Lanesboro breast cancer survivor shares message of hope

PHOTO COURTESY OF KRISTEN HERRING-ASLESON Kristen Herring-Asleson of Lanesboro, center, spent much of the last year recovering from breast cancer and related surgeries and treatments with the help of her daughters, Haley, at left, and Lindsey.
Gretchen Mensink Lovejoy

“It is important for me to be part of the Relay for Life because cancer has hit home this past year, in a big way. I can say I am a survivor thus far,” stated Lanesboro resident Kristen Herring-Asleson, who is the organizer of the 2019 Fillmore County Relay for Life Survivor and Caregiver Tea. The tea takes place at the opening of the Relay this Friday in Sylvan Park. Herring-Asleson is also a member of the “Breast Friends Forever” Relay team with her two daughters, Haley and Lindsey, who have also served as her caregivers throughout the past nine months.

The Rochester native, 49, moved to Lanesboro in 2009, making it her home with her six children – her three daughters, now 30, 28 and 20, and her three sons, who are 15, 9 and 5 years old. Herring-Asleson was a local business owner before her diagnosis. “I owned and operated The Granary, a coffee and wine house I opened in July 2017. When I got the diagnosis, I had to make the hard decision to close down permanently. It was too young of a business to warrant hiring someone in my absence, and I really did not know what my prognosis would be or how many surgeries I would have to undergo, treatments I would have to receive, et cetera, so I closed on Dec. 9, 2018, one day prior to undergoing a double mastectomy.”

Herring-Asleson recounted, “In September 2018, I decided there were a few health issues I needed checked out and treated – mostly female issues. I started out with my regular physician, and she discovered a mole on my back that should be looked at. So, following protocol, she referred me to a dermatologist as well as a gynecologist. The dermatologist excised the mole, had it sent for pathology and discovered it was too close to melanoma, so it had to be excised. A six-centimeter patch was removed from my back, and this all started the process of my physical limitations and recovery. It’s rather difficult to move or exercise with that many stitches. To make it worse, the same night the stitches were put in, I changed positions in bed, and it split completely apart. At midnight, there I was sitting in the ER having two layers of stitches put in to make sure it held.”

The midnight venture to the emergency room led to further examinations, she recalled. “Somewhere in the conversation with my doc, she said it had been a few years since my last mammogram, and that I really hadn’t followed up with my ‘dense breasts.’ Mammograms scared the crap out of me, so I ignored the calls urging a follow-up mammo. I begrudgingly agreed and went in for another one. The results came back as the same, so they wanted to do a tomosynthesis. That procedure took hundreds of images, and the results came back quickly. In fact, so quickly that before I was even dressed again, they asked me for more images. The additional images showed an approximate nine-centimeter spot that needed to be biopsied.”

As with most medical procedures, there were indignities to be suffered. “A week later, I was in a room with a table for me to lay on and ‘hang through.’ I was numbed, and a machine punched through to the area of suspicion. Between two spots, there were 24 biopsies taken. The group of doctors and nurses that took care of me that day treated me like I was the only patient in the world. To say I was scared of the procedure and the outcome would be an understatement. The biopsies…I cannot imagine how they took those ‘back in the day,’ but they do a pretty good job of making it painless, with little anxiety, today. I think a team of four people helped me that day, and all were truly amazing. It is very comforting, because as a patient laying there exposed and vulnerable, with tears running down her face, those people mean the world at that moment.”

Curiosity and dread came as unwanted visitors in the wait for Herring-Asleson’s diagnosis. “The doctors and nurses warned me to stay off the online patient portal, but being an administrative assistant who knows her way around the computer, this was hard for me to obey. And, I didn’t. On Oct. 19, 2018, I received notification via email that I had new results ready to view. I called my daughter, Haley, and we logged on together. I was reading reports, she was reading reports, and we were pleased that the first two or three appeared good.”

But the next notes in Herring-Asleson’s medical file were words that have permanently changed her life. She said, “And then I heard her say, ‘Oh, my God, Mom, I’m so sorry.’ Just as her words were shakenly whispered, I opened the report that said I had malignant breast cancer. We were shocked, and I told her I had to get off the phone. Within 30 seconds, my doc called to give me the news officially.”

Haley, 20, who is a junior nursing student at Viterbo College in La Crosse and who lives in Lanesboro, recounted, “I was in La Crosse where I go to school, and I was on the phone with her at the time. I felt anxious, upset, worried, and thought immediately the worst. My mind was racing the rest of the day and up until we knew the plan of action.”

Ongoing medical tests and results found Herring-Asleson at the clinic. “A couple of days later, I met with the gynecologist who revealed the uterine biopsy results. Thankfully, there was no cancer. However, there was adenomyosis. We sat down to go through my treatment options, which was a list of about eight. One by one, she crossed them off, stating, ‘Since you have cancer, this is no longer an option.’ Ultimately, a hysterectomy was the only one.”

And then came the work to pinpoint cancer treatment, with plans for a hysterectomy and reconstructive breast surgery at a later date. “I spent hours and hours with surgeons, doctors, support staff and volunteers and made countless trips to the clinic for appointments. I learned to not wear shoes that tie – only slip-ons. And that three-armhole gowns are the most confusing piece of clothing there is. After a while, it was easier to just throw it over my shoulder – there is no way to hide when going through this. And my surgeon let me know that my cancer would never have been detected by self-examination. There were no lumps or bumps or tumors. This kind of cancer showed up on images as if someone had taken a salt shaker and took it all over my breasts. A mammogram was the reason it was found.”

The original surgical plan meant to preserve as much of Herring-Asleson’s own tissue as possible, but in the process, doctors determined that more had to be done to prevent recurrence or spread of the disease.

“After meeting with the breast cancer specialists, it seemed logical and sensible to have a double mastectomy – scheduled for Dec. 10 – and the plan was to have a nipple-sparing procedure, but when I woke up, I was told the cancer was out there as well, so nothing was spared. Essentially, they scooped almost up to my collar bone and took four lymph nodes for pathology as well. Luckily, the cancer had not spread to those.”

Emerging from surgery left with wounds to heal meant that she had to have help after being discharged from the hospital. “I spent several weeks in severe pain, with drains hanging from my body and wrapped like a mummy from the waist up. Getting out of bed was an experience, a painful one at that. Haley, a second-year nursing student, was my main caregiver. She cleaned my wounds, checked my incision sites and cleared my drains at least twice daily. Haley attended every appointment with me, and when it came time for the drains to be removed, the doctor just gave her a sterilized kit and let her do it at home. To her, it was fascinating. I was in good hands. My daughter, Lindsey, was my backup caregiver but was also due to have her baby boy two weeks after my surgery.”

She summarized the extent of her hospital stays, citing, “I underwent a double mastectomy and expander surgery on Dec. 10. On May 9, I had a hysterectomy and replacement of the expanders, along with fat grafting. Because of the issues following the hysterectomy, it was discovered my kidney-to-bladder was blocked, and I had to undergo an emergency surgery to put stents in…for five weeks, they were in, and they were removed recently and I am finally beginning to feel somewhat normal.”

Because Herring-Asleson opted for expanders and implants, she was seen every other week for three months, and was instructed to take it easy.

“It was difficult, as it is in my nature to get things done. I have at least one more surgery to go, and possibly a second. I go back in August and will most likely have one more surgery scheduled. From there out, I will need to return to the doctor every six months for the next five years before they will say I am ‘cured,’ if there is such a thing,” she said. “And of course, there are never any guarantees. I already had one of my six-month follow-up appointments, and the time leading up to it was filled with fear and worry. A feeling I clearly won’t escape for years to come.”

Her body hasn’t done what she wills it to do, and that’s a source of frustration. “I am weak, my heart rate skyrockets from going up one flight of stairs, I can hardly walk a block, and I feel like a shell of the person I was in most of 2018,” she said.

