Cancer screening can save lives

A special bond between Heidi Stevermer, left, and Diane Sharp formed after Stevermer, a family nurse practitioner at Mayo Clinic Health System in Fairmont, urged fellow Mayo employee Sharp to have a lifesaving mammogram.

FAIRMONT — One simple action can save your life.

Last April, Diane Sharp needed a prescription renewed. Because her regular physician had moved, she needed to find a new doctor.

“Every time you see a new doctor, they have to do an exam. I knew this was coming so I waited until the last minute,” said Sharp, who works in the finance department at Mayo Clinic Health System in Fairmont.

She looked at photos and biographies of all the providers at Mayo and settled on Heidi Stevermer, a family nurse practitioner.

“I saw Heidi’s picture, and I thought she looked really nice and kind. I thought she’ll listen to me, and she’ll do what I want to do because I don’t go to the doctor. I thought I could kind of con her a little.”

It had been at least 15 years since Sharp had had a mammogram. The only reason she had one then was because of a promise she’d made to a friend who had breast cancer.

“I just didn’t feel it was necessary,” she said. “I was healthy. I was fine. I don’t have pain so I was just going to skip all that stuff.”

However, Stevermer had other ideas.

“I don’t think people realize they are not the first person to come up with that argument, that justification. We hear it every day,” she said.

During the exam, she urged Sharp to have a mammogram and colonoscopy.

“I really didn’t think I needed that,” Sharp said. “There’s no cancer in our family. But Heidi just kept on talking and bargained with me. If I did a mammogram, I wouldn’t have to do a colonoscopy. I agreed, thinking that I’d probably just go make an appointment and then cancel it.”

However, Stevermer made the mammogram appointment for her. Sharp knew she had to follow through with the test or Stevermer might find out.

And it saved her life.

The test revealed abnormalities in both breasts, and subsequent testing and biopsies indicated they were different types of cancer. Fortunately, the cancers were at the earliest stage.

Sharp said the results shocked her. She had never been sick, other than an occasional sinus infection, and never had surgery. As an avid horse rider, she had incurred a few minor injuries, but nothing serious.

“People feel sick or have no appetite, but all of the things we ask people, she had none of that,” Stevermer said. “She thought she would feel a lump if she had one.”

After a brief moment of self-pity following the diagnosis, Sharp felt confident in her decision to have a double mastectomy.

“When I called my kids, I said this is a piece of cake, until it isn’t,” she said.

On June 1, Sharp underwent a 6 1/2-hour surgery in Rochester for the removal and reconstruction of both breasts.

“All the doctors have been so kind and so caring and so concerned. I had no chemo, no radiation,” she said. She felt lucky compared to so many other cancer patients.

Two months after that surgery, Sharp underwent another procedure, this one to open up the carotid artery in her neck. During Stevermer’s initial exam of Sharp, she detected an abnormal sound in the artery and suspected blood flow was restricted. A follow-up test confirmed it.

“Cholesterol can build up in the carotid, and that’s what leads to strokes. She was knocking at the door of a potential stroke as well,” Stevermer said.

Sharp will continue follow-up appointments in Rochester, but Stevermer will remain her primary care provider.

“She’s a superstar. She is,” Sharp said. “I felt very comfortable with her. I never got a lecture. She was very easy to talk to, but there was this tiny push, push, push to have a mammogram. If she had not done this, I would be looking at chemo, radiation or worse.

“But don’t go to her if you just need a med refill,” she added, resulting in hearty laughter from both patient and provider, something that happens a lot when the two are together.

Stevermer admits to being somewhat of a stickler when it comes to regular exams and testing. When she was a nurse, she worked in intensive care, seeing many patients whose serious conditions could have been avoided with early detection.

“I am biased toward worst case scenarios,” she said. “Maybe I come across as pushy. I try not to, but I want to make sure you have all the information.”

Stevermer also is not afraid to defer to a higher power.

“I try to say a prayer on my way to work every single day. We can’t do this all on our own,” she said. “Nobody can know all of the things there are in medicine. We go to universities. We get our knowledge base, but there’s divine intervention too. And it’s so important that we see you at least once a year.”

She called Sharp a perfect example of how early detection can change a life story.

Sharp hopes her story will prompt others to schedule a check-up.

“I’m one of those people that always avoided going in. There’s a lot of other people out there just like me,” she said. “If just one person that doesn’t think they need one comes in for a mammogram, I’ll be happy.”

Both women also downplayed the cost factor that might prevent women from having the procedure, saying there are many programs to help cover some if not all of the cost.


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