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A battle of her own this time

Sharon Schmitt (left) is known for her caring nature and willingness to help others through her interactions with her Sunnyside Nursing home clients like Dean Iverson (right). Schmitt is currently undergoing treatment for colon cancer after a colonoscopy last fall may have saved her life by detecting a large, cancerous polyp. Brian Basham/Tribune

50-year-old Sharon Schmitt of Audubon has lived in the Lake Park area her whole life.

“Born and raised here,” she said with a cheery tone.

Married to her husband, Craig, the mother of two is also now a proud grandmother.

“I’m all about family … family and friends —those are my things,” she said.

In fact, a CNA at Sunnyside Nursing Home, Schmitt is known around the community for her big heart and caring soul, as she has helped put together over 20 fundraisers over the years for community members, chairing some of them.

“I’ve never been one that’s had a lot of money, but I’m pretty organized, and I truly like to help people,” said Schmitt, who kept those helping hands busy, until last fall when she went in to see a doctor.

“I had been having diarrhea for a while, but they thought it was probably just menopause or something,” she said, adding that she went to see a second doctor in Detroit Lakes, who then suggested that since Schmitt was turning 50, she should probably get a colonoscopy anyway.

“I didn’t think anything of it; I thought maybe I’d have some polyps that needed removing or something,” said Schmitt, “but it didn’t seem like a big deal.”

It was a big deal.  Doctors found a large cancerous polyp, and told Sharon they would need to take out a foot of her colon to test the area for other cancer cells.

The news was scary, but it got worse.

“Out of the 20 lymph nodes they took out, 14 had cancer,” said Schmitt, who says she felt like she was blindsided.

With no real history of cancer in her family, she was faced with the reality that she was already stage 3. 

Ironically, the weekend Schmitt found out, she happened to be at a fundraiser for breast cancer at the Cormorant Sportsmans Club.

She looked around at the family around her and knew she wasn’t ready to die.

“I want to see my kids and my granddaughter grow up, to retire with my husband…” she said, adding that telling her son, who was serving in the military in Qatar, was the hardest part.

“There were a lot of tears, but they were all very positive too,” said Schmitt, who began the New Year with a regimen of radiation and chemo pills.

Getting back

Nearly as quick as the whirlwind of cancer took a hold of her life, the community Schmitt had always cared for took her hand.

The lady who had once made it a priority to plan benefits for others soon found herself on the receiving end … and it was big.

“I think you get out of life what you put into it, and nobody deserved this benefit more than Sharon,” said friend, Melanie Hanson, who helped with the fundraiser.

Hanson knew Schmitt well because the two had worked on several fundraisers together.

But this one was more personal for Hanson, not just because Schmitt was a friend, but because her mother, Mary Mikkelsen, suffered from the same exact cancer.

Mary’s story

“She had not felt well the summer of 2004 but had done some doctoring with symptoms of fatigue and night sweats and was told she was likely experiencing menopause,” said Hanson, who says her mother’s true calling and joy in life was being a mother.

“(Mary) always serving as a ‘mother’ figure and her always caring for others left her really little or no time, energy or re-sources to take care of herself,” said Hanson, “Not that she couldn’t have had a colonoscopy earlier but, in many cases out of pocket insurance expenses detain us from having the preventative care procedures done that are necessary.”

By the time Mary was diagnosed, it was too late.  She was stage 4 and any treatments she would receive were meant only to prolong her life, not save it.

“Our mom was the hub of our family and we knew life was going to become completely different; it was unimaginable,” said Hanson, “I thought … we can’t do this.”

But they are.  Although Mary Mikkelsen went through rigorous cancer treatments just to stay alive for her family a little longer, she passed away at the age of 56.

A sneaky killer

Colon cancer doesn’t always get a lot of glory in the world of cancers.  There aren’t any special colors worn for its awareness, and people rarely “run” for it.

But despite its ability to fly under the radar, it’s one of the deadliest cancers out there.

That’s because at the early stages of colon cancer, there are rarely symptoms.

“I cannot tell you how many people, including two people I’ve seen today, feel like they’re doing fine,” said Dr. Mitch Goldstein, a surgeon out of Sanford Health in Detroit Lakes.

Goldstein says colon cancer starts in the form of polyps that may or may not be cancerous.  Either way, they must be removed to find out.

“But if you wait for symptoms … if you wait for there to be bleeding or black tar stools or pain, it might be too late,” said Goldstein, who says the general rule of thumb is for a person without a family history of colon cancer to get a colonoscopy when they turn 50.  “People with family history we try get started with screens at 40 or 10 years less than when the family member had colon cancer,” said Goldstein, “so if they were diagnosed at 38, then at 28 get screened.”

Goldstein says the number of people coming in for colonoscopies has gone up in recent years as awareness has, and with that comes a better survival rate.

Removing the polyps means essentially removing the cancer risk.

“World-wide the number of colon cancers has decreased 10 percent,” said Goldstein, who has had cancer patients tell him they wished they had come in 15 years earlier. “As much as people are apprehensive, most people afterwards will tell you it’s not nearly as bad as they thought it would be.  You go to sleep, you wake up, and 99 percent of the time, it’s just fine.”

Goldstein says it’s horrible to have to tell somebody they have terminal cancer, and believes some of those people never go in for screenings because they’re fearful of what they might find.

“But if we can get in there and find those polyps and get them out, patients will have such a great chance of living the life they’re supposed to live,” he says.

Patients like Sharon.

The good fight

Sharon Schmitt is still receiving chemo treatments today.

Through with radiation, this week she is taking some time off from Sunnyside as she takes an IV chemo drip through a port and battles the side effects of her fight with cancer.

But she’s determined, and aside from her thinning hair and some weight loss, her body is responding well to the treatments.

“My cancer doctor said if they didn’t already know I have cancer they wouldn’t know by blood work,” she said with a fresh perspective on life.

“Cancer makes you realize what you’ve got,” she said, “so just keep your family and friends close … that’s what I’m going to do.”

As for her friend, Melanie Hanson, she’ll be one of Schmitt’s biggest cheerleaders.

“If she can beat this in memory of my mom,” said Hanson, “I just know it would make my mom so happy.”