September 5, 2017 at 3:32 p.m.

Raising awareness

Mitchells lose loved one to breast cancer, encourage others to detect cancer early
Tom Mitchell holds a picture of his wife, Dawn, who passed away on June 17 of this year after a four-year battle with breast cancer. <br /><!-- 1upcrlf -->PHOTO SUBMITTED
Tom Mitchell holds a picture of his wife, Dawn, who passed away on June 17 of this year after a four-year battle with breast cancer. <br /><!-- 1upcrlf -->PHOTO SUBMITTED

By By Krista M. Sheehan- | Comments: 0 | Leave a comment

LANESBORO, Minn. - Pink is a color that's becoming more prevalent in the Mitchell family. It's how they show their support for cancer research and awareness.
October, which is breast cancer awareness month, is now a month that draws more attention from Tom Mitchell and his children, Jennifer (29), Jill (26) and Josh (20). The family lost their wife and mother, Dawn, to breast cancer in June of this year.
"It's a hell of a journey. It was tough," Tom said about helping his wife battle the disease for over four years.
Dawn's battle with cancer began before she even knew she had it. About 2.5 years before being diagnosed in 2008, Dawn started having migraine headaches.
"She had never had a migraine before," said Tom, who milks 40 cows on his farm near Lanesboro, Minn.
When she went to the hospital about it, doctors gave her pain pills and sent her home. About a year later, Dawn had trouble with her right shoulder. Again, the doctors gave her pain pills and sent her home. When she went to the doctor the next year in 2007 because of hip pain, it was the same outcome as her shoulder.
"They never did any x-rays or additional tests," Tom said.
On March 7, 2008, Dawn ventured out to the barn to do calf chores before work. There had been a light dusting of snow that morning that made the ground slick. On her way back to the house, she slipped and fell, breaking her shoulder. Dawn decided to go to a different hospital to have it fixed.
"They took one x-ray of the shoulder and they could already see (the cancer) had metastasized to the bones," Tom said.
The full-body bone scan the next day showed the worst of the cancer.
"The doctors brought me out of the room and showed me that scan. It was unbelievable. The cancer had spread from the tip of her toes to the top of her head. It was a hell of a hit," Tom said.
Although the cancer had spread, it had started in the breast and was stage four when Dawn was diagnosed at the age of 48.
"We were told it was terminal," Tom said.
Six days after her fall, Dawn had shoulder and hip replacement surgery. The cancer had been causing both her hip and her shoulder to deteriorate. Twenty-eight days later, Dawn returned home from the hospital.
At first, Dawn felt better, even returning to work six months after surgery.
"She was bound and determined," Tom said. "She pushed herself hard to succeed."
But soon the battle with cancer became harder, and life in the Mitchell household started to adjust to Dawn's schedule and her cancer treatments.
"I spent a lot of days with her," Tom said. "Sometimes we would spend weeks up at the Mayo Clinic (in Rochester)."
Dawn tried at least five different treatments for her cancer, including several chemotherapies and radiation. Although a few of them made her feel better for short periods of time, the cancer always won in the long run.
"She never complained about the pain," Tom said.
The cancer also gave her topical skin lesions.
"She looked like a burn victim. In her last months her whole left breast had dissolved away," Tom said.
As everything got harder for Dawn, it also got harder for the whole family; however, they still cared for her everyday.
"I took care of her first before I did anything for me," Tom said.
In March of this year, when Tom saw Dawn write out a check, he knew her conditions were continuing to worsen.
"She was shaky and couldn't write well. That was the first time I knew it was affecting her brain," Tom said.
In April, Dawn started receiving hospice care, which was about the same time her friends and family hosted a benefit for her.
"She almost didn't want to go," Tom said. "She didn't want it to be a big deal and she didn't want anyone to feel sorry for her."
But Tom urged her to go and see her friends.
As June came along, Dawn relied heavily on others for any kind of help, and on June 17, the cancer took her life.
"I got to grieve with my wife for over four years before she passed away. That's a blessing to me," Tom said.
But Tom and his family don't want others to go through the pain they went through with Dawn.
"Early detection is key," Tom said about finding cancer.
And that goes beyond self exams.
"Dawn's oncology doctor told me by the time she would have been able to feel the lump in her breast it would have already been there for five years," Tom said. "That's why mammograms are so important - so doctors can find the cancer and treat it."
But Tom said it doesn't matter what type of cancer it is, it's important to detect it early.
"If you have aches and pains, sometimes it's OK to have a second opinion," Tom said. "Dawn should have, and she should have gotten a mammogram."
The whole family wants to make others more aware of cancer, including Tom and Dawn's four grandchildren, Coltan (7), Taylor (6), Miley (4) and Kylie (1). Jill now gets clinical exams and mammograms on a regular basis, despite the recommended age to start receiving them is 40.
"It's important," she said. "You can't put a price on life."
But they also want to remind poeple that men also need to be aware of breast cancer, too.
For anyone who has experienced a death in the family, Tom suggests becoming a part of a grieving group, which has helped him talk about what he's gone through.
"Some people thought I should have grieved more when she passed away, but I had already grieved with her for four years. My main grieving came the first two months after we found out," Tom said. "But it's still hard now. Talking about it with other people in my group helps."
Although the Mitchells miss Dawn's selfless attitude, strong will and her homemade chocolate chip cookies, they've also started to look toward the future, knowing her presence is around them.
Without his wife to help him and be with him on the farm, Tom plans to sell his cows.
"It was life changing," Tom said. "You can always look back at what happened, but it doesn't do any good today," Tom said.
They are having a bench made to put under the picture window of their house in memory of Dawn, and where her cremains will be buried.
They also want to make others more aware of breast cancer and will be showing their pink ribbons to everyone they see. Tom also always keeps in mind that "life goes on."
Tom welcomes any comments or questions. Email him at [email protected]

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