Glenwood woman has been battling ovarian cancer for 10+ years
Brenda Sargent was 46 when she first started feeling like something wasn’t quite right. She didn’t know at the time, but she was likely experiencing the early stages of ovarian cancer. It was 2003.
“I thought something was wrong so I went to see the doctor,” said Sargent. “Our hospital in town didn’t have a female doctor at the time so I went to a neighboring clinic and female doctor. I just felt more comfortable doing that.”
Sargent was experiencing heavy bleeding and was getting very tired every day.
“I would be sitting in a meeting at work and had to hold up my head. I was so tired,” she said. “That wasn’t the norm.”
Brenda Sargent is pictured with two friends and cancer survivors at a Relay for Life event. Contributed photo
She was diagnosed with the early stages of menopause. After a couple of years of appointments, her doctor decided the best course of action was a procedure to stop the bleeding.
“When they did the procedure, they ran into something,” she said. “They asked if I had done a pelvic ultrasound. I said, ‘no,’ and they said they were surprised and said that they ‘always do that.’”
The doctor figured they had hit a cyst or something but they were not alarmed. The procedure worked. Sargent’s bleeding stopped. But it did not fix everything.
“I was still very tired,” she said.
In October 2006, Brenda drove to Warroad to celebrate her brother and sister-in-law’s 60th birthdays. But Brenda felt so lousy, she decided to come back early. She made an appointment with Jessica van der Hagen, CNP, at Glacial Ridge Health System in Glenwood. The clinic and hospital had grown since and added more female physicians and nurse practitioners.
“Jessie started to feel my abdomen and said, ‘that doesn’t feel good,’” Sargent recalled. “She didn’t let me leave. She did an ultrasound and CT right away. After the tests and a more thorough exam, she said, ‘Nothing is definitive, but I can see some growth. I believe you may have ovarian cancer.’”
It was Oct. 25, 2006.
The next test was a blood test called CA-125. It checks the amount of cancer antigen 125 in the blood. A normal level of antigens in the blood is 0 to 35. Sargent’s number was 1,200.
She immediately set up an appointment at the University of Minnesota to see a gynecological surgical oncologist. It was determined that surgery was needed to get a closer look and to confirm the diagnosis.
It was an election year, and Sargent works for the city of Glenwood. Election week is one of the busiest and most important weeks of her job, so she scheduled the surgery right after the elections, on Nov. 10, 2006.
“After surgery they were able to determine that I had stage 3C ovarian cancer,” said Sargent. “That means that it was not just localized to the ovaries, but that it had spread outside the wall of the ovaries. It was in my lymph nodes. They did a thorough cleansing and removed as much as they could, but told me that it likely would reoccur. They said this cancer is like throwing sand on something. That is how it spreads. Some cells are microscopic, and it is impossible to get it all. They also believe that the cyst that doctors hit in the surgery in 2003 was likely not a cyst at all, but was cancer.”
Although all the indicators were leaning toward ovarian cancer, it wasn’t until doctors said ‘Stage 3’ that her greatest fear was realized.
Brenda and Udean Sargent and their family at Lakeside Ballroom in Glenwood this summer. Contributed photo
“I thought ‘This can’t happen to me,’” she said. “It was surreal. I thought about all the things I didn’t get a chance to do. I also thought, ‘I have kids in college. Nobody is married. I have no grandkids. Am I not going to see them get married and have children?’”
Sargent was told she had a 27 percent chance to live five years.
“I thought, ‘I’m 49 now, I’ll be 54 when I die,” she said. “It is an awful feeling.”
And as difficult as it was to talk to her doctor about the diagnosis, that wasn’t the hardest conversation she had to have that day.
“It was really hard to see the kids and tell them,” she said, tears welling up in her eyes.
Another tough moment she remembered vividly was the first time she saw the words “Terminal Ovarian Cancer” on her medical paperwork.
“That really struck home. It is one thing to hear it, but it is another thing to read it. I was felt like, let me be the judge of that,” she said, adding, “By the way, they no longer put the word ‘terminal’ on my chart.”
Sargent’s world was turned upside down.
Brenda Sargent, of Glenwood, with four of her five grandchildren. When she was diagnosed with ovarian cancer, she was worried she would never get to meet her grandchildren. Contributed photo
“My family has always been very important to me before treatments started, but I started to realize I might not have this forever,” she said.
Sargent started chemotherapy, and soon, her body was feeling the effects
“The first time I lost my hair was devastating,” she said. “I waited as long as I could before I shaved it. I remember one day at work someone commented, ‘You really cut your hair short.’ I knew it was time. I had my husband shave it for me.”
Since her first round of chemotherapy, Sargent’s cancer has gone into remission five times. Her first remission was for nearly two years. She has had six months to a year of treatments between the remissions.
Sargent did not lose her hair for the second, third or fourth set of treatments, but lost it again in 2015.
“I have learned to embrace it,” she said. “People always told me it was just hair, and it will come back, but I didn’t feel that way early on. But they were right. It is just hair. It will grow back.”
When her hair was gone, Sargent typically wore hats, but she got comfortable enough going out in public with her bald head showing on more than one occasion. It was just a matter of changing her outlook on things, she said.
The chemotherapy hasn’t gotten easier over the years. She just has a better idea of what to expect.
“I looked it up, and I have had 68 chemo treatments so far,” she said. “It gets a little harder on my body each time.”
Sargent’s doctors will continue to monitor the cancer growth and try to knock it down as it grows. But this rollercoaster ride doesn’t have any guarantees that it will always go back up.
“At some point my body will say, ‘I can’t take it anymore,’ she said. “And my body may build a resistance to the drugs that I have been taking. There are many drug options, but the one drug I am using works well for me.”
