Laura Mueller just celebrated her 40th birthday. Forty is a special birthday, but for Laura this one holds extra meaning. Not only is she starting a new decade, she is starting it cancer free.
“Breast cancer doesn’t have to be a life sentence or something to destroy you,” she says. “That’s the message I want to pass along to my two girls, as well as to the community. Sitting in a corner crying isn’t going to help anything. I tried to make the best of every day and kept things in perspective. Some people don’t have legs!”
In November 2016, Laura discovered she had breast cancer. She didn’t find a lump like most women do, but instead noticed her nipple was inverted. “That was my first sign, and I knew in the pit of my stomach it was cancer,” she says.
Laura already had a routine doctor appointment set up for December, so she waited until then to address her concerns. A mammogram was immediately ordered, and she received her report on Christmas Eve.
The first week in January 2017, she also had a biopsy and received another report. Laura says, “My mother-in-law and Scott (her husband) went to that appointment with me. We were told I had Stage III breast cancer. I wasn’t shocked or surprised, because I had about a month to process all of this since first discovering the inversion. But then, I detached myself and just wanted to get this all done and over with and just plow through it.”
Laura’s diagnosis was based on the size of the mass in her breast. The cancer had also spread to three lymph nodes. In less then a week from her diagnosis, Laura underwent a double mastectomy. “I had already thought about having the surgery while I was going through the waiting process. Once I found out my cancer was hormone positive, I knew I didn’t want it coming back to the other side or following my hormones and risk getting ovarian or uterine cancer, too. I wanted it to be a one and done deal. So I chose to have the surgery. But I took it one step further, I also had a hysterectomy.”
Following the surgery, Laura underwent six rounds of chemotherapy followed by 30 treatments of radiation. She had three rounds of chemo in Aberdeen and three rounds in Milbank. They were done every three weeks and lasted six hours each time. She reported she felt great the day of chemo and the following day, but got hit with nausea on day three. “I just felt really lousy and tired, but I never did throw up.”
Laura says one of the toughest parts of chemo was losing her hair. “When I found out I was going to lose my hair, I cut it and was able to donate eight inches to Pantene Locks of Love. That was kind of ironic, I don’t think too many chemo patients can donate their hair.”
She cites the day she went to shave her head as her lowest point. She was unable to find a friend to go with her to the salon, so her five-year-old daughter, Olivia, went with her. “She cried,” Laura says, “but I just kept reassuring her that I was still Mommy.” Later, her dad, Kenne Dailie, shaved his head and kept it shaved until Laura’s hair began to grow back. “That was awesome to have my dad do that for me.” She laughs now she says, but began wearing earrings in an effort to feel more feminine. “I had no hair, no breasts, and really didn’t feel much like a girl. So, I saw a book about earrings with a bald head and started wearing them, and it helped.”
After she completed chemotherapy, she still had to endure 30 days of radiation. Radiation required daily trips to Aberdeen. “That was a little more difficult because I could not drive myself, so I had to rely on my family and the community to take me every day. The community really stepped up and took turns driving. That was so awesome and took that burden off us. Plus, I got to have one-on-one uninterrupted conversations with women that I probably would not have gotten otherwise.That was really fun for me.”
In that way and others, Laura credits the community as a vital component of her recovery. “I’m not going to say it was easy, there were ups and downs. Prayers from the community were what got me through those days I was not feeling well.” Laura says she would occasionally call out for prayers through Facebook. “I didn’t care what people thought, when I needed some prayers, I put it out there. It really was amazing to me when people reached out.”
She says her family also received support. During her chemotherapy, a Meal Train was set up and full meals were delivered to their door three times a week. Southern Hospitality Kitchen also brought a meal once a week and others gave the family gift cards to local restaurants. “All of that was so nice and so helpful to us.”
Her employer was equally supportive. Laura was granted over a year’s leave from her job at Montage. “I was lucky enough to have a job that told me to take as much leave as I needed and to come back when I was ready. I couldn’t ask for an employer to handle it any better.” She returned to her position at the end of last December.
Six weeks following completion of her radiation treatments, Laura began the first step in her breast reconstruction. That step included inserting hard, plastic expanders that over time are slowly filled with saline to stretch the skin in preparation for the implants.” She now waits three months until the expanders can be removed and the implants inserted.
Despite having no complications throughout her illness, she admits she still had her good and bad days. “When I read my mammogram report and knew I had cancer, a text message my sisters sent me really put things into focus.” Laura says a message during a Christmas Eve service her sisters attended struck a chord with the entire family. “In the Christmas story, everyone is afraid – Mary, Joseph, the shepherds. Every time God comes to them He says, ‘Do not be afraid, do not fear.’ That message was huge to me.”
Laura says she remembers hearing the Christmas story her whole life, but the focus was always on the birth of Jesus and not its effect on others involved. “From that point on, I was able to turn the situation from focusing on me. I made it my prayer everyday – ‘God show me how you want to use me through this. This is in your hands, and I want to be your servant.’ That still really is my prayer.”
Some days, though, she felt lonely. “People were great when they first heard my news,” she says. “But everyone gets busy and wrapped up in their own lives. It’s hard for anyone to keep that going long term.” In the end, Laura says she is grateful for all the amazing friendships she made. “These relationship are more stable and meaningful and will last a lifetime.”
Laura’s advice to anyone who knows someone going through cancer treatments is simple – Walk the Walk! She says it means, “If you offer to help, then back it up with your actions. The littlest thing can mean so much – dropping off a gallon of milk or a little toy for the kids, sending a text with a short message, sending a message on Facebook, or posting something cute on their page. All those things mean so much. You don’t have to give a lot, because just a little goes a long way.”
Laura and Scott, Kenadee (9), and Olivia (5).