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Faith, family powered Bridgewater's Kathie Clarey through breast cancer diagnosis

Bridgewater resident urges vigilance, testing

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Kathie Clarey, Bridgewater, was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2012 and has since made a full recovery. The 74-year-old urges other women to screen for breast cancer early. (Matt Gade / Mitchell Republic)
Matt Gade
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BRIDGEWATER — It was October 2012, and Kathie Clarey had a sinus infection. So she made an appointment with her doctor.

That appointment may have saved her life.

“I went to a doctor for a sinus infection and she asked when I had had my last mammogram,” Clarey told the Mitchell Republic in a recent interview. “She said that they would bring the (equipment) out here and I could walk in and walk out. A couple days later I had a phone call that they had found something.”

It is a diagnosis that nobody ever wants to receive, but Clarey was one of many women who would be diagnosed with breast cancer that year.

The fight continues against the disease to this day. In 2021, an estimated 281,550 new cases of invasive breast cancer are expected to be diagnosed in women in the United States, along with 49,290 new cases of non-invasive (in situ) breast cancer, according to www.breastcancer.org . About 2,650 new cases of invasive breast cancer are expected to be diagnosed in men in 2021. A man’s lifetime risk of breast cancer is about 1 in 833.

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October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month.

Clarey, 74, said she was lucky in that she didn’t experience the overwhelming shock that some patients do upon diagnosis. While uncertainty and concern were definitely emotions she experienced, she said she locked on to what her doctor was telling her and listened intently to what steps she would need to take next.

“What do we have to do?” Clarey said she remembered asking after being told of the cancer. “It didn’t affect me too hard. I don’t know why it didn’t. It should have, I suppose. But I thought, ‘OK, that’s what I have. We’ll take care of it.’”

Further examination revealed that she needed lumps removed from her breast, so she temporarily relocated to Sioux Falls to be closer to family while she underwent treatment. Doctors recommended a mastectomy, and out of an abundance of caution, Clarey elected to have a double mastectomy.

It was a move she was ready to make for peace of mind, she said.

“They set me up with a breast cancer doctor and I had a bilateral mastectomy. I figured what’s the sense of worrying about it in the other one? Might as well go whole hog,” Clarey said.

She followed up that surgery with recovery before beginning the chemotherapy and radiation portions of her treatment. She estimates that she took six sessions of chemotherapy and then about a month and half of radiation sessions.

Once again, she feels fortunate that the chemotherapy and radiation treatments, which are notorious for causing discomfort and nausea among many patients, did not hit her as hard as it has some others. In fact, it wasn’t long before she was back at her job working a few days a week as a cook at the local nursing home.

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“The surgery went well, I healed well, and within six weeks I went back to work and I was fine,” Clarey said. “I would feel kind of tired and weak, but no other side effects,” Clarey said.


“Having faith in God - that made it very different. I trust whatever he has in store for me and that it will be the best thing.”

— Kathie Clarey, breast cancer survivor


She clarified that the fatigue was considerable, but not something that would slow her down too much. At the time, she had six of her grandchildren living about a block away from her home in Bridgewater, which gave her plenty of motivation to be up and about.

“I didn’t have a chance to get tired or feel sorry for myself,” Clarey said.

Clarey said while the spur-of-the-moment mammogram nine years ago may have saved her life, she doesn’t let chance play as big a role in her health as she used to. She gets regular scans to test if the cancer has returned and monitors herself with self-checks. It’s become routine for her, and she hopes other women will take heed and keep an eye on the warning signs of cancer.

The American Medical Association, the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, the American College of Radiology, the American Cancer Society, the National Cancer Institute and the National Comprehensive Cancer Network all have issued guidelines saying that all women should be eligible for screening mammograms starting at age 40.

“I have a scan every year. At first it was every three months and then six months and now it’s once a year,” Clarey said.

Cancer patients have many obstacles in the way of their recovery, and Clarey counts herself as lucky to have had the support of her family and the pillar of her faith to lean against when the struggles got difficult. Those support systems are vital to helping patients deal with the process of getting well.

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“Having faith in God - that made it very different. I trust whatever he has in store for me and that it will be the best thing,” Clarey said.

Of course, the best way to fight cancer when it arrives is to find it early. Early screenings are now part of the recommendation that Clarey gives when asked about the topic. That includes for her own family.

“Do it. I would tell them to do it. I’ve heard people say it hurts. (It hurts) for five minutes. To find out if you’re cancer-free then it’s worth it. I have four girls and always want them to do it,” Clarey said.

That early diagnosis can mean the difference between life and death. Clarey’s diagnosis and treatment went as well as she could have hoped. She’s now living without cancer and enjoying one of her favorite times of year with the arrival of the South Dakota autumn. The successful treatment of her cancer means she can spend the cool fall afternoons working in the garden.

That’s good, because she has a lot of work left to do.

“I just dug potatoes today,” Clarey said. “Four five-gallon buckets’ worth.”

Related Topics: WELLNESSNEWSMDOUR BEST WORK
Erik Kaufman joined the Mitchell Republic in July of 2019 as an education and features reporter. He grew up in Freeman, S.D., graduating from Freeman High School. He graduated from the University of South Dakota in 1999 with a major in English and a minor in computer science. He can be reached at ekaufman@mitchellrepublic.com.
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