Sisters Gloria Kragt and Judi Woodwyk have shared a tradition for many years.
They, along with their mom and another sister, schedule mammograms together.
“If we’re scheduled early we go for breakfast, it it’s later, we do lunch,” Woodwyk said. “Afterward you don’t even think about it. You get the paper saying everything looks fine and you’re good to go for another year.”
In February, after mammograms at Spectrum Health Zeeland Community Hospital, they stopped at Zeeland Community Restaurant for lunch.
Woodwyk, 66, felt particularly confident about this mammogram.
“I had had a physical two weeks before that,” Woodwyk said. “I had a breast exam and she didn’t feel anything.”
They joked and laughed during a lighthearted lunch.
“We had no concerns or worries,” Woodwyk said. “There was nothing to be concerned about. Well, you always worry a little bit. Every time you go in, it’s in the back of your mind.”
But the next day, both sisters received phone calls. They would need additional imaging. Then came the tough news—they shared more than family history and common parents—they shared breast cancer.
“When I saw ‘Spectrum Health’ come up on the phone, my heart just sank to my toes,” she said. “I knew immediately something wasn’t right. The person who called tried to assure me that this happens a lot. A lot of times there will be a little wrinkle. They just have to have you back for additional imaging.”
Woodwyk tried to convince herself it was probably nothing to worry about.
But the ultrasound and biopsy uncovered more frightening news. When the phone call came with results, she went numb.
“I didn’t hear anything else she said,” Woodwyk said. “You’re in a state of shock, like ‘this can’t be.’ At that time, I didn’t know how my sister’s had turned out. I thought, ‘do I dare call her?’ I found out she had just gotten a call, too.”
Fortunately, the news could have been much worse, the cancer, much more involved.
“It was stage 1, it was the earliest possible and it was non-metastatic,” Woodwyk said. “It was the best kind I could possibly have and it was caught as early as it could possibly be caught, thanks to the mammogram.”
Woodwyk didn’t let that lesson go by her. She’s an advocate now, asking every woman she knows, or meets, if they’ve had a mammogram recently.
“Even if they say, ‘I’m so small, I don’t need to get it done,’ I say ‘yes, you do,’” Woodwyk said. “You need it done every year.”
A closer connection
Woodwyk said sharing a cancer diagnosis with her sister brought them closer.
“We call each other to ask about this symptom and that symptom, how are you feeling, how is this pill affecting you,” Woodwyk said. “I was a couple of weeks ahead of her with everything so I would call and tell her what it was like.”
They confided in each other—their fears, tears, hopes and resolve.
“That made it so much easier, to have someone to go through it with,” Woodwyk said. “There’s something to be said about ‘misery loves company’ because who else could I have confided in with all my questions? We could talk. At the end of a conversation we’d say ‘it was so good to talk to you about this.’ You just feel better about everything. I think maybe that’s one of the reasons it happened to both of us.”
They used to talk every few months.
“When we were going through this, I’d call her every day,” Woodwyk said. “Just to boost each other up, if for no other reason.”
Woodwyk had a lumpectomy in March, followed by four weeks of radiation.
She said she felt great throughout the treatments, and her chances of getting cancer are no greater than anyone else.
She is concerned about her sister, though. Just as her sister is concerned about her.
Like Woodwyk, Kragt feels grateful. Grateful that she and her family members made it a plan each year to get a mammogram together.
Grateful that they caught her breast cancer early.
Grateful they’re survivors.
“I hope the journey is about over,” said Kragt, 69.
Like her sister, Kragt said she was shocked when she heard the news.
Every other brunch-and-mammogram trip had been fun, with great memories. Until this year.
“Neither of us could believe it,” Kragt said. “You don’t expect positive results on something like that.”
Amie Hop, MD, a general surgeon with a focus on breast cancer care at Spectrum Health Zeeland Community Hospital, performed surgery on both sisters.
“Both of us had to have surgery, on the same day,” Kragt said.
As Kragt was being wheeled in for surgery, her sister was in recovery.
“They wheeled me by and she was all done and she was kind of a smart aleck about it,” Kragt said, laughing. “She said, ‘Oh, it’s nothing.’ It’s quite an adventure to go through that together.”
Kragt also had a lumpectomy.
“Mine was on the right,” she said. “Hers was on the left. It was just kind of ironic. We’ve always been sisters, but we were not real tight. We were not that close growing up, but this brought us closer together. We just kind of walked through it together.”
Kragt recognizes the importance of their family tradition. The mammograms may have saved her and her sister’s life.
“If we would have waited a year or two, we probably would have been in trouble,” Kragt said. “The end result is we’re both cancer-free and we’ve got a story to tell.”
The retired LPN loves to camp with her family, especially at Gun Lake, Michigan.
“It wasn’t too long after I was done with treatments that we had our vacation there,” Kragt said. “I had to be careful being in the sun, but it was good to be there knowing I could forget about cancer.”
Both sisters needed only surgery and radiation.
“At first, I felt bad for her and she felt bad for me,” Kragt said. “It was comforting to know you had a comrade who was going through the same thing you were. It did draw us closer together. We’re more comfortable with each other. That’s something that will never change. We’ll always have that bond.”
Advocating for others
And they hope to impress upon others the importance, the dire need, to get mammograms on a regular basis. This is not just a sisterly suggestion. It’s a mandate.
“Mammograms save lives,” Kragt said. “Getting your mammogram every year can be a lifesaver. That’s the message I tell everyone.”
They’re not subtle.
“I tell everyone, people I meet, people in our church, ‘Do you get your mammograms regularly?’” Kragt said. “‘Well, get it. Call them. Sign up now because you don’t want to end up with a big problem.’”
She and her sister know. They walked the crevice, between possible death and future life.
“Cancer is something that can spread really fast if you don’t deal with it,” Kragt said. “I speak very openly about it. We need to get that message out. I have friends who keep putting it off, like it’s no big deal. But it hits you between the eyes when it happens.”
The doctor’s take
Dr. Hop said both sisters are fortunate.
“Gloria and Judi both caught their breast cancer at an early stage because they had their screening mammograms,” Dr. Hop said. “This can make cancer easier to treat. They are a good example of why screening is so important.”
She noted that each cancer is different, but early detection is key for some of the best outcomes.
“Some grow slowly and others grow and spread more quickly,” Dr. Hop said. “This is another reason why screening is important. They are both doing well. They continue to have a positive outlook throughout each step of their treatment.”