MARSHALL - For Cheri Buysse, it started in February with a sharp pain under her rib cage that radiated to her back.
"I thought, that was really bizarre," Buysse said.
She was home on medical leave after getting her knees replaced the previous winter.
Photo by Anna Haecherl-Smith
Cheri Buysse, a teacher at Marshall Middle School, is one of this year’s Lyon County Relay for Life ambassadors.
"I was on some pain pills, so I thought, 'Well, who knows...' I thought it was maybe triggering some gallbladder problems," Buysse said. "Then it subsided, so I didn't think anything of it. But the next day I felt it again."
Buysse is no stranger to anatomy or health and is used to being active, as she teaches physical education and health at Marshall Middle School. Because she teaches health, Buysse said that she is familiar with many medical diseases, concerns and disorders. She knew something wasn't right when she started feeling pain under her ribs.
"I was going back to work at the school the next week and thought I better get this checked out so I don't have to worry about anything," Buysse said. She met with Kris Wegner, a physician's assistant at ACMC in Marshall, the next day and had an ultrasound performed.
"When the technician kept using the wand and going under my rib cage, I knew something wasn't right," she said. She got the phone call that evening, and Buysse says that if it wasn't for her kitchen counter that she was leaning on, she probably would have collapsed.
"She said 'Cheri, we did find a mass and we need you to come in right away tomorrow morning,'" Buysse said.
"I was and am still perfectly healthy. No diabetes problems, no blood pressure problems, my vascular surgeon said my veins were as clean as can be," she added.
No one could determine a cause for the mass.
After more tests, her doctor told her "this is very serious. It's a very rare tumor called Leiomysarcoma."
Being a health teacher for all these years and with all the classes she took, Buysse had never heard of the condition. It is essentially a tumor of the soft tissue, and Buysse's tumor happened to drop into her inferior vena cava vein, which carries deoxygenated blood from the lower half of the body to the heart. It only affects four in a million people, and there is little data on the cause of tumor.
"My surgeon said that if this would have been the '90s, they would have sent me home because there would have been nothing that they could do," Buysse said. "The inferior vena cava vein is so thin... that to operate on it would kill you."
"Marshall did an incredible job," Buysse said. "They diagnosed a very rare tumor. Kris (Wegner) was on the ball, graciously told me as best as anyone can ever tell someone that this was very, very serious. The only places that dealt with this kind of tumor is Mayo."
The doctors at Mayo ran tests again, and Buysse said one doctor took her hands in his and looked her in the eyes and said "Cheri, it's going to take faith, family and friends to help you get through this... but I can cure you."
It took chemo and 25 radiation treatments in 25 days to get the tumor smaller before the operation. Buysse stayed at the Hope Lodge during her treatments, a place for patients who receive treatment daily to stay free of charge, and she said it was an "incredible facility."
The surgery was expected to take all day and go into the night. "They never know exactly what they are going to see until they get in there and they told me that upfront. But it ended up being only four or five hours," Buysse said.
After her surgery, her sister said to her, "when the surgeons came out of the operating room, I don't know who was beaming more: your husband and kids or the doctors."
"What we truly forget is how difficult it has to be for these doctors," Buysse said. "My vascular surgeon was determined that he had to find a way to work with that vein. For doctors to care about their patients the way they do... if you could bottle up what Mayo does for people and spread it everywhere... it would be so incredible."
Buysse has had CT scans every three months for the past year at Mayo and says she is "very blessed to be tumor and cancer free." She met with her oncologist earlier this month and "everything is still clean," she said.
Buysse is thankful for all the support from her family, friends, coworkers and their communities that helped her during her battle with cancer. She's not back to 100 percent yet but says that her energy level and overall health have greatly improved during the last year. Her doctors said it would take at least a year to be close to how she felt before cancer.
"I would tire easily and just wouldn't have that get-up-and-go. I so wanted my life to be normal, but it never will be again," Buysse said. "But that's OK, because I'm a survivor."
Buysse will be sharing her survivor story as an honorary emcee at the Lyon County Relay for Life at 7 p.m. Friday at the Lyon County Fairgrounds.
"My future son-in-law said to me, 'What an honor! You get to share your story. Think about all of those that don't get to,' and that was pretty powerful for me," Buysse said.