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Billings woman diagnosed with aggressive breast cancer encourages fellow cancer survivors to never lose hope

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Billings, MT - Rebecca Hedegaard’s family doesn’t have a history of cancer, so when her younger sister was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2019, it came as a complete shock. After that, Hedegaard was diligent about performing her own monthly self-exams.

“It was totally out of the blue for our family, so checking myself for lumps or anything unusual became a pretty regular thing for me,” explained Hedegaard.

During one of those routine self-exams in April 2020, Hedegaard, who was 39-years-old at the time, felt a lump. She had previously had a fibroadenoma, which presented as a solid, noncancerous lump in her breast, so she was hoping that was the case again.

“This time it felt different, even though I was hoping that’s all it was,” said Hedegaard. “It was tender and I just couldn’t shake the feeling that something wasn’t right, so I made an appointment with my OB/GYN.”

A mammogram and a biopsy soon confirmed her fears. It was cancer.

“I got the call on May 8, just two days before Mother’s Day,” recalled Hedegaard, a mother to two young boys. “I met with Dr. Barry McKenzie, a general surgeon at St. Vincent Healthcare, he explained the seriousness of the diagnosis and that we’d need to hit it hard and fast.”

Hedegaard was diagnosed with triple-negative stage 3 breast cancer. According to the American Cancer Society, Triple-negative breast cancer (TNBC) accounts for about 10-15% of all breast cancers. Triple-negative breast cancer differs from other types of invasive breast cancer in that they grow and spread faster and have limited treatment options.

Hedegaard met with Dr. Troy Fiddler at St. Vincent Cancer Centers of Montana, who prescribed an aggressive 16-week chemotherapy treatment to shrink the tumor prior to undergoing a double mastectomy.

“It was hardcore chemo and because I was diagnosed during COVID, I wasn’t able to have anyone come with me to my treatments. That was tough not having my husband there,” explained Hedegaard. “But I also have the most amazing friends, my ‘secret angels’, who would take turns dropping off a surprise for me at the cancer center. So each time I had to go to treatment, I was greeted with a gift basket.”

At the end of 2020, Hedegaard underwent a double mastectomy. While the chemotherapy helped to shrink the tumor, it was aggressive and had grown back significantly even in the short amount of time between her last chemo treatment and her surgery.

“They discovered multiple tumors throughout my entire breast and it had spread into my lymph nodes,” explained Hedegaard. “Some residual cancer remained after surgery, so I did five weeks (25 treatments) of radiation. Then, in mid-March, I started a round of oral chemotherapy which I’ll wrap up at the end of summer. So, I’m halfway there!”

Keeping an optimistic outlook isn’t always easy, but Hedegaard is committed to focusing on the positive.

“Honestly, it has been a lot. With triple-negative cancer, most will come back within three years of diagnosis. The reality of my situation can be a lot to take in,” admitted Hedegaard. “I’ve really had to shift my perspective to focus on the now and be present as much as I can. I want my boys to see me happy and smiling and enjoying what I do have.”

By focusing on the outpouring of support from her husband, family, and friends, the love she has for her 4- and 7-year-old sons, and the care she’s received from her team at St. Vincent Healthcare, Hedegaard is hopeful for the future.

“I started a gratitude journal, which really helps me be thankful for what I do have,” Hedegaard said. “I just have to look at my kids and know that I want to spend every moment with them. You reach a point where you just have to make the choice to choose joy. There’s always hope.”

Relay for Life 2021

Relay for Life of Yellowstone County will be on the road again in order to create a safe, socially distanced evening for us to remember those we have lost and those still fighting the cancer battle. On July 9 from 6 p.m. – 11 p.m., hop in your car with your family and drive 24th Street West from Grand to Monad and see the street lined with luminarias. While driving, you’ll be able to tune to a radio station to listen to Relay For Life programming for the full experience. Visit Relay for Life’s website for more event details.

St. Vincent Healthcare Team Car Decorating Party

Friday, July 9, 2021 | 4:30 – 6:00 p.m.

SCL Health Cancer Centers of Montana at St. Vincent Healthcare | 1315 Golden Valley Circle, Billings, MT 59102

Stop by our Cancer Center to have your car decorated before the street edition of Relay for Life 2021. From 4:30-6 p.m., our volunteers will be decorating the outside of cars just in time to cruise 24th Street!

Ice cream treats will be available and Bailey’s Frozen Novelties will be donating 20% of all funds raised back to Relay for Life.

About SCL Health

SCL Health is a faith-based, nonprofit healthcare organization dedicated to improving the health of the people and communities we serve. Founded by the Sisters of Charity of Leavenworth in 1864, our health network provides comprehensive, coordinated care through eight hospitals, more than 180 physician clinics, home health, hospice, mental health, and safety-net services in Colorado and the Montana Wyoming region.