By Vickie Dunnum, Co-Owner of Dunn-Hill Farm
Spring is a beautiful time on the farm. It is a time of new life, new growth and something farmers look forward to all winter long. As farmers, we know that this season’s beauty is paired with an equal amount of hard work. We spend hours planning our goals for the upcoming season, but sometimes the unexpected happens. Farmers are used to a change in weather affecting crop planting or harvesting, storm damage to crops or to buildings, changes in the market for sale of their milk or crops, and even problems with the health of their beef or dairy herd. Farmers do not have time to be ill and rarely take time off. Though sometimes, they have no choice.
April 26, 2017. It was supposed to be a regular, routine mammogram. Something I had had nine times previously, beginning at the age of 40, as recommended. With no breast cancer history in my family, I didn’t think twice about the appointment. I would have the test and return to the farm to discuss the spring plans for the farm with my husband, Craig, as we always have. Fixing fences, ordering baby chicks, hauling manure, preparing the land to start planting corn, barley, oats.
The day after my check up, I received a phone call from my hospital. They said they wanted to take another look, but assured me that many patients are called back, as not to alarm me. We scheduled the appointment for later that afternoon and Craig just happened to be available to drive 30 minutes into town with me. Once there, the doctors performed an ultrasound and a lump was detected in my right breast. They decided to perform a biopsy the very same day. My husband and I did not know what to expect whatsoever. All of the planning we had done to prepare for the upcoming season on the farm, all of the work we have to do – everything was halted.
On May 1, 2017, I was diagnosed with stage 1 invasive ductal breast cancer, stage one. My whole life was about to change, and I did not have time for this. I remember sitting with my husband and my doctor, discussing the road that laid ahead. I opened my calendar and showed it to the doctor. The month was already full of dates, appointments, and plans for the farm and our other jobs. I asked for help and didn’t know how I was about to handle this and my upcoming treatments. At that time, we were only discussing surgery and 6 weeks of radiation. It was then that I learned that like any illness, breast cancer does not care. It does not wait. And it demands priority.
As you can imagine, Craig and I were stressed. The uncertainty of everything is scary and you’re exhausted but can’t seem to sleep. During the month that followed, my life consisted of many tests. I had surgery in early June that determined that I would also need chemotherapy, 8 rounds – 4 months added on to the 6 weeks of radiation – because I had one lymph node that was positive. Now a Stage 2 diagnosis. If you’re going through this, I’d recommend that you try your best to be open and free to the appointments available. Try your best to keep your head clear and as stress-free as you can. Know that the treatment regime may change due to results from surgeries or blood tests. Be flexible and open to variables.
Health insurance is very confusing, and stress only complicates things. Statements are difficult to read and comprehend, especially when experiencing chemo side-effects. “Chemo Brain,” as my doctors called it, didn’t allow me to think clearly, and I couldn’t multitask or fully understand health insurance discussions. Because of this, my husband and I allowed the clinic’s social worker to help us. She was excellent and handled our supplemental health insurance we had purchased two years earlier, a cancer policy. This was an incredibly fortunate decision and is something we have recommended to our friends and family. You hope to never use it, but we are thankful we had the policy. Cancer treatment costs are enormous and if we didn’t have health insurance, we could have lost our farm. Never go without health insurance and if possible, do not change your employment or insurance carriers while undergoing treatment.
Treatments were hard. There’s no getting around that. I was on a 14-day treatment schedule for four months. Every two weeks I would go in for a 6-10 hour long treatment. By day 2, you feel ok. The steroids and medication make you feel awake and active. Days 3-7 the nausea and fatigue set in and all I wanted to do was sleep. (During the last 4 rounds of my chemo treatments, I probably slept up to 18 hours a day). And by day 9-13, you start to feel like yourself again but are gearing up to start the treatment all over again. After my chemo, I had 30 rounds of radiation, where I had to go into the clinic every day, drive 30 minutes there and 30 minutes back. Craig was available to take me most days. It is very helpful to have a driver, especially in the very beginning with the lingering side effects of chemotherapy.
Sometimes I wondered why did I have to have this illness, but also, why did this illness have to happen to me now, at the height of our working season on the farm?
The timing of my treatment was difficult. Both Craig and I work off the farm, but before I was diagnosed, he had talked about spending more time farming. After the first treatment, with me mostly unable to provide much help, he quickly realized how much work he had (and how much work I did!). Thankfully, we had a community to rely on.
If you have an illness, do not be afraid to ask for help. Farmers are strong, independent, and proud people. Our livelihoods are dependent on things that happen that are outside of our control and we are used to toughing it out and we don’t like to ask for help or show vulnerability. It can be difficult to tell people about your illness because you are afraid that dynamics will change, or people will view you differently. And some of your relationships will change, but trust me, if you reach out to ask your community for help, you’ll likely find an abundance of support.
Although I couldn’t help much on the farm during my treatments, I truly believe that living in the country helped with my recovery. I looked forward to the fresh air and strived to walk 2 to 3 miles each day after the treatments ended; whatever the weather! It was helpful to have our loyal farm dogs, a golden retriever and a black lab that were eager to walk daily. My husband was very supportive every step of the way and sometimes had to peel me off my couch and urge me to take my daily walk. Exercise is the best way to fight the fatigue.
When we were walking out on our land, I didn’t have to be concerned about people seeing me. We both found peace and grew closer as husband and wife, fighting this battle together. For me, there was no better place than in the country to find the peace, strength, and determination to beat my illness. We began to walk daily in January. We had the farmer mentality of no matter what the weather, we will work. We continue to exercise to this day, six months post treatments. We have enjoyed the Spring weather and planning for the future and know we had a “bump in the road” in our life. The biggest bump so far in our 26 years of marriage, but we are in this together, for better or worse, in sickness and in health.
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