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Mother, daughter fighting cancer battle together

Peggy Ullrich and her daughter Becky Kaiser talk Wednesday while Ullrich receives chemotherapy at the Roger Maris Cancer Center at Sanford Hospital in Fargo. They are both undergoing chemotherapy at the same time. FORUM NEWS SERVICE/Michael Vosberg

This is not the mother-daughter bonding experience that Peggy Ullrich and Becky Kaiser would have chosen.

But this mother and daughter pair find themselves drawn together in a joint battle against cancer.

The saga began in June, when Ullrich had a growth the size of a football removed. Surprisingly, given its large size, the mass wasn’t malignant.

“So I was on cloud nine,” the Lake Park woman said.

Her reprieve was short-lived.

In mid-August, during her annual mammogram, a small lump was detected. A surgeon removed the lump 10 days later, in a procedure Ullrich hoped would end the problem.

But when the biopsy report came back, on Sept. 10, she learned the small lump was a very aggressive form of breast cancer.

Only a day later, Ullrich learned that her daughter, Becky, who lives in Dilworth, was diagnosed with ovarian cancer.

“Boom, boom,” Kaiser said, recalling the back-to-back cancer diagnoses.

But in the midst of so much awful news, there also was joy. Kaiser’s second child, a daughter named Reese, had been born. In fact, it was in the course of her post-delivery follow-up care that Kaiser learned she had ovarian cancer.

“She’s the reason we caught it,” she said. “She’s my little miracle baby, super hero, whatever you want to call it.”

Both women are grateful that their cancer was found early, something each remarked upon Wednesday, as Ullrich was receiving chemotherapy at Sanford’s Roger Maris Cancer Center.

Each wore a cap, testimony of the side-effects of their treatments. They sometimes receive chemotherapy on the same day, but Kaiser had to skip a treatment Wednesday.

Mother and daughter provide their own familial support group. Each knows firsthand what the other is going through, emotionally and physically.

At age 35, Kaiser’s circle of friends doesn’t include anyone who has battled ovarian cancer.

“At least I can call my mom and say, ‘I’m having a tough day’ and she’ll completely understand,” Kaiser said.

“I have my down days,” she added.

Similarly, her mother can tell immediately by her daughter’s tone of voice whether her daughter is having a good day or a bad day. She’s just as grateful that her daughter is there with an encouraging word and an understanding ear.

“It has its blessings,” Ullrich said.

Family and friends provide a broader support network. The small infusion therapy room at the cancer center is packed with visitors.

“They do get you through the roller coaster of treatments,” Kaiser said.

Her mother adds, “I bring a book, but I’ve never had time to read.”

Support even arrives anonymously. Someone has been sending cards to Ullrich to cheer her up. She suspects someone from Lake Park, but the identity of the sender remains a mystery.

“It’s neat,” she said.

Small gestures can mean a lot: flowers, a card, a kind word.

“That can just make my whole day turn around,” Kaiser said. “I’ve learned not to take anything for granted.”

It’s rare at the Roger Maris Cancer Center to have a mother and daughter simultaneously receiving treatments – so rare that no one can recall it happening before, although the center has treated husbands and wives at the same time.

In spite of the dual diagnosis, the Ullrich family history does not have many previous bouts of cancer beyond Peggy’s paternal grandmother.

Both have been genetically screened in the hope of providing valuable information for Kaiser’s two sisters, her two daughters and other family members.

The family plans a big get-together around Christmas in Alexandria, where one of Ullrich’s daughters lives.

“It’ll be a really fun time,” Ullrich said. “I’ll make a few cookies.”

Except this year much of the holiday baking will be up to others. At age 60, as a mother and grandmother, she’s still getting accustomed to receiving care instead of giving it.

“It’s hard to be on the other side of the table,” Ullrich said. But her daughter Becky is seated right beside her.

Both are optimistic about their prognoses – and both are advocates of regular cancer screening.

“This is a successful journey,” Ullrich said.

Cash donations can be made at State Bank of Lake Park.

Patrick Springer

Patrick Springer first joined the reporting staff of The Forum in 1985. He can be reached by calling 701-241-5522. Have a comment to share about a story? Letters to the editor should include author’s name, address and phone number. Generally, letters should be no longer than 250 words. All letters are subject to editing. Send to