WESSINGTON SPRINGS - A Wessington Springs mother of three says two rounds of cancer have made her appreciate life.
"I try to not take (my time with the kids) for granted. When we're home and life is crazy, I take a step back and think, 'This is what you want. You want to be here,'" said Laura Bergeleen, who first beat Stage 3 Hodgkin's Lymphoma in 2013. "As chaotic as it can get, I try to value the time I do have with them."
In October, Bergeleen found a lump nearly the size of an egg near her collarbone while removing her seat belt at 25 weeks' gestation with her third child.
"I felt the other side, and there was nothing there," the 32-year-old recalled. "I did some Googling and was pretty sure even before I went in that it was probably back."
Bergeleen's hematologist confirmed her self-diagnosis the following week.
At the collaborated advice of her hematologist and obstetrician, she patiently waited for her baby to be born and continued working as a speech language pathologist for Core Educational Cooperative until Archer Lane made a surprise appearance on Jan. 8, two weeks before his due date.
Ten days later, still recovering from childbirth, Bergeleen left the newborn with family to have a PET scan. By the end of January, she'd begun chemotherapy to shrink the now-visible, baseball-sized lump.
"That was a little bit of an emotional thing," Bergeleen said of the whirlwind of events and her first overnight experience without her baby. "We kind of knew, since it came back, that the plan was to do chemo to shrink it and then go into the stem cell transplant."
Stem cell transplant
March 25, after four days of injections to increase stem cell production in her bone marrow, Bergeleen's cells were collected by a machine that removed blood from her arm, spun out the stem cells and returned the remaining parts of her blood into her body.
Then, Bergeleen was admitted on March 29 to Avera McKennan hospital for a staph infection. She responded well to treatment, and preparation for the stem cell transplant that would wipe out her white blood cells for her immune system to rebuild from ground zero continued.
The cells were frozen until April 10, when a tiny IV bag fed millions of stem cells back into her body through her arm.
"It's very anticlimactic," she said, laughing about her father's questioning of when the procedure would begin. "The actual transplant took all of 10 minutes" in her regular hospital room.
"The whole process is (a big deal), but the procedure was almost nothing," husband Garret said. "It was just like getting an IV, basically."
Though the process of removing and returning stem cells seems fairly uncomplicated to patients and their families, Bergeleen's hematologist, Dr. Kelly McCaul, said the procedure often is life-saving for patients who otherwise would have little chance of survival.
"We've seen good success with this," he said, especially in patients like Bergeleen, who are otherwise healthy. "We try to cure people right up front. ... Her disease came back, but hopefully with her stem cell transplant we were able to cure her now."
Bergeleen said cancer isn't as scary the second time around, though she has new concerns.
"We didn't have any kids the first time I had cancer, so I could rest and do anything I needed to. This time, it was a different story," because she knew she would need to continue caring for 5-year-old Shae and 2-year-old Karl, plus her newborn son, Archer.
Initially, she was told to expect a month-long hospital stay following her transplant, and then a week in Sioux Falls, in case anything went awry. During an April 18 interview with The Daily Republic, she optimistically said she was "shooting for the end of the month" to return home.
Four days later, she was released from the hospital and allowed to go directly home, because her white cell count had rebounded enough that McCaul was comfortable letting her return home to find a new normal as a mother of three.
"The first few nights I was home, our older two kids were a little more snuggly, but after that they have been their typical selves," she said.
And, despite some concern that little Archer may not know his mommy after being separated from her most of his first few months of his life, the transition is going well.
"He seems to remember me," Bergeleen said. "We have had lots of extra snuggle time."
'Learn my new limits'
"I have to take it a bit easier as my body continues to heal and rebuild my immune system," she said, so the children go to day care. "This has given me time to learn my new limits."
Home health taught her how to administer the three-times-daily antibiotics through her PICC line to help guarantee Bergeleen's staph infection is at bay.
And friends and neighbors continue to help the couple through what they are convinced is but a bump in the road of their family's journey.
Though Garret says they live "in the middle of nowhere," near Lane, the Bergeleens are surrounded with support. His parents live two miles away, and hers are just 25 miles away in White Lake, where the children attend day care.
The Bergeleen children visited their mom most of the weekends she was away from home and spent Tuesdays through Saturdays with their mother's parents in White Lake - and at day care during the daytime - and the rest of the week with their father's parents.
"I still cry when I think about it, just knowing that many people care," Bergeleen said.
A benefit in Wessington Springs helped the family overcome their financial concerns, allowing Garret, a self-employed contractor and farmer, the opportunity to be by his wife's side throughout her treatment.
"Most everybody is understanding," Garret said of his customers. "And it's more than just financial - it's notes, cards, people bringing meals to us and our parents who are watching the kids - everything."
"Most of his jobs are local, and they're familiar with our situation," Laura added.
During her 24-day hospital stay, Garret left only twice - once to help with calving during a blizzard, and once for four days due to illness.
"I felt helpless," he said as his wife teased him about his "man cold."
"I couldn't be with her, and I couldn't be around the kids, because I didn't want to get them sick, either," he said.
Making it through
While they were away at the hospital, the Bergeleens, who have been married 10 years, shared in simple activities like card games, puzzles and reading.
"I haven't had time for those things in awhile," Bergeleen said, adding that it was nice to be able to relax with her husband. "I wouldn't recommend this for any couple, but I would say it has strengthened our marriage. There's a lot outside of our control at this point, but he's been right here the whole time. That helps."
Though the Bergeleen children are too young to fully grasp their mother's brush with fate, their parents have been open about the situation.
"I wanted to be as open as possible with them about it, but I also didn't want it to be a worry for them, so we present it in a positive manner and tell them that everything is going to be OK," Bergeleen said.
In true educator fashion, she prepared them for the experience with books explaining the effects of chemotherapy and hospital stays in children's terms.
She hopes that, one day, they will look back as a family and smile at the lessons learned in this current challenge.
"There are bumps along the road, but you can make it through."