As a mother of two, Amy Monroe (center), is grateful for the love and support of family and friends. She is pictured with her 11-year-old son, Parker, and 14-year-old daughter, Makinzie. Last year, at the age of 36, Monroe was diagnosed with Stage III breast cancer and underwent chemotherapy, radiation and a modified radical mastectomy; the cancer has since returned. A benefit is set for Sunday, Sept. 15, at First United Methodist Church in Decorah to help the family pay for medical expenses.
"I hope everyone lives each day to the fullest and cherishes everyone that has walked into their lives," said Amy Monroe, LBSW (Licensed Baccalaureate Social Worker), quietly after sharing her story of how breast cancer has affected her young life and those of her two children, Makinzie and Parker.
Although Amy has admittedly undergone many changes in her life in the past year, there is none more significant than the battle with Stage IV breast cancer she continues to fight.
Raised on a farm in rural Castalia, working as a certified nursing assistant (CNA) for many years and raising two kids, Amy recognized she had an ailing back, but she didn't realize just how bad it was until 2012.
That was when the first blow came.
The 1994 South Winn graduate finally gave in and made an appointment in January 2012 to see a doctor and found she had not one but two herniated disks.
Upon entering the exam room, Monroe had the preconceived notion her back was just sore and she would be able to get steroid injections, but she walked out with back surgery scheduled.
"I remember the surgeon walking in while on the phone and saying he couldn't do it that day or that week, but maybe the next," she recalled. "I ended up having surgery the next week."
Not down long
The same-day surgery didn't keep Amy off her feet for long, and she returned to her job at Lutheran Services of Iowa and raising 14-year-old Makinzie and 11-year-old Parker.
Following her back surgery, Amy began to experience a tenderness and inflammation of her left breast.
"I had a feeling that I knew what it was. But I didn't tell my parents (Jerry and Pat Monroe) about my suspicions," said Amy as she sat in her parents' living room.
Since first experiencing the symptoms, Amy found many of the books she gravitated toward reading on her Kindle always involved characters with breast cancer with a message about dealing with or helping family members deal with the disease.
It was June 2012 and nearly six months before she was back in the doctor's office for an appointment that would change her life forever.
Dr. Janet Ryan had the same suspicions as Amy and scheduled a mammogram for her in La Crosse days later.
"The test showed a mass consistent with cancer, but the doctors were thorough and ran many other tests, including a PET, an ultrasound and eventually a biopsy," Amy explained of the diagnosis process. "I think the books I read had an impact on me and I was already at peace with it."
Within days, the young mother would begin meeting with an oncology team about the plan of attack on the breast cancer the Gundersen Lutheran doctors classified as Stage III.
The first of eight cycles of chemotherapy began July 3, 2012, as Amy continued to work three jobs and raise her children on her own in Decorah.
"I was grateful my doctor was able to work with Winneshiek Medical Center for those 16 weeks of chemo treatments, so I didn't have to drive to La Crosse every day," Amy said with gratitude.
Once the series of treatments concluded, the team of doctors suggested - and Amy agreed - to undergo a modified radical mastectomy of the left breast in October.
She was amazed to learn that just as with her back surgery, the mastectomy was considered a same day procedure and she was discharged home to recuperate with her family.
During the four-hour surgery, doctors removed 14 lymph nodes in and around her left breast, seven of which were confirmed to be malignant.
"They first took the lymph nodes involving the breast and they kept moving outwards and removing additional lymph nodes until the biopsies were free of cancer cells," related Monroe.
As soon as Amy had regained her strength, the doctors began to vigorously attack any remaining cancer cells with radiation. It involved daily trips to La Crosse with weekends off; rides were coordinated with her family, church family and friends.
"I was sort of tattooed at the spot the (radiation) beam would concentrate on, but because of the location being so close to my heart, I had to concentrate on my breathing as the beam hit its mark," Amy said.
During the 25-minute daily sessions, she would have to remain as still as possible while lying on a customized cocoon-like board, as technicians sent the radiation beam into her body at the exact moment her heart was furthest from the light.
Throughout many of the team meetings and treatments, Amy continued to be strong for her children and allowed them to attend many treatments with her and ask questions.
"I never hid it from them, and they felt comfortable watching me take my radiation treatments as I needed. It helped them understand what I was going through," she said.
But once again, the 37-year-old had that nagging suspicion that more was to come.
Following the mastectomy and as she continued the radiation treatments, Amy noticed what she considered a fluid sac under her left arm and figured it was nothing more than exactly that.
Waiting to see if the fluid would go away, Amy did not return to see her doctors until May 2013, when she was informed that the fluid could not be drained and it was of a suspicious nature.
A biopsy of the fluid and a PET scan later, Amy learned that not only had the breast cancer returned, but had spread and was now identified as Stage IV.
Doctors immediately put together a plan of action, and Amy once again began chemo treatments. However, because her body had endured so much trauma in the past year, Amy was unable to continue taking treatments.
"They were making me too sick, and I was ending up in the hospital every other week with dehydration," she said.
Amy has now turned her attention to regaining her strength and has moved into her parents' home near Castalia to recuperate.
She has been forced to give up her job, and Makinzie and Parker are now staying with Matt and Julie Mettille, their aunt and uncle. They have guardianship so the children can remain in the Decorah School District.
"We still talk every night about how the day has gone. I get to see the kids every couple of days, and they understand that this is time for me to heal so we can return to our home," Amy said.
A benefit to help the Monroe family with Amy's medical related expenses is 1-4 p.m. Sunday, Sept. 15, at First United Methodist Church in Decorah. It will include the raffle of a queen-size quilt featuring local points of interest and a silent auction. B.E. Catering of Waukon will provide a free will donation lunch.
Cash donations are also being accepted at Viking State Bank and may be sent to Viking State Bank, 321 W. Water Street, Decorah, IA 52101 marked "Amy Monroe Cancer Benefit Fund."