In Living

Laura Stratte with her daughter, Freya. Stratte is currently undergoing chemotherapy.

Local mom manages cancer with optimism, honesty

Like most moms, Laura Stratte has a lot on her plate. She has a husband, two small children and she recently completed nursing school. However, on top of it all, Stratte, who is 36, was diagnosed with breast cancer.

Stratte underwent a mastectomy in July of 2008, but because of the high reoccurrence rate with her type of cancer, she opted to have chemotherapy to ensure her health. Stratte started chemo in April and is halfway through her six treatments.

As a self-described pessimist of the past, Stratte says getting cancer, albeit frightening and frustrating at times, has changed her perspective and her outlook for the better. She says cancer helped her to have a clearer understanding of what she wanted from her nursing career, encouraged her to eat and live healthier and, most of all, to appreciate her friends, family and community.

"The outpouring of support from others has been incredible," says Stratte. "I still get misty eyed when I think of everyone who has expressed support, made a meal or wrote to me. I have never felt so loved in my life as when I've had to deal with cancer."

Recently, OnMilwaukee.com chatted with Stratte to hear what it's like to talk to kids about cancer, undergo chemotherapy and remain optimistic.

OnMilwaukee.com: When and how were you diagnosed with cancer?

Laura Stratte: My symptoms started in January 2008 with some vague right breast pain. I was still nursing my daughter and when I went to my regular doctor, the clinical breast exam was normal, and she chalked it up to hormonal pain, which is quite common. It didn't go away, so she ordered an ultrasound. A mammogram wasn't an option because I was still nursing, and the ultrasound was clean. However, the pain persisted and I was becoming more and more concerned.

At the end of March, my right axillary lymph nodes swelled up -- which is not normal -- and my doctor referred me to a breast surgeon. Both said the same thing, there was nothing wrong, the lymph node was "reactive" probably due to nursing and whenever I decided to finish nursing my daughter, I could wait two months and get a baseline mammogram.

I stopped nursing my daughter and finally, the time came for my mammogram. My radiologist saw something suspicious on the imaging. He was almost convinced it was nothing, but said he couldn't be positive without a biopsy. So two days later, I had a biopsy and on a Saturday morning, June 20, 2008, I got a call from him at home with my cancer diagnosis. Nothing was large enough to be palpated, so without the mammogram, this would have never been found at this early stage.

OMC: When did you have surgery and what was the procedure?

LS: I had a unilateral right mastectomy with sentinel node biopsy on July 14, 2008, at Columbia with immediate reconstruction with a saline implant. In retrospect, I really wish that I had had a bilateral mastectomy. Although research shows it does not increase survival time, having my left breast in place is a source of anxiety and I do hope to one day have another mastectomy.

OMC: When you first found out you had cancer, what did you think? How did you feel?

LS: To be honest, when I first found out I had cancer, I wanted to scream, "I f-ing told you so!" because since January, I had been thinking that something was amiss and felt that no one had listened to me. But after that, I was just like, "Holy sh-t." Then, things just went into high gear and you just do what you have to do to get through. The nurses at Columbia, my cancer navigators, were amazing and held my hand through every single step of the way.

I'm very organized, so about an hour after I got the call from my doctor, I created my cancer binder and made sections for imagining, procedures, test results, etc. That was my way of saying, "OK, this is happening, I have to deal with this and I'm going to get through." I knew I had a ton of support and I knew that I just had no other choice but to get through it, especially since I had children, but to deal. There was no room for melting down, it simply wasn't an option.

OMC: You opted for chemo not because the cancer came back, but as a proactive measure, right?

LS: Although my tumor was super small ... my tumor has an over-expression of a specific gene that makes it a bit more aggressive and more likely to recur. I felt that I needed to do everything I possibly could to reduce my risk. In addition to diet changes and tamoxifen, chemo was on that list and I couldn't refuse.

So my chemo, which started on April 24, consists of six rounds every three weeks.

OMC: What is it like to get chemo?

LS: The day of chemo is actually very relaxing. My infusions take about three hours from start to finish and I get them at St Mary's Milwaukee, at their new cancer center with a view overlooking Lake Michigan. There are TVs with cable and DVD players, so I am well entertained. For my infusion on Monday, I watched "Twilight."

For me, the fatigue and feeling out-of-sorts doesn't really kick in until the day after chemo and it peaks about two or three days after, then it subsides and I start to feel normal again. The nausea peaks and wanes. The second round sucked but they changed my anitemetics for this third round so it's going a bit better.

OMC: How old are your kids? How are they responding to your cancer / chemo?

LS: Ned is 6, Freya is 3. Since the beginning, we've been really open about cancer and what it means. They are resilient and I think because we are being so open about it all, they don't seem to be freaking out.

Last summer, for my surgery, they just knew that I had an "owie" on my boob and I couldn't lift anything with that arm for a few weeks and I had to rest for a while. It wasn't that big of a deal.

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Talkbacks

Jean S | June 18, 2009 at 9:30 a.m. (report)

Laura - Your brave and honest comments will inspire so many others with cancer. I had trouble getting through the article because of the tears in my eyes. You are beautiful with or without hair - both inside and out!

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Rose | June 17, 2009 at 5:33 p.m. (report)

Laura is an amazing woman. She is a strong and intelligent fighter.You go, Girl!!!!

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college_dave | June 17, 2009 at 2:42 p.m. (report)

Very, very, inspiring. Everybody can learn from this story.

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Sally_K | June 17, 2009 at 1:59 p.m. (report)

Hey Laura, you are incredible. And, congratulations on being top in your nursing class!

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rob | June 17, 2009 at 11:42 a.m. (report)

My best to Laura and her family. Good vibes and prayers are coming your way each day!

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