Hohn, honorary co-chair of the 2021 Heart &
It was all a year-long process that saw emotions run high and low, but with the support of her husband Dustin, she followed her doctors’ advice and stayed the course. It was a long year, but one after which she emerged free of cancer and back on the road to health.
“My surgeon said if I gave them a year of my life, they would give me my life back,” Hohn said. “That is what happened from 2018 to December of 2019.”
Like Trebil, she found herself receiving support from extended family, friends, work colleagues and even strangers. She said those people, along with events like Heart and Sole, gave her a boost that she wasn’t even aware that she needed. As she tried to prepare herself for chemotherapy and radiation treatments, help was already arriving.
“I’m a planner. I need a plan that brings me a little bit of peace. But before I could do that, we had financial support rolling in,” Hohn said. “It’s humbling. It brings you some hope. I don’t think I could ever express how they’ve affected my life.”
Subsequent genealogical research has shown breast cancer to be more prominent in her family than she realized, causing her to become an even stronger proponent for early detection. Nobody should think they’re too young or have too little history of cancer in the family to be on the lookout for the disease.
“I think at that time I thought that that’s not going to happen to me. I’m too young to deal with that,” Hohn said. “Had I known (about her family cancer history) I maybe would have been more proactive.”
The former restaurant co-workers will reunite again on Friday when they attend the Heart and Sole Cancer Walk at Hitchcock Park. They are both grateful for the support the event provided them during a frightening time in their lives, and they’re happy to give back by serving as an example that cancer can be beaten, and it’s beaten by people every day. Both are ready to offer their advice and support to those who are just beginning to fight their own battle, as they remember those who stepped up to help them.
“My biggest hope is to bring awareness. My husband and I want to give back as much as we can, and if anything comes out of my story, it’s to bring awareness and to rally people together to help whoever. We want to give back any way we can,” Trebil said.
Hohn, who has since taken up running again after her treatments, plans to run the 10K race at the Heart and Sole Cancer Walk Friday. She said that’s appropriate, since she runs by taking it one step at a time, the same way she approached the treatments that saved her life.
She hopes to help others take those steps toward recovery.
“Take one day at a time and lean into your faith,” Hohn said.