Tom Krueger checks over the milking units in the milkhouse on his dairy near Eagle Lake, Minnesota.
Tom Krueger checks over the milking units in the milkhouse on his dairy near Eagle Lake, Minnesota. PHOTO BY KRISTA KUZMA

    EAGLE LAKE, Minn. – Dairy farming can be physically, emotionally and mentally draining on even the healthiest person; however, when a stage 4 cancer diagnosis is thrown into the mix, the everyday routine of milking cows can sometimes be comforting relief. At least it has been for the Kruegers.

    Despite each having a stage 4 cancer diagnosis, Tom and Linda Krueger continue to operate their 50-cow dairy on their farm near Eagle Lake. While Tom battles esophageal cancer, Linda deals with reoccurring breast cancer that has spread to her bones.
    “After spending a day in there (getting chemotherapy treatment), it’s a relief getting out of there and into the barn,” Tom said.
    The barn has been Tom’s happy place since first being diagnosed in August 2017, two weeks after Linda found out her breast cancer had come back.
    Tom decided to be checked earlier in 2017 when he was having trouble swallowing. That initial checkup did not find anything wrong. As the year went on, his symptoms did not improve.
    “I had more and more trouble swallowing,” Tom said. “By August, I couldn’t really swallow food except for liquid. I had lost 50 pounds in a short time. I knew something was wrong.”
    When the doctors checked again, they found a tumor farther down in his diaphragm.
    Tom immediately started chemotherapy treatment, returning every two weeks for 1.5 years. The chemo helped shrink his tumor over time and his symptoms let up.
    “I could start eating again a week after I started chemo,” Tom said.
    Although he liked that the nurses and doctors started to get to know him and would ask about farming, Tom dreaded the all-day treatment.
    “There were 18 chairs, all lined up with pumps,” the 71-year-old said, describing the room where he received chemotherapy. “It was like a milking parlor.”
    Physically, Tom endured side effects such as burned off finger nails and toe nails along with hair loss. He also has numbness in his fingers and said jokingly he can now handle straws from the semen tank without a problem.
    “I actually took it (chemotherapy) really well,” Tom said. “If you would go down there (to the clinic) and look at the clientele, there aren’t all of them who are as fortunate.”
    Tom attributes some of his well-being to the cows. Being in the barn heals him, emotionally.
    “Even my doctor said having work to do is a big plus,” he said. “If you see the people who are down there at the clinic, it’s way better to be here doing something.”
    Most days Tom has treatment, he starts and ends his day with chores, relying on help from his daughter and son-in-law, Tracy and Dusty Loberg. One day, not long after starting treatment and having a port put in his chest to help administer his medication, he returned home to a cow giving birth.  
    “I got off the table (from getting chemotherapy) at 6 p.m. and came home,” Tom said. “By 11 p.m., I had a cow calving with the calf’s head flipped around. I had my arm in the cow and delivered the calf.”
    Tom did not mind the distraction because it is one of his favorite parts of farming.
    “I like having the calves come and seeing what you get,” he said.
    Since the spring of 2020, Tom has been back on chemotherapy, which he said will most likely be a regular occurrence for the rest of his life.
    Both Tom and Linda worked to get chores done in the earlier years of dairying, starting in 1975 when they bought their farm. Despite taking an off-farm job for insurance, Linda continued to work in the barn until her first breast cancer diagnosis 21 years ago.
    “I had chemo and radiation and the oncologist said you’re immune suppressed and it’s not a good idea to be out there in the barn,” Linda said. “But I could help out in a pinch if it was unloading cattle or hay.”
    Although she could not do chores anymore, Linda continued to be the farm’s bookkeeper and worked her off-the-farm job throughout her treatment. She was put into remission in 2001.
    “I learned over the years that I have patient rights and to stand up for myself and be my own advocate,” Linda said.
    Her yearly tests came back with good results until 2017 when her oncologist found tumors in her sacrum.
    “It had gone to the bone, which is better than the brain,” Linda said.
    When Tom learned of his diagnosis two weeks later, the couple were facing their cancers together.
    “We will say, ‘Who is worse off today?’” Linda said.
    While Tom continues to perform outside chores, Linda continues to work her off-farm job from home and keep the books for the farm.
    While the Kruegers are optimistic for the future, they are also realistic about the outcome.
    “I’m very matter of fact with my doctor,” Linda said. “I want to know when the worst is coming along the line. That’s why I took the money inherited from my mother when she passed away and built a deck and a ramp because they’re telling me if I’m not fortunate enough to die of something else first, I will become paralyzed.”
    At some point in time, Linda knows she or Tom will need hospice.
    Right now, rather than taking expensive medication with no guarantee of an outcome, Linda prefers to be comfortable in her house.
    “I refused those drugs that cost $20,000 per month,” she said. “They have horrible side effects, … and there’s a percentage of a percentage chance it will help. We’re not going to sell the farm to try this drug.”
    Especially since the farm is where Tom wants to be.
    “There is probably a point in time where I’m not going to be able to do anything,” Tom said. “But instead of looking at the wall and waiting to die – that’s not for me – my doctor said why don’t you see if you can die of something better first.”
    So, the Kruegers continue farming.