On Jan. 4, 2013, Brenda Braatz stepped on a roller coaster and didn't get off for five years. At least that's how it felt on that cold winter day, when Brenda — then 49 — was diagnosed with breast cancer. Testing revealed the cancer was estrogen receptor positive and HER2-negative, and it had spread to her lymph nodes and breast skin.
"It was overwhelming," the Sparta, Wisconsin, resident says of coping with the news and the treatment that followed.
Fortunately, Brenda wasn't alone on her journey. Her husband, Mark, was beside her. And Brenda says there was another group supporting her every step of the way: the doctors, nurses and other care providers in the Cancer Center at Mayo Clinic Health System — Franciscan Healthcare in La Crosse, Wisconsin. "They were my strength," she says. "They became like family."
Soon after her diagnosis, Brenda met with Paula Gill, M.D., a hematologist-oncologist, to discuss a treatment plan. The plan began with two rounds of chemotherapy. When follow-up imaging showed that the medication had failed to shrink the tumor in Brenda's left breast, she decided to have a mastectomy. Surgeon M. Kathleen Christian, M.D., had talked with Brenda at an earlier appointment about the types of surgery and reconstruction available to her.
"When I was first diagnosed, Dr. Christian and her nurse talked to me about my surgery options," Brenda says. After reviewing her choices, Brenda chose to have a skin-sparing procedure. This newer technique can preserve breast skin and allow for a more natural breast appearance following the procedure.
The day of Brenda's surgery, Dr. Christian removed the tissue, nipple and areola from Brenda's left breast. Then Matthew Sherrill, M.D., a plastic and reconstructive surgeon, placed a temporary expander under Brenda's skin to make space for the implant that eventually would replace her breast tissue.
When Brenda healed from surgery, she began another round of chemotherapy. When that treatment was finished, she started seven weeks of daily radiation therapy. Brenda remembers that as an exhausting, stressful time. "Radiation was taxing for me," she says. "It wore me out."
During those difficult days, Brenda says she drew strength from Cancer Center staff. "When I would see them, I felt rejuvenation and hope," she says. "I felt like they were protecting me and giving me life. They made me feel I could do treatment just one more time. They're just amazing people."
Despite the challenges of treatment, Brenda continued to work 40-60 hours a week as a manager at a local restaurant. Her work became another source of strength.
"I felt like I needed to get out, and not stay home and stress and dwell on things," she says. "I only missed one day of work throughout my treatment. I couldn't have done it if the company wasn't so flexible and wonderful."
While Brenda was receiving treatment, another member of her family also was diagnosed with breast cancer. That prompted Brenda to undergo genetic testing at Mayo Clinic's Rochester campus to learn if she had any gene mutations that might have contributed to her cancer.
"It was a scary decision to make," she says. "You really have to think before you do genetic testing because you have to decide if you're going to do anything based on the results." When she received her results, Brenda learned that she had the CHEK2 mutation, which put her at higher risk of developing breast cancer again. Based on those results, she decided to have a second mastectomy.
"I'd already had a lot of lump scares in my right breast," Brenda says. Although none were cancerous, she was ready to have the breast removed. She again turned to Drs. Christian and Sherrill for the procedure and reconstruction.
When Brenda healed, she made another decision, electing to have 3D nipple and areola tattooing. The procedure uses tattoo needles to create realistic-looking nipples.
"After my mastectomies, all I saw when I looked in the mirror was a big line through my chest," Brenda says. Initially, that didn't bother her. But after she'd healed completely from surgery, she began to feel differently. "I'm very glad I did it and would recommend tattooing to any breast cancer survivor who wants to get their body back," Brenda says. "I will always have scars, but they're not the first thing I see any more when I look in the mirror."
Today Brenda's journey continues. She still has treatments ahead of her, and she lives with side effects from treatment, including tingling in her fingers and tongue. But that's not what Brenda chooses to focus on.
Instead, she focuses on celebrating life. Brenda retired in 2018, and soon after, she and Mark embarked on an extended vacation. Among the highlights of their trip: visiting national parks in Canada and Alaska, where Brenda enjoyed close encounters with grizzly bears, buffalo, wolves and whales. "We made a list of animals we wanted to see, and we've seen them all — most of them with babies," Brenda says. They also visited family, including their son in Washington and grandchildren in California.
Before she left on the trip, Brenda stopped by the Cancer Center to drop off a gift: a handmade card thanking the staff for her care. It's something she'd worked on for months, trying to find just the right words to show her gratitude.
"I scribbled things down on a notepad every time I thought of something I wanted to say," Brenda says. "But you can't fit it all into words. They gave me so many things: strength, love, courage. I would have never made it through without those people. They are my angels."
Note: A version of this story previously was published in Hometown Health.