Attitude is Everything
A young mom and teacher faces breast cancer with humor, honesty, optimism, and loads of support from Mary Greeley.
By Steve Sullivan
Lacey Dreeszen talks about her breast cancer diagnosis, and everything that helped her get through it,
Watch Lacey's Video
Pregnant with her second child and coping with morning sickness, Lacey Dreeszen leaned over a toilet to throw up when her first born, Owen, walked into the bathroom.
“When you are done bawfing can you get me some juice?” asked the then 5-year-old.
That story is a Dreeszen favorite, which is no surprise because it is about one of this devoted mom’s kids. It never fails to inject some levity to the most serious of moments or a smile to the most serious of faces.
That’s why, when she was being treated for breast cancer, she made sure to tell it to her oncologist.
Discovery & Diagnosis
On a chilly day in late February 2019, Dreeszen was playing with her youngest son, Eli, when she experienced a pinching sensation on her left side. Later, Dreeszen felt what she suspected was a lump in
“I thought, ‘That’s not supposed to be there,’” she says. “I kind of knew something was wrong—wrong enough to at least call the doctor.”
Her family physician immediately ordered a mammogram and ultrasound. The tests confirmed Dreeszen’s suspicion. There was a tumor. A biopsy followed, confirming breast cancer.
That’s a tough diagnosis for any woman to hear, but consider Lacey Dreeszen’s situation. This is a woman in her early 30s. She has a husband (Nathan, an electrician) and two young sons, one with special needs. She’s a teacher, and among her responsibilities has been teaching reading to students for whom English is not their primary language. A lot of people, including a lot of kids, count on her.
Dreeszen, who lives in Boone, is blessed with the ability to stay positive when the opposite would be totally understandable, not to mention a terrific sense of humor. These traits have guided her and her family as they have responded to her cancer diagnosis.
“Oh really?” That was her first thought when she got the news.
Breast cancer “doesn’t sound like something that really happens to a 33-year-old, but I was actually relieved to know it,” she says. “That kind of sounds silly, but when I went in and sat down, and the doctor says, ‘I just have to tell you, you have cancer,’ it was kind of an ‘oh my gosh, that’s horrible,’ but it was something else too. I was glad. Now it was a thing that I can deal with, that I can work with. We can get through this.”
She had plenty of support from her cancer team, which included Dr. Joseph Merchant, McFarland Clinic oncologist. She first met Merchant in Boone, when he was at the Boone County Hospital Specialty Clinic providing oncology/hematology outreach services.
“That made me feel even more comfortable. Dr. Merchant was awesome. He was really calm and just sat down and was like, ‘Well, here’s the deal. We need to get it out. Then we’re going to do chemotherapy as kind of a further treatment, but also hopefully kind of preventative by that point, because hopefully we’ll get all the cancer out,’”
The initial plan was to perform a lumpectomy, but a subsequent mammogram and ultrasound indicated a second tumor. Dreeszen’s cancer was spreading.
“Finally, it was, ‘You’re going to have a mastectomy,’” she says. “That was fine. I would rather have it all gone. That’s why I always say I’m the luckiest. I have the best kind of cancer, because they can just cut it out and I can move on.”
Telling the Kids
The Dreeszens began sensing something unusual in son Owen’s behavior when he was around 2.
“Everything had to be in order—the toy trains lined up perfectly,” she says. “Preschool was fine but kindergarten was hard. He had trouble communicating his emotions. He couldn’t organize his thoughts.”
Owen is autistic, and he has also been diagnosed with ADHD and OCD. He’s a sweet kid, quiet when he’s not obsessively asking questions. Dreeszen wasn’t worried about explaining her cancer to Eli, as he was too young to understand it. Owen, though, would require a careful approach.
“They were the last ones I told because I didn’t want to upset them any sooner than I had to,” she says. “I told them about two weeks before my surgery. I brought Owen to the park, just him and me. I said, ‘I’ve been going to a lot of different appointments for the doctor. I’m going to have my breast removed, because I have cancer.’ Cancer was a word he knew and that it was not a good thing. But he couldn’t see it. That’s what makes sense to him in the world, something tangible. I let him feel my tumor, let him feel the lump on the side of me, and asked, ‘Do you feel that? Yeah, that’s what shouldn’t be there and they can’t get it out right, so they’re just going to take that whole piece of me off.’”