Sargent’s body has been able to take treatments and work her way back to better health multiple times. She has also beaten the odds. Remember she was told she had a 27 percent chance to live five years. It has been more than 10 years since she received that news.
“I have beat the odds,” she said. “My oncologist said that I am his longest living ovarian cancer patient.”
Sargent is currently being monitored every three weeks with blood tests. The CA 125 blood test is a good indicator for her. If it starts going up, then her remission is likely coming to an end as the cancer is starting to grow.
“I just had another CA 125 test done in November. The numbers have started to rise a bit, but it is not at the level where treatment is necessary yet,” she said.
Through the last 10 years, Sargent has continued to work her regular schedule at Glenwood City Hall.
“I have only had to miss one payroll,” she said. “That was during the initial surgery. Everyone at city hall has been really good to me. If I am not feeling well, they send me home and cover for me.”
She believes keeping a regular routine has helped her through the hardest days.
“I could sit on the couch and feel poorly, or I can get out and be active,” she said. “I think working can take your mind off things, and I think that is important.”
Treatment options and advancements have increased over the last 10 years since Sargent’s diagnosis…but not very much. That is because ovarian cancer is so hard to detect and treat. Much more research is needed to advance both, she said.
“An acquaintance of mine was recently diagnosed with ovarian cancer, and she is on the exact same drug protocol that I used when I started 10 years ago,” she said.
But some advancements have been made. Sargent said she was involved in one clinical trial in which the chemo treatment was dripped directly into her abdomen instead of through the port in her chest.
“I would lie on my stomach for 45 minutes and then continue to rotate my body for two hours so the drugs would coat my abdomen,” she said. “This was a clinical trial at the time, and now it is standard protocol.”
Brenda Sargent with her middle son, Brock, during the mother-son dance at his wedding. Moments like these have extra meaning for Brenda, who has lived with ovarian cancer for more than 10 years. Contributed photo
One encouraging new program she has witnessed is the communication between patients and medical students. The University of Minnesota has established a program where medical students meet with ovarian cancer patients so they can get a better understanding of the symptoms and treatments first hand.
Sargent has high praise for all those who have helped her with her treatments through the years, both locally and at the University of Minnesota. And she is especially grateful for Jessica van der Hagen.
“I credit Jessie for saving my life,” said Brenda. “She knew what to look for. She knew what it was. And she was persistent.”
As for the neighboring clinic that misdiagnosed the cancer as an early sign of menopause, Sargent does not carry any hard feelings. She wrote a letter to the clinic explaining what the proper diagnosis was so they would know, but has not been in contact with them. She said she understands how things like this can happen since the symptoms of ovarian cancer vary from patient to patient and are generally hard to detect.
“I remember, before the diagnosis, my friend Bill Ogdahl stopped by the office and was standing in front my desk telling me that his wife had just been diagnosed with ovarian cancer. He was telling me the symptoms, and it didn’t click with me at all. The symptoms are not cut and dry. It presents itself in different ways,” she said. “The first time I felt something wrong, my husband and I were doing an exercise video, and I hurt the whole day. I was very fatigued from it.”
The fatigue and heavy bleeding were her symptoms, but those symptoms are not always indicators for ovarian cancer. There are a host of symptoms including abdominal bloating; difficulty eating or feeling full quickly; frequent or urgent urination; back, abdominal or pelvic pain; constipation; menstrual irregularities; fatigue; indigestion and pain during sexual intercourse.
“If I had any advice it would be to trust your body,” she said. “Women are pretty intuitive. I have always prided myself on being in tune with my body, but I was completely blind sided.”
Finding better treatments, better tests for diagnosing, and eventually finding a cure for ovarian cancer are the next steps in the fight against ovarian cancer. One organization in this fight is the Minnesota Ovarian Cancer Alliance (MOCA), a nonprofit organization made up of more than 1,000 survivors which provide support to women with ovarian cancer, raise awareness and advance research. One new fundraising event has been scheduled, and Sargent will speak at the event.
“The first annual Glenwood MOCA Gala will be held on Saturday, Jan. 21, at Lakeside Ballroom in Glenwood,” she said.
The gala includes a social hour, silent auction, dinner and program. The gala is being organized by Amanda and Curt Ogdahl, of Glenwood. Curt’s mother, Marie Ogdahl, died of ovarian cancer in 2009. Curt’s dad, Bill, was mentioned earlier in the story.
“Not only is it a great chance to dress up,” she said. “It is such a good cause. This organization really donates a lot of money to research. My medical team has seen a real benefit from the research dollars from MOCA. That is really what it is going to take.”
Sargent will tell her story as part of the program at the gala. She tells her story to help others become more aware of the disease.
“It scares me to death that one of my granddaughters could someday go through this,” she said. “I really don’t want anyone else to experience this.”
Brenda and her husband, Udean, have three boys and five grandchildren. In September, they celebrated their 38th wedding anniversary.
“If this whole experience has taught me anything, it is to enjoy every minute with my kids and grandkids,” she said. “I take much more time for my grandchildren. I savor every visit, every morsel of time.” And I’ve learned to ‘let go and let God.’ Ultimately, He is in control of my situation.”
Sargent has also been able to do and see some things that she had always wanted to do. A couple on those list that she has completed in recent years include visiting Napa Valley and going to an Elton John concert.
Brenda and Udean Sargent, of Glenwood, pictured on a trip to Italy in 2013. Brenda was diagnosed with stage 3C ovarian cancer in 2006 and was given about five years to live. That was 10 years ago. The trip to Italy was to see one of her three boys, Brock, