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Sunspots: Breast cancer survivor Joan Spaeth continues to live in the moment

MORRIS - Joan Spaeth says that people have remarked lately on what a nicely shaped head she has. During our recent conversation, I made the same comment. Perhaps it's Joan's wide and ready smile. Or the manner in which she appreciates everyone else around her.

In any case, there's definitely something about Joan Spaeth.

Joan was born in White Bear Lake to parents Roger and Char Olson in July 1966. Following graduation in 1984 from Benson High School, she studied at Canby Vocational School and worked as a dental assistant at a variety of locations, including at the Morris Dental Clinic and for Dr. Jeffrey Hauger.

She was also employed at Genetiporc for eight years and for a year in the loan department at (then) First Federal Savings Bank.

Joan and husband Tom moved to Morris in 1992 when Tom was hired by Genetiporc. The couple has two grown children: Christine, who lives in Minneapolis, and Bryant, a senior at North Dakota State University. Joan's two siblings, Jill and Sue, live in nearby Hancock and Villard, respectively. Daughter Christine's cat, Lola, has taken up a temporary residence at the Spaeth home.

"My father built our home in 1998," said Joan. "We love this area and decided to remain here due to our jobs and to stay close to our family."

Joan has also worked with summer programs in the Office of Continuing Education and Summer Session at the University of Minnesota, Morris. For the past three years, she has been employed as a human resources assistant at the Stevens Community Medical Center.

In addition to changing employment over the years, Joan experienced a life change in December 2011.

During a self-examination, Joan found a lump in her breast. Dr. Gary Paulson in Alexandria recommended a biopsy. On Dec. 8, 2011, results of the biopsy indicated that the lump was malignant.

"Dr. Paulson told me that most people figuratively 'die' in his office when they hear biopsy results like I did," said Joan. "When I heard the news, I said 'OK, what do we need to do?' "

Joan chose to have surgery. On December 20 she had a bilateral double mastectomy.

"I was in the hospital on Tuesday and got out Christmas Eve morning," she said. "By Monday the drain tubes, which I am told can remain in for two to three weeks, were removed." Lab results following her surgery came back with "clean margins," indicating the surgery was successful.

"By New Year's Eve we had dinner out," said Joan. "Two weeks later we were dancing at my niece's wedding. After four weeks I returned to work."

Today Joan is cancer free.

"Do what you feel comfortable with; take each phase and deal with it the best you know how," is Joan's advice. "Be vocal with people. To those who wanted to give me the worst-case scenario, I'd say to them that I wasn't ready to hear it.

"Be present in each stage and don't look ahead to the next stage," she added. "There are choices. When faced with it I knew what I would choose."

Joan met with her oncologist and began six chemo treatments -- one every three weeks -- from February to June. In July she began 33 radiation treatments, one every day.

Having heard horror stories about radiation, Joan worried that if she so much as sneezed she would get burned. "I want people to know that radiation is a real simple procedure," she said. "It's like an X-ray machine that's localized. The machine can be turned off at any time.

"This journey has been amazing," said Joan. "Tom is by my side. He and my parents went with me to every chemo and every radiation treatment. The kids came too when they could. My sister shaved my head and Tom got a shorter haircut the same day. People have been amazing," she said with tears. "The only time I've cried is when I've experienced how kind people are."

In addition to her family and other friends, the SCMC staff is on board. The hospital dietary staff bakes apple turnovers "that taste to me just like they should," she said.

"I asked the surgeon 'Could I have done something different?' He said no, so I concluded that it is something in our environment." Joan has chosen a dairy-, soy-, gluten- and wheat-free diet. "I don't eat corn or sugar. I eat all organic foods and we eat only grass-fed beef. I wear all natural makeup and use natural hair products."

As we remember those who have passed and those we know who are living with breast cancer, especially during Breast Cancer Awareness Month in October, Joan Spaeth is first to say that each cancer and each individual is different and each person can make their own choices.

As for those of us looking on with the urge to do something to help...what can we do?

"Be a good listener, don't ask questions," said Joan. "Let them talk; you may say something they're not ready to handle." Assisting with physical chores may depend on which stage the person is at. "After surgery, one can perhaps bring food; Smart Waters tasted good to me," said Joan, whose taste returned right away.

Joan would like to see more public awareness of the financial burden faced by those living with cancer. In addition to the medical costs, they need gas for travel to and from appointments and procedures, money for groceries and more, she said.

Above all, said Joan, "Don't assume because someone has cancer that they're sick." In Joan's case, "I'm a healthy person who just happens to have cancer. With family, good friends and others to lend their support, I've been really blessed."

If you have an idea for SunSpots, call Judy Riley at 320-589-2792.