Verona Stromberg, 51, was diagnosed with breast cancer at 37.
She knew vaguely of a family history of breast cancer, so Stromberg began early mammograms and self-exams at age 35.
In July of 2003, she passed her mammogram test. In August, she was doing a self-breast exam and found a lump. In September, she saw her doctor and had a biopsy with the results – cancer.
“Mammograms are great and self-breast exams are a tool people should be using,” she said. “Had I not been doing my self-breast exam, I would not have caught the lump as early as I did.”
Stromberg said fear motivated her to start before the recommended age of 40.
“I was afraid,” she said. “I thought my mom had breast cancer but it turns out my mom’s sister had it.”
Stromberg’s three daughters were age 15, 11, and 6, when she was diagnosed.
“It was scary because you’re wanting to raise your family and do things with your kids and all of a sudden you’re doing this,” she said. “I’ll never forget the day I got the phone call from my physician with the diagnosis of cancer. It was Sept. 24. My husband wasn’t home and I couldn’t keep it together – this was before cell phones - so my 15-year-old ran to a neighbor’s to get her dad.”
That November, Stromberg had a mastectomy to remove her left breast.
“It’s a good thing I did because my whole left breast was filled with [the cancer] and they found an additional tumor too,” she said.
The two lumps classified her cancer as stage two, but the cancer hadn’t spread to her lymph nodes.
On Dec. 12, she started chemotherapy.
“There are dates you don’t forget,” she said. “I went to six weeks of radiation, and five years of Tamoxifen (a drug for treatment and risk reduction of breast cancer). No one ever said I was cancer free - I just got ‘Okay, you did everything you needed to do, unless something comes up we don’t need to see you again.’ I think it is okay that you don’t hear you’re cancer free, but it puts you in a mindset of uncertainty.”
Stromberg praised her supportive family, community and medical providers. She said her parents came for every chemotherapy treatment and she had a solid support system.
“Work was very accommodating and I had great friends that would take my kids so I could do chemo on Fridays,” she said. “We were new to the community, but Hamilton was amazing. We received meals and gifts to help take care of the family. I was so amazed that people cared.”
She said people opened up when she talked about her diagnosis and treatment.
“When I opened up other people opened up,” Stromberg said. “They had stories and tips to share, and they offered help. I think it is important for people to talk about.”
Stromberg teared up when she recounted her worst moment that came after reading a book with her youngest daughter.
“She said ‘Mommy, are you going to die?’ and until that moment that thought had never crossed my mind,” Stromberg said. “How do you answer that? I knew I was going in and doing everything I could for treatment.”
Stromberg did her own research to validate doctor recommendations and kept a notebook filled with questions and answers.
“I lived with fear for about seven years,” she said. “I feel confident now but I have a fear that it will reoccur - I still have my right breast. I feel very fortunate that I caught it when I did. I’m glad I had the medical community to guide me on what to do.
"It could have been a totally different outcome.”
Stromberg said one key for her was communication with her physician and caregivers. She said chemotherapy was so grueling and she felt so sick she wanted to quit before completing the course. When she mentioned it to her physician, she received medicine to ease the nausea.
“They have things they can do - just communicate,” she said. “There were a lot of different things that made my story doable. It’s not easy but it is doable.”
On the 10th anniversary of her diagnosis, she and her two oldest daughters got a pink ribbon tattoo as a victory ribbon.
“We were celebrating that I made it through,” Stromberg said as she showed her left wrist. “This is special. It is a reminder to me of what I went thorough and that I made it. No one wishes to have breast cancer, but it was a positive experience for me - the prayers of my church, my community, my family, my medical care, and so many things.”
Stromberg said she continues to get a mammogram on her right breast each year and does self-breast examinations.
She encourages a positive outlook.
“I joke a lot – I think humor is important,” she said. “Like when I had my mastectomy and was going in for radiation, they give you little tattoo dots to line up exactly. I go in there and the tech explains and he said ‘That’s a pretty small scar’ and I said ‘It was a pretty small breast.’ I think I embarrassed him but you have to find the humor.”
Stromberg is on the Sprinkle Pink committee for the Bitterroot Valley that raises money for the Aid for Mammography Fund as a way to give back to the community that encouraged her through a tough time 14 years ago.
“I bet everyone knows someone with breast cancer and I believe it is because of education and improved mammograms that people catch it early now,” she said. “It’s not great to be diagnosed, but it is great to catch it early. That’s the key to a success story and a positive outcome.”