Buddy Check 7 Awareness Week: NewsChannel 7’s Holly Chilsen shares her mom’s breast cancer story

Published: Oct. 6, 2020 at 5:57 PM CDT
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WAUSAU, Wis. (WSAW) - In August, our Buddy Check 7 story was about NewsChannel 7′s Holly Chilsen and the experience she had with her first mammogram. She’s only 32, but because breast cancer runs in her family and having dense breast tissue, doctors recommended she get screened at a younger age. Luckily, the results came back normal. Unfortunately, that wasn’t the case for her mom and two aunts, all all survived the disease.

It was 16 years ago that Holly’s mom, Shirley Chilsen, heard the words no one ever wants to hear: You have cancer. She felt the lump through a self-breast exam, following a mammogram that didn’t detect it about two months prior. But through a biopsy, MRI and second mammogram, it was found. At that point she was stage 3.

“When the doctor comes in and tells you you have cancer, your body just goes numb. You don’t hear anything else they say," Shirley said.

What followed was a round of aggressive chemotherapy, surgery and more chemotherapy. It also lead to a diagnosis of lymphadema.

Holly sat down with her mom to reflect on those moments neither will forget. “I was only 16 at the time and I mean my reaction was 'No, my mom doesn’t have (cancer) She’s young," Holly recalled. "Was it hard to tell Kayla and me?”

“Very hard,” Shirley responded. "I think that was one of the first thoughts what went through my mind was, because I had two girls, and this ran in the family, I was scared for you guys.”

Shirley then prepared herself to have the lump removed. "They took me to a surgery and they removed the cancerous tumor and then they also knew that they had to remove some lymph nodes. And when they take some lymph nodes out, then they can’t carry all the fluid too.”

That outcome’s diagnosis is called lymphadema. As a result, Shirley will often get something called cellulitis. It’s a common, potentially serious bacterial skin infection. The affected skin appears swollen and red and is typically painful and warm to the touch

“The cellulitis is like the worst flu you can imagine. It’s.. it’s terrible," Shirley said. "My arm swells up, it’s beat red and it’s burning. It’s hot, because there’s a fever all in your arm. You get the body aches really bad, and you’re so tired.”

“I remember talking to you on the phone and you were in tears," recalled Holly. "You’re pretty tough and when you started crying, that was hard.”

A few years ago, Shirley had a procedure called a lymph bypass at Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn. to try to get some of the swelling down from the lymphadema. At that point however, several years had passed between first getting the lymphadema and the surgery, which was in May of 2016.

“It did not work as well as I wanted it to.”

Holly went with her mom to support her through the lymph bypass. The mother and daughter made the road trip from Shawano and made several great memories along the way.

“That changed our relationship for the better,” Holly said.

“I could depend on you," her mom said. "The trust really grew.”

Today, Shirley tries to always look at situations with a glass-half-full mentality.

“Would you consider this something positive that came out of cancer, is our relationship?” Holly asked.

“Definately. Our relationship... my different attitude that certain things don’t matter. Money doesn’t matter. The kind of car you drive, the kind of house you live in. Those things don’t matter. What matters is people.”

Holly’s mom is in remission and doing good. Another way she’s living a positive life is through her job where she does at-home care for those living with a disability.

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