Owen asked why that had to happen. His mom again explained that the lump, the tumor, shouldn’t be there and it needed to come out. “That’s why I’m sick. That’s the part that’s making me sick,” she told him.
Facing the removal of her breast, Dreeszen focused on what would matter in the long run.
“At first, it’s a shock. They’re taking a piece of you, and it’s a big piece of you. But what's the trade-off going to be? Am I going to deal with this one little piece of me being gone, or am I to be gone? Obviously the choice was pretty easy when it came down to that,” she says.
She approached everything with her typical humor, even telling a friend, “It’s 40 solid weeks of treatments and appointments. It’s like a pregnancy, but I don’t get stuck with a baby in the end.”
The mastectomy was performed at Mary Greeley by Dr. Benjamin Schlicher, a McFarland Clinic general surgeon.
“There was hardly any pain. I’m like, ‘Wow, Dr. Schlicher did amazing, because I feel fine.’” Afterward, I kept getting told that I have a beautiful scar by all my radiation people,” she says.
She healed faster than expected and was able to begin 20 weeks of chemo treatments earlier than originally scheduled. Chemo was followed by 5 weeks of radiation. She avoided most of the typical side effects of cancer treatment, except for fatigue.
“These two little guys were coming at me all the time, ‘Let’s do this, let’s do this.’ I think telling them ‘No’ was more painful than just doing stuff a lot of the time. I wasn’t going to stretch myself and hurt myself, but I wanted to be present for them,” she says.
Dreeszen is doing great these days. She’s busy with her family and back to teaching, and once again adjusting to the unexpected: the pandemic.
“There is no quiet time in my life,” she says.
Dreeszen received wide-ranging support during her treatment. Friends, family, and members of her church stepped in to help. Her teaching colleagues covered her classes and a coworker organized a “Team Lacey” T-shirt fundraiser. A meal train was put together. She got an endless stream of cards and notes of encouragement, including from her students. Her husband’s job accommodated his need to be there for his wife.
“I didn’t do this alone. I don’t know how anyone could,” she says. “A sense of humor got me a long way, but the huge amount of support people were willing to provide really made it possible.”
An important discovery during her treatment was the William R. Bliss Cancer Center, a service of Mary Greeley and McFarland Clinic. She didn’t know about the center prior to her diagnosis, but “I’m so glad I do now.”
“They all talk to each other—the oncologist, the surgeon, and everyone working for you. They have an actual team of doctors that talk about you. They made everything so smooth,” she says. “It was just a blessing to have Bliss here so close, and that there’s such a serious place. It’s not a joke. It’s an actual cancer treatment center, right here in Ames.”
Dreeszen took advantage of the services offered by the Cancer Resource Center, including counseling, housekeeping help, prosthetic support, and hormone therapy.
“The second that I found out I had it, they set me up with Angela (Long, Cancer Resource Center coordinator), who’s awesome. She was really the one who could sit down and, in regular people words, tell me what my cancer was, tell me what was coming up, tell me the steps and the options. It really takes someone who’s not a doctor, but who knows doctor language, to sit there and go through it with you,” she says. “That was just a comfort, and of course she always has Kleenex, so if you need to sit down and cry, Angela’s office is your place to go, because you do need that sometimes.”
Sometimes you may need to cry, that’s true. Dreeszen also knows that sometimes a good laugh is the best medicine.
“Lacey let me know right off the bat that she was going to see humor in things and that made my work with her so much easier. The great thing about Lacey is that she is the same person before, during and after her cancer fight,” says Merchant, her oncologist. “I think many patients with cancer, once they are past the shock of getting a diagnosis, can start to see that some situations are just ridiculous enough to be funny. Doctors, patients and nurses in oncology do more laughing than many might expect--not because having cancer is funny, but because laughter helps deflect emotional pain, anxiety and provide witness of hope to those around.” During her treatment, she had a goal to get Merchant to crack up.
“Dr. Merchant and I are tight. He calls himself a worrywart. He can be a little serious, but I can’t be that serious all the time. I’m going to have fun,” she says.
Owen’s “bawfing” story did the trick.
“Dr. Merchant just started laughing, which was lovely to see. I like seeing everybody laugh. I like seeing everybody have fun, because this isn’t a fun thing to go through, but you might as well have a good attitude about it,” she says.