Four-time Cancer Survivor Reflects on Resilience

“The thing I always tell people is cancer is a silent disease,” said Carmel Benson of Windom, MN. A four-time survivor of four different cancers, Benson knows a thing or two about resilience, being proactive, and living life to the fullest.

Four-time Cancer Survivor Reflects on Resilience
Pictured: (From Left) Carmel and her husband, Scott. Photo Credit: Mitch Boeck Photography

Annual Checkups Reveal Serious Diagnoses

In 2004, Carmel Benson visited Dr. Jeffrey Taber, Windom Family Medical Center, for her annual physical.

After sharing that she was having constipation issues, Benson was recommended a colonoscopy by Dr. Taber. Later that week, “One of his nurses called me at work to come talk to Dr. Taber,” explained Benson. Benson worked for Habilitative Services Incorporated for over thirty years as a Direct Support Professional. She and her husband raised their children in Windom, where she’s lived for 55 years.

“Right there I knew it was something important and couldn’t wait,” Benson recalled. She was shocked to receive the emotional news that she had stage four colon cancer. Benson had no prior history of colon cancer. She and Dr. Taber quickly picked a surgeon, who soon completed a successful resection of the middle section of her colon.

Just one year later, Benson saw a dermatologist to remove an unwanted mole on her face. “It just didn’t heal,” said Benson. Dr. Taber took a sample of the unhealed area, and Benson soon learned she had basal cell carcinoma, a type of skin cancer that can grow deep into the skin if not treated. Dr. Taber recommended a dermatologist where she underwent a procedure to successfully remove the cancerous spot.

To this day, Benson gets annual dermatological check-ups as well as colonoscopies every three years.

Carmel and Scott Benson
Photo Credit: Mitch Boeck Photography

10 Years Later

Benson was grateful to have zero signs of either colon or skin cancer. Yet in 2015, she faced another surprising diagnosis: thyroid cancer.

Benson had been seeing a Urogynecologist. “He looked at me and said, ‘Has anyone ever said anything about your thyroid, in your neck?’ He said, ‘I only know because I had it. Go see an endocrinologist,’” recalled Benson. The specialist spotted a bulge in her neck, enough for him to be suspicious.

“They did a biopsy, it was cancer. So, we found a surgeon again, he removed my thyroid,” said Benson. The strangest part about this round of cancer was the treatment. Her regimen required radioactive iodine, which, though effective, required serious precautions. “It was kind of scary. I couldn’t share bathrooms with my husband. I couldn’t share a bed, silverware, nothing. The doctors couldn’t even touch the medication.”

Though the cancer was removed, many trips to providers, preventative checks, and medications were becoming Benson’s new normal.

A Life-Altering Diagnosis

In late 2016, Benson was getting ready for a typical Saturday morning at work. Her throat was so swollen, “I thought I had tonsillitis or something,” recalled Benson. But she knew something was off. She and her husband, Scott, dropped everything and went to the Emergency Room at Windom Area Health.

After Benson had bloodwork done and explained her symptoms to the ER doctor, he asked if he could contact her oncologist noted in her chart. After that call, Benson was rushed by ambulance to Sioux Falls.

She was admitted to the ER, “When I got to the hospital, my blood pressure was very, very low. Then, I spiked a high fever.” By then, some of Benson’s family members were at the hospital while she was being stabilized. She thought she was fine and told her family to go eat supper. The nurse came in to ask her family to return immediately. “They didn’t even know if I’d make it,” Benson recalled.

She had acute myeloid leukemia, a type of rare cancer that starts in the blood-forming cells of the bone marrow.

Benson Family
Pictured: Carmel with her family. (Left to Right) Tonja Krueger, Karma Krueger, David Krueger, Scott Benson, Carmel Benson, Spencer Fritz, Sierra Fritz, Trisha Krueger, Kutler Krueger, and Skylar Krueger. Photo Credit: Mitch Boeck Photography

A Long Treatment Journey

After a painful bone marrow biopsy to identify the cancer, Benson was assigned a hematology oncologist.

“I got put in the special wing for immunocompromised patients,” said Benson. She was there between 7-8 weeks and was eventually explained her options for chemotherapy.

Grappling with a third cancer diagnosis, Benson considered this round the ultimate “third strike.” Chemotherapy felt pointless.

“I thought, I have grandkids to get married, a granddaughter still to graduate. I want to have great grandkids,” she said. “I’m a fighter, and here I am.”

Benson started a week of chemotherapy, followed by an intense regimen. She would return to Windom for 30 days, then back in isolated, hospitalized treatment for 30 days. She completed this process three times.

“Most of the holidays were spent in a conference room at the hospital,” she recalled.

At home, she couldn’t have houseplants, animals, processed foods, or any immune-compromising interactions. During her in-hospital treatments, she had long days of bloodwork and infusions.

“The biggest thing was that I had an amazing doctor,” Benson said. She was recommended to consider a bone marrow transplant, which required even more testing to identify a match.

An Unexplainable Healing

Benson and her care team found a bone marrow donor and were ready to start the transplant. During a pre-bone marrow biopsy—which was both routine and required for the transplant—Benson got unbelievable news.

“The leukemia was gone,” Benson said. “Even the doctor said, ‘I don’t know what happened. There is no medical reason.’”

Her cancer had unexplainably disappeared, and has been gone ever since.

Unexpected Bravery: Asking For Help

Benson recalled a surprising part of her treatment journey: asking for help.

Between her treatment, traveling, diet modifications, and eventually having to quit her job, financial obligations began to strain her family. Her husband had to switch to a lower-paying position to accommodate the demand of her treatments.

During her hospitalizations, she received financial assistance through the Leukemia Lymphoma Society for leukemia-related treatments. For both her skin cancer and leukemia battles, she received assistance through the Women’s Health Fund of the Windom Area Health Foundation.

Benson Thank You with Ribbons
Pictured: Carmel and Scott thanking all who who have helped them and their family through the journey!

“I first heard of it through the newspaper and the Tammy Hall walk,” Benson said, explaining her 5connection to the Women’s Health Fund. The Fund provides financial assistance to local women undergoing cancer treatments. Common forms of assistance include funds to cover utility bills, mortgage payments, medical bills, and gas or grocery gift cards.

“To ask for help is kind of belittling. It’s hard to say, ‘Hey, I need help.’ You think, ‘Are there people worse off than me?’” Benson shared that the flexible assistance helped her pay for her insurance deductibles.

Overwhelming support came in other places: her church supported her every week in the hospital, her husband shaved his head in solidarity, friends hosted benefits, and others accommodated Benson when she was especially immune-compromised.

Life After Cancer

To Benson, it’s not a matter of “if” but “when” she’ll have another cancer diagnosis. But it doesn’t bother her. “I don’t sit and stress about cancer, where it will be,” she said. Benson believes being proactive in annual screenings make a life-or-death difference.

Since she’s been cancer-free, Benson and her husband have traveled, cheered on hockey games, became foster parents, watched their grandchildren get married, and celebrated the milestones of their grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

“There is life after cancer,” Benson reflected. “We’ve learned to enjoy life more. You don’t know what’s going to happen tomorrow, so live your life the best you can.”

For more information on the Women’s Health Fund, contact Katie Greener, Director of Foundation & Auxiliary, at 507-831-0633 or [email protected] to learn more about the confidential application process.

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