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Life interrupted: Busy woman turns focus to battle cancer

Lisa Speer's hair is shorter since she invited about 15 friends to a hair-cutting party. "It was the one thing I could control," said Speer of her decision to trim her hair before she lost it to chemotherapy drugs. Judy Wiff photo

As it does for many women, Lisa Speer's battle with breast cancer started with a lump that she knew hadn't been there before.

In the weeks since, she has learned much about the disease, about her disease in particular and about her options. Speer, who is single, has also found herself surrounded with networks of friends, including fellow members of the River Falls High School class of 1980, Northwest Airlines flight attendants, coworkers from St. Croix County's 911 call center in Hudson and, in some cases, near strangers.

Her battle with breast cancer, though it's far from over, is a story of fear, courage, determination, drama and, not least, laughter.

Speer, 46, was alone at her home in New Richmond when she got the call telling her she has breast cancer. But that was one of the few times she has been alone.

"Today I write you full of gratitude... This goes out to each and everyone who has said a prayer, written a note, made a phone call, stopped by, made your home mine, cooked a meal, organized my life, gone to doctors, surgeries, chemo with me, worked tirelessly on my benefit, offered to help and just plain loved me," wrote Speer last Thursday on her CaringBridge site. "You are so special to me and you play a huge part in my recovery. Without you I would be lost."

Speer, the daughter of Ken Speer and Julie Speer, grew up in rural River Falls in a house on the St. Croix River. Her dad was a pilot, and her mom was a flight attendant.

From the time she was a little girl, she wanted to be a flight attendant. After high school, she enrolled at UW-Stout. When she turned 21 she applied with Northwest and was hired in 1984.

"What I love about it is the freedom it gives my life," said Speer. She works internationally, flying to Europe and Asia. The European assignments are three days long, the Asia round trips six days, so she works 15-16 days a month.

When Northwest, dealing with financial problems, cut workers' pay, Speer applied and was hired to work part-time in St. Croix's Emergency Communications Center.

The two jobs aren't that dissimilar, said Speer.

"It's dealing with the public. It's dealing under pressure."

Too busy for cancer

December was particularly hectic for Speer who was trying to get in 100 hours of flight time, work at the dispatch center, help care for her father who was ill and "maybe enjoy some of the holidays."

While dressing one day, she had to adjust her bra a little for comfort and touched a lump.

Ten years earlier she'd had a needle biopsy and eight years earlier a lumpectomy, but both times the sample had been benign. Ten months before finding this new lump, she'd had a mammogram which showed nothing unusual.

Her first thought was, "I'm too busy. That wasn't there before, but I'm too busy."

She tried to convince herself what she was feeling was just a buildup of fluid or a benign cyst.

"In my mind that was what I was hoping it was, but honestly I knew it wasn't," she says now.

The first week in January, she was examined by her general practitioner, Dr. Stephen Schmitz, in Hudson. He confirmed a suspicious lump. The next day she had a mammogram, and the radiologist ordered an ultrasound.

Speer knew the news wasn't good when the technician walked out and came back with the radiologist. He asked how she was doing.

"I said I was doing better 30 seconds ago, but if you're here it's not good news," recalls Speer. "I started bawling."

But Dr. Schmitz assured her, "I'll tell you when to panic, and right now you shouldn't panic." He helped her make an appointment to see Dr. Kirk Jacobson, a surgeon, the next day.

Her first appointment was Wednesday, the mammogram was Thursday and on Friday the needle biopsy was done. The sample was sent to a pathology lab in Chicago, and the results weren't expected back until the following Monday.

It wasn't good. The doctor told her she had Stage I Grade 2 ductal carcinoma.

"I freaked. I fell to the floor crying," admits Speer, who remembers thinking, "What am I going to do now?"

A year earlier she had ended a relationship and struggled financially. More recently she refinanced her house and thought her life was again on solid footing.

That night she called family and friends. The next morning she called Mayo Clinic and got an appointment.

But before that appointment she had a conference with Dr. Jacobson to fully discuss the pathology report.

"He asked me what my plan was for my treatment," said Speer. "I said, 'If you can put me on the table and get this out, let's go.'"

Jacobson said the procedure could be done locally, but that would mean going between hospitals to get the different tests she would need before surgery.

"If I went to Mayo, everything I needed to have done would be right there," said Speer.

Dangling from seatbelts

The morning of her first trip to Mayo was dark and 23-below zero.

Speer's flight attendant friend Myra Kerschbaum drove her pickup. Though they weren't going fast, the vehicle hit a patch of black ice, left the road, took out a light pole and landed upside down off the road with the two women facing traffic and dangling from their seatbelts.

"I thought, 'Oh my God, I'm going to die of cancer because I'm hanging upside down from in this vehicle,'" remembers Speer, who was afraid no one would see them. "I'm thinking, why is no one calling 911?"

Disoriented and starting to panic, Speer couldn't find the button to open the window and was afraid to release her seatbelt.

"Finally (Kerschbaum) yelled at me, 'Release your seatbelt,' just like a flight attendant would do," grinned Speer.

Three women, one a cancer survivor, stopped and helped pull Speer though the window.

While Kerschbaum retrieved their things from the pickup, strangers carried Speer up the embankment and wrapped her in a blanket.

After a quick check-over, ambulance workers released her. The three women, who were on their way to a conference in Iowa, took Speer and Kerschbaum to Mayo.

They were only 10 minutes late.

"We looked like two homeless ladies without the carts," laughs Speer of their arrival at the clinic, ruffled and loaded with blankets, X-rays, coats and purses.

In the days ahead as she prepared for surgery, initially planned as a lumpectomy, Speer went through what seemed like endless tests.

Those included blood tests, an electrocardiogram, X-rays and over 1,700 MRI images.

By every indication, the cancer was just a small lump.

"It was early. It was small. It was localized," said Speer. But the surgeon, Dr. John Donohue, asked what she wanted done if the cancer was larger than the tests showed.

"I said take it off, do the total mastectomy, and we'll move on from there," said Speer. "And that's what happened."

Worse than expected

With her friends in the waiting room, the surgery began. Piece after piece of tissue was removed and sent to pathology, and call after call came back saying each showed cancer. Speer said the intent was to keep cutting until a clean margin was obtained.

After 2 1/2 hours, the surgeon decided mastectomy was the answer. He removed Speer's left breast and 29 lymph nodes, three of which tested malignant. The entire surgery lasted five hours.

The cancer had spread, and Speer's current diagnosis is Stage 2A Grade 3 invasive breast cancer. Treatment will include both localized radiation and systemic chemotherapy.

Last week Speer had her first chemo treatment, a sequence of Adriamycian, Cytoxan and Avastin. She is in a blind study, and the Avastin may be a placebo.

This eight-week round of chemo will be followed by 12 weeks of Taxol.

"It was really rather painless," said Speer of the first chemo, though it took hours.

Side effects are expected to include nausea, weight gain, high risk of infection, mouth sores, bone pain and numbness and tingling in the fingers and toes. Speer will also lose her hair, probably within 14 days of her first treatment.

The anticipated survival rate for this type of cancer in 10 years is 88 percent.

"(I) wanted better stats," said Speer. "But this is what I got."

Once the chemo is done, she plans to have a second surgery to remove her right breast as a preventative measure and then reconstructive surgery.

After her surgery, Speer stayed in River Falls with friends Mary Marcel and Doug Rose rather than be home alone as she progressed through the worst of the recovery. Friends Jackie and Mike Cobian live just two doors down and help out too. Other friends take turns driving Speer to medical appointments.

"I needed help, and I want to get help and support from everybody who wants to help," said Speer who regularly updates her CaringBridge journal and Facebook page.

"You don't get help for anything you choose to hide," said Speer of her decision to be open about her struggle.

She and Melanie Viney, a school friend since first grade, reconnected on Facebook. Now Viney is one of those who drive Speer to appointments, help raise funds and provide emotional support.

Speer will be off work through at least September. Her leave benefits with Northwest are nearly exhausted. She won't be eligible for long-term disability, a percent of her regular income, until the end of May.

"She has been a trooper and never gets down," said Viney, praising Speer's attitude.

Viney listened as a doctor at Mayo went through the side effects and obstacles associated with chemotherapy.

"She said, 'Keep talking, but these aren't going to happen to me,'" reported Viney of Speer's response.

Although the treatment will take months, she can handle it, said Speer.

"I can do this for eight months if it means another 45 years (of life)."

Speer's CaringBridge Web site is

Benefit is Monday

A fund-raiser for Lisa Speer begins at 5 p.m. Monday, March 2, at Ready Randy's Banquet Hall, 1490 131st St., New Richmond. Dinner will be served from 5-7 p.m. with a silent auction running throughout the evening.

People who have items to donate to the auction may e-mail

People who want to volunteer at the benefit, or who have questions, may e-mail Melanie Viney at or Mary Marcel at

An account has been established at the First Bank of Baldwin in Speer's name. Donations can be mailed to Lisa Speer Benefit, 990 Main St., Baldwin, WI 54002.

All proceeds will be used to offset Speer's medical expenses.