Essentia Health

Patient Interviewing | Writing

MEET KENT ALWIN, Cancer Survivor

Essentia Health patient photo 1For Kent Alwin, it began with fatigue and a sore throat. “I was feeling tired, losing a lot of weight, and I developed lumps in my neck,” says Alwin, of Fargo. “Then I got a sore throat that just wouldn’t go away.”

A friendly push from his wife finally got him to see the doctor. “I probably waited three or four months, until I basically couldn’t button my shirt or wear a tie because of the lumps in my neck. I’m the kind of person that doesn’t like to go to the doctor,” he adds with a laugh. “My wife made me go in.”

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Alwin was diagnosed at Dakota Cancer Institute (DCI) with non-Hodgkins lymphoma. It is a cancer of the lymphatic system—the network of glands that fights disease in your body. In non-Hodgkins lymphoma, white blood cells develop into tumors, which can occur in various areas of your body.

With the advanced state of the disease, DCI wasted no time in proceeding to an aggressive treatment plan for Alwin. “They were very good at preparing me for treatment. It got done immediately,” he says. “From the time of the biopsy and diagnosis to my first chemo treatment was probably a week.”

Alwin’s treatment involved six months of medical oncology, or chemotherapy, with treatments every other week. He finished his course of treatment just after Christmas. The staff at Dakota Cancer Institute eased the transition during an uncertain situation, according to Alwin. “Everybody was real nice and professional. They made me feel at home.”

While his treatment was both physically and mentally tiring, Alwin’s experience differed in at least one way from many patients who undergo chemotherapy. “It was the oddest thing. In chemo, your taste buds go, but I liked to eat jelly donuts,” he says. “I had lost 40 pounds before my diagnosis, but during chemotherapy I kept gaining weight from the jelly donuts—like cattle eating corn.”

Years later, with no recurrence of the non-Hodgkins lymphoma, it’s the personal level of care from DCI staff that Alwin remembers most. “It was a very good experience. I never had any doubt that they were going to fix me. And with my network provider, I could’ve picked any place for my care,” he says. “They took real good care of me and my family. They were real good—just super.”

MEET KIM RANSTROM, Cancer Survivor

Essentia Health patient photo 2Kim Ranstrom’s experience illustrates the need for women to be diligent in self-examinations for possible breast cancer. “I had a mammogram in April,” which indicated no abnormalities. Only months later things had changed, as she notes, “I found a lump in December.”

Her family physician referred Ranstrom to James Wagner, M.D., a general surgeon with Dakota Clinic/Innovis Health. “I had another mammogram between Christmas and New Year’s and they performed a biopsy on New Year’s Eve. Dr. Wagner called me at home the same day. I was diagnosed on New Year’s Eve with breast cancer.”

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They moved quickly to set up a treatment plan. “On January 2 I met with Dr. Wagner to plan the strategy. I also met with the oncologists at Dakota Cancer Institute even before we knew I would need chemo. So I was exposed to oncology and the cancer institute prior to surgery,” she says. “They were great at setting up all my appointments, including with the plastic surgeon.

“On January 22, I had a mastectomy and reconstructive surgery at Innovis Health. Two weeks after surgery, I began six cycles of chemotherapy at Dakota Cancer Institute that went until the end of May. In July I began six weeks of radiation therapy.”

In the time she was undergoing treatment at DCI, Ranstrom began to look forward to the visits, in some ways. “The nursing care at the hospital and cancer institute is just unbelievable. Nobody wants to go through this, but they become your friends,” she says. “During radiation I had a standard appointment every day and the people are so nice. After I was done with all of my treatments, it got to be like, ‘Man, I’m not gonna see them again.’”

As important as the personal care was the staff’s attention to detail in her chemotherapy and radiation treatment, according to Ranstrom. “They were really on top of it. I never had nausea. It was very bearable,” she says. “The nurses and techs were great—very understanding—for example, in realizing that patients are sometimes in uncomfortable positions during treatment.

“I’ve told several friends that I can’t imagine getting better care than I got. My husband would concur. They were absolutely fabulous.”

With full recovery the goal since receiving her diagnosis, Ranstrom is back to where she wanted to be—feeling fine. “I feel great. I just finished the Breast Cancer Walk a few weeks ago and I biked 45 miles on Saturday.”

MEET BRIAN PYLE, Cancer Survivor

Essentia Health patient photo 3Oftentimes it takes someone close to help you see things more clearly. In Brian Pyle’s case, that “someone” was his wife, Stacy, who convinced him to see a doctor for his persistent stomach pain. “I had some pain in my stomach and my wife got me to go in.”

His visit to Stuart Topley, M.D., a family practice physician at Dakota Clinic, began a flurry of activity to diagnose and treat the problem. “I went to Dr. Topley. He could feel something in my stomach during the checkup and scheduled a colonoscopy,” says Pyle.

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During the colonoscopy the surgeon found a section of Pyle’s colon that proved to be cancerous, which required surgery to remove. “It happened so fast. I was referred to the surgeon within 15 minutes of my colonoscopy. We discussed what was going to happen with surgery. I had a colonoscopy on December 23 and surgery on December 27 to remove about six inches of my colon. I was in the hospital for about two weeks.”

Surgery was the beginning of his path back to health. After surgery, Pyle was referred to Kaushik Sen, M.D., a medical oncologist at Dakota Cancer Institute (DCI). “I went to see Dr. Sen and he recommended chemotherapy because my cancer was at stage 3 or 4 at the time of surgery. So I was scheduled for six months of chemo.”

What was an obvious time of concern was made somewhat easier by DCI staff, according to Pyle. “I was nervous, but the nursing staff was just wonderful. Many of the patients were ‘down’ going in there and the nurses were all very upbeat. They answered all our questions, and if they couldn’t, they got the doctor.”

While Pyle experienced some of the common side effects of chemotherapy, he welcomed Dr. Sen’s treatment plan to attack the cancer aggressively. “I didn’t know what to expect. After a six-week period I’d be rundown, but then I’d bounce back. It was probably better than what I expected. My wife was nervous about it, but she helped me through it,” he says. “I had a lot of family support.”

His treatment complete, Pyle feels “back to normal. I probably weigh more than I did before. I’m all healed, for all intents and purposes. The family practice doc said I looked great.

“People ask, ‘Has it changed you?’ I just look at it as, I went to the doctor and they fixed me up, and I’m back to normal. I just can’t say enough about the doctors and nurses. They helped me out a lot.”