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Colors of Cancer: Nurses share personal experiences with breast cancer
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Colors of Cancer: Nurses share personal experiences with breast cancer

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Christina Limbaugh is a nighttime labor/delivery and medsurg nurse at Marcus Daly Memorial Hospital. On Wednesday, she finished her shift, went for a walk by the river and then returned to the hospital as a patient to receive her latest chemotherapy treatment. In September 2019, she was diagnosed with triple-positive breast cancer.

“Since then, my coworkers at MDMH have become an amazingly overwhelming source of support, love, laughter, and friendship,” Limbaugh said. “They have all really gone above and beyond for me during this journey. Each of them has helped me through in some way, even people I never met. I really couldn’t imagine doing this without them.”

Limbaugh is one of several cancer survivors who are employed by MDMH and not only support the annual Colors of Cancer campaign but are advocating the benefits of a new cancer and infusion center proposed by the hospital administration.

Shortly after Limbaugh’s diagnosis last year, she participated in the Colors for Cancer 5K event and was bolstered by the support of a group who made customized pink T-shirts for the occasion. She walked some of the race and then rode in a wagon with her daughter as her coworkers pulled her since she was recovering from getting a port inserted for chemotherapy infusions.

As of this week, Limbaugh has completed 18 of her 22 scheduled infusions. She said her first few sessions took all day, but now they only take a couple of hours. She is able to get her infusion treatments at MDMH in whatever space the hospital has available, but would love to see a dedicated space for the needs of patients receiving infusions.

“I am thankful that I didn’t have to spend the last year driving to Missoula every three weeks,” Limbaugh said. “Not only would it have cost me a lot of time and money, no one wants to be in a car for an hour when you feel nauseated and exhausted.”

She feels lucky to only have four more treatments as she knows some people get infusions for the rest of their life.

“Many have sat here before me, and, sadly, many more will find themselves in the very chair I made my home during treatments,” Limbaugh said. “As both a nurse and patient, I am so excited for an infusion clinic, and all the opportunities for our community that it will provide.”

Monica Ehmann is a registered nurse who works in Business Information Technology Department at Marcus Daly Memorial Hospital. The last four years have been challenging for her family who lives in the Sula Basin. In October 2016, her husband Pete broke his neck while working cattle on the family ranch and then in October 2019, Monica was diagnosed with breast cancer.

She said her diagnosis came about the time her husband settled into being as independent as he could after being paralyzed from his accident.

“This has been a long journey for my family,” she said. “We have worked very hard to find the good in all things. It has not always been easy and not everyone understands the emotions that go along with it so it makes it very difficult.”

Ehmann said the beginning of the cancer journey was overwhelming as she spent a full month in testing before beginning chemo.

“Not only are you trying to deal with the diagnosis, you are also wanting to learn about your type of cancer and all the tests that go along with it, and there are a lot,” she said.

The best advice she received was to trust her doctor and oncologist to provide facts rather than doing an online search that could lead to misinformation, being overwhelmed and creating additional worries. She scoured the sites recommended by her assigned nurse coordinator for true information.

Ehmann said she also searched social media to find others with the same type of breast cancer and received good advice on how to deal with side effects and how to break the news to family near and far.

“The ability to chat with someone that has the same type of cancer as you with the same treatment and surgeries was very helpful,” she said. “Since we are so rural, there really aren’t any support groups in our area, so these online groups helped me so much,” she said. “You learn really cool stuff like, I didn’t realize, when you lose your hair … it hurts. No one tells you that the longer your hair is, the worse it hurts.”

So she did decide to shave her head before losing all her hair. One other tip she learned was to use a lint roller to remove any little stubbles each morning as the hair grows back. Also, she was able to reduce the severity of recovering from her infusions if she also requested to receive an IV of saline the day after each infusion.

“It’s little tidbits like that, that you’re not going to find online or your doctor may not tell you, but instead it comes from another lady who has gone through it,” Ehmann said. “It’s the little things that make it a little more comfortable. It helps you cope. The feedback from those ladies was so great.”

She took her diagnosis and the steps of the battle day by day with attempts at organization.

“I bought a [day planner called] CanPlan (mycanplan.com) that saved my sanity and kept track of all my appointments, medications, questions, results, everything,” Ehmann said. “It even contains brain games, because you get chemo brain. I love this, I wrote every question I had and took it with me to every appointment. It took such a load off.”

She said that “the nurse in her” had her studying information on each step of the process.

“It is just so overwhelming,” she said. “At least I had a little bit of knowledge being in the medical field. I was really grateful for my background in medicine.”

Ehmann said a big challenge was balancing work, life and treatment. Right after her diagnosis, she was on a strict chemotherapy schedule every three weeks and she still worked as much as possible. Each treatment day, she drove from Sula to Missoula and back — four hours of total travel time during winter weather. She said she felt fairly well after each five to seven-hour infusion session and worked for several days after treatment. Then she had several days of feeling too poorly to work, would slowly recover, work and start the cycle again.

Ehmann did six rounds of chemo and drove to Missoula each time, which became increasingly difficult during the COVID-19 pandemic.

She weighed the factors and took the most aggressive treatment as a preventative to reoccurrence — a bilateral mastectomy in April and reconstruction surgery in June.

“I’m young, my husband is a quadriplegic and I’m his caregiver and I have two little boys,” she said. “Everyone makes their choices for their own reasons.”

She underwent radiation each day for 25 days and said it was exhausting, but that her MDMH IT teammates took turns driving her to Missoula each day.

“Having a treatment center in Hamilton would have been great,” she said. “I really don’t think I would have missed as much work because I didn’t feel bad on the day of my infusions. I’m the kind of person who would have had my treatment and gone back to work, especially if it was in the same building.”

Overall, Ehmann encourages families facing cancer to, “Take the resources that are given to you.”

She also encouraged independent folks to allow family and friends to provide service. She credits her in-laws for their household help, meal preparations and time spent checking on the family.

“My mother-in-law was there every single day after my mastectomy,” Ehmann said. “It is hard when you are very independent to accept help. That was something I had to struggle with, but it was good to have help.”

Ehmann will complete her immunotherapy treatments in early December.

“It’s exciting to feel good again and be able to do normal stuff,” she said. “I’m hiking and appreciating the little things. I realize one person’s challenges is another’s inspiration and I’m happy to share.”

The Colors of Cancer campaign continues with all funds received by the Daly Hospital Foundation during October matched by MDMH and directed toward the construction of a new cancer and infusion center. To find out about giving opportunities, contact Stacie Duce, Director of Philanthropy at 406-375-4674 or Stacie.duce@mdmh.org. Give online anytime at MDMH.org/GIVE and push the Colors of Cancer giving button.

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