Sternhagen stays strong as she beats the ‘ugly beast’

Posted October 2, 2013 at 11:50 am

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Callie Sternhagen, director at Pennington Square Assisted Living, is fighting breast cancer. A benefit in her honor will be held Friday, Oct. 4, at the Eagles Club. Sternhagen said the support from family, friends, co-workers and more has been overwhelming. The Sternhagen family from Delhi includes Tyler, Jada, Callie and Lonny. (Photo courtesy of Samantha Bacon)

By Kim Brooks, Express Editor

A career in healthcare and dedication to taking care of others affected by illness, Callie Sternhagen never thought the tables would be turned.

The director at Pennington Square Assisted Living here in Monticello, Sternhagen puts in long hours caring for the residents.

Earlier this year, Sternhagen found out she had breast cancer, news no one wants to hear. On May 19, 2011, Sternhagen’s mother, Jeryl Bacon of Hopkinton, was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer.

“I remember feeling like I didn’t know anything,” admitted Sternhagen of the disease. “Throughout my career I have taken care of many people affected by cancer, so I always thought I had somewhat of a knowledge of the disease.”

That October, Bacon passed away. As Sternhagen puts it, “The ugly beast took her from me and my family,” referring to the cancer.

After the devastating loss of her mother, Sternhagen began performing self-breast exams, as a way to prevent anything from happening.

“After realizing the loss I sustained, I didn’t want my children and family to go through it with me.”

On March 8, when doing a self-exam in the shower, like the doctors show you, Sternhagen said she felt something abnormal behind her right breast, low in her armpit. Three days later, on a Monday, she went to see her doctor. That Wednesday, March 13, Sternhagen underwent a mammogram, ultrasound and biopsy in Cedar Rapids.

“It was a freak of nature that I found it,” said Sternhagen, referring to the abnormal lump.

Then, that afternoon, she received the call no woman wants to hear: Cancer!

She was diagnosed with breast cancer Stage 0, which she explained as pre-cancer.

“I just fell on the floor and cried,” Sternhagen said of hearing the news. She said her daughter and husband (Jada and Lonny) who were there with her just seemed to go numb.

“I wanted a second opinion,” Sternhagen said of caring for her health. “I’m a firm believer of getting a second opinion.”

With her mother being treated at the University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics in Iowa City, Sternhagen knew she could not go back to that hospital for personal reasons. So, she sought a second opinion at the Cancer Treatment Center of America in Zion, Ill., near Chicago.

On April 15, Sternhagen had a mastectomy to remove two tumors and three lymph nodes.

“After surgery, they discovered there was a third tumor that was directly under the other two, which was full of cancerous cells,” explained Sternhagen. “Due to suspicious-looking tissue, the doctors also removed 22 lymph nodes.”

She was then diagnosed at Stage 2B, since the cancer had spread into more lymph nodes and tissue.

Two weeks later, she returned for a follow-up and was back in the surgery room to remove a large blood clot in her right chest.

Like most cancer patients battling the “ugly beast,” in June Sternhagen started her first of six chemotherapy treatments. She would receive three different chemo drugs at each round of treatments, every three weeks.

Now, as of Sept. 20, she has completed her sixth treatment. She is down to just one chemo drug every three weeks for 18 treatments.

“Once I am stronger and healthier, I will undergo a hysterectomy to remove pre-cancerous lesions and have reconstruction surgery on my right breast,” explained Sternhagen.

While every form of cancer treatment affects patients differently, Sternhagen said she didn’t want to go through radiation.

“It was an option for me, but side-effects outweighed the advantages for me.”

The biggest challenge was losing her long hair.

“That was my worst fear from day one,” she admitted.

While her hair had started thinning and falling out, it wasn’t until the day of her second treatment that her husband helped her cut her hair while staying in Chicago.

As she continues to fight and live her life, Sternhagen makes it a point of going to work everyday that she’s not traveling to and from the Chicago area for treatment. After eight weeks off, she went back to work on May 31. She said the outpouring of support from family, friends, co-workers and the community has been overwhelming.

“I’ve had lots of support from day one.” Sternhagen said the unfortunate news seems to have brought her family all closer together. “It’s given me insight into how important family and friends are in your life.”

Her goal after going back to work has been to get up every morning. She said while she may not be to work on time, she gets there, which is the important thing.

“My body will tell me when it’s time to take it easy and take a nap,” she said.

In order to help Sternhagen and her family offset medical and travel expenses, some of her family co-workers at Pennington and Monticello Nursing & Rehab Center have organized a benefit for this Friday, Oct. 4, at the Monticello Eagles Club. There will be a bake sale, silent and live auctions, a hog roast and food and a DJ and live music from 3 p.m. to midnight.

“Tammy Harms (co-worker) came to me with the idea for a benefit,” Sternhagen said. “At first, I was a little apprehensive.”

The public is invited to attend the benefit. Tickets for adults are just $10; kids 10 and under are $5.

As for her words of wisdom and advice to others who may be going through cancer, Sternhagen says, “Early detection is key. Don’t think it can’t happen to you. Self-awareness is so important in beating this ugly beast. Cancer can and will change your life, but it’s up to you on how you face it. Never get so busy making a living that you forget to make a life for yourself.”