MANKATO — Shelly Rigdon said she knows she’ll never again be cancer free.
So her treatment isn’t about eliminating cancer, but rather holding it off as long as possible. Doing so requires monthly visits to Mayo Clinic Health System’s Andreas Cancer Center, which she described as being like a second home.
At the cancer center’s 10th anniversary Thursday, the 53-year-old Mankato woman shared how the relationships she’s built with oncologists, nurses and staff there over the last six years has helped get her through the ups and downs.
“You feel like they’re your second family,” she said. “Support and friendships are so important along a cancer journey.”
Rigdon learned she had breast cancer in 2013, which prompted a double mastectomy and reconstructive surgery. A year later, she found out the cancer spread to her bones.
“They just wanted me to understand that I’ll never be cancer free,” she said. “Once it has metastasized to another area like the bones you can never be classified as cancer free.”
She remembers tears, frustrations and sleepless nights in the immediate aftermath. But through it she felt a determination to be there for her daughters’ upcoming life events — high school and college graduations.
Her daughters, Kiersten and Bethany Rigdon, were 17 and 16 when their mother first received her diagnosis. Six years later, she was indeed there for their graduations.
The daughters accompanied their mother at times through her years of appointments at the cancer center. Jim Louangsaphakdy, a registered oncology nurse at Andreas the last two years, said making patients and their families feel relaxed and at home while they’re going through treatment is one of the best parts of the job.
“We get to know the patients, but we also get to know the friends and family who come,” he said. “We joke around, and I think it helps lift the spirits up.”
The patients who need to go to cancer centers are rarely one-off visitors, so their names and faces become familiar. Louangsaphakdy said just about everyone there would recognize Rigdon by now.
In remarks to a gathered crowd for the center’s 10th anniversary, Mayo Clinic Health System’s Regional Chair for Oncology Amrit Singh credited patients' grace and strength in the face of challenges.
“This celebration is very special for us,” he said. “As an oncologist it’s a privilege to walk alongside our patients and their families through their cancer journey.”
Rigdon’s journey continues. Within the last two months a scan revealed her latest treatment wasn’t working as hoped. Six new tumors confirmed it.
She described her current treatment as being in a “fragile state,” but said her care team is hopeful a new approach will keep her cancer activity low.
Setbacks are never easy to hear, she said, which makes those strong ties to oncologists, nurses and staff all the more important. She personally thanked everyone who works in the cancer center during her speech at the anniversary event.
“Our close relationships have made it easier to communicate, ask questions, and feel right at home,” she said. “Thank you to all of them who have cared for me or just greeted me with that friendly smile.”