Her range of motion has changed, and her ability to lift and carry things has changed. She admits the worst part is she has yet to hold her youngest children, as the pain is unpredictable.

“I get frustrated quickly and more easily when I can’t reach, get out of bed, walk distances, or do the normal ‘things.’ I get quite antsy when chores don’t get done and have learned to just chill out and know that it really isn’t the most important thing in the world,” she shared. “I have also learned to just slow down and be thankful for all the little things, as I now truly recognize what matters and what should be a priority versus what shouldn’t.”

 Herring-Asleson credits her family with being the foundation upon which she now stands, from the smallest to the tallest. “My family has been amazing, even down to the two littlest boys. If they observed me lifting anything or struggling, they were right by my side helping. The boys can cook if necessary, they can start the laundry, and they have become quite proficient at housekeeping.” She quipped, “I consider this good training for when they have a wife.”

And in regard to this community, Herring-Asleson has received monetary donations that brought tears to her eyes – from the Lanesboro Fire Department and other individuals.

“Residents I have known for a long time or some I have hardly known at all have cooked for us and brought us meals. It is a very humbling feeling, but yet, I am so very thankful for their generosity,” she added.

Haley concurred, “Our town has 700 people in it, so word traveled quickly about my mom. As soon as my mom came home from her mastectomy, my sister and I received many messages from people asking if they could bring food over for us and my siblings. We have been so grateful for our community providing food, praying for us, and stopping over just to see how my mom is doing.”

 Haley shared her experience as her mother’s caregiver, stating, “I had finals the same week as her first surgery, so two days after her surgery, I came home and my sister and I took care of her – emptying drains, administering her medications, taking her to the bathroom and anything else she needed. I lived at home for winter break for about a month. That entire month, I took care of her. I worked nurse-on-call shifts at the nursing home I work at so I could take care of my mom during the day and evening. Taking care of my mom put into perspective what I would be doing once I graduate nursing school. It changed how I viewed monitoring medications, looking for signs and symptoms of adverse reactions, or improper healing from what I had previously thought nothing much about.”

Herring-Asleson registered that she understands that it hasn’t been entirely exciting for Haley to be a caregiver, even though she’s a nursing student. “I want people to understand that patients aren’t always patient and kind…sometimes it is not even controllable whether you’re on pain meds and don’t really understand how you treat others, that taking care of someone is not glamorous or neat and tidy.”

She added that caregivers have to be incredibly responsible to track medication schedules, watch for infections, clean wound sites and be able to handle “gross” situations.

“Not everyone can be a caregiver – it takes a lot of tolerance and patience,” Herring-Asleson added.

Haley called her mother “incredibly brave” for facing cancer with a positive attitude. “I think she has come out stronger than ever. I think I’ve seen her cry more these past seven months than I have in my entire life, which just shows she is a person – not just my mom, but a person who has fears, worries and emotions just like anyone else,” she said. “I’ve seen her laugh as well. She jokes about her scars and implants when others would cry about them not looking ‘how they should’…she’s definitely a fighter.”

Herring-Asleson has high hopes for this coming year, including that her physical well-being will get to a new “normal.”

She also hopes she can help and support the next woman who is facing this journey and offer encouragement, and to become a walking PSA for women to get their mammograms.

 The family anticipates the Relay for Life because it offers them an opportunity to share with others what “hope” means.

The survivor said, “I am organizing the Survivors’ Tea, so meeting survivors, their family, their caregivers, et cetera, is exciting for me. To be able to hold someone’s hand and offer support and encouragement would be awesome – I now know what it feels like to be on the other end of a hand being held for this reason. I am looking forward to seeing all the teams and walkers get together, the luminaries being lit in honor of survivors and those who succumbed to cancer. It will be a beautiful yet emotional event – this group is more than just a bunch of fundraisers…they do it for a reason. They love their survivors and miss those who have been taken. By raising money, I will feel as if I am contributing to the growing funds to find a cure. I feel I can bring a smile and a ray of hope to those who are down and feeling hopeless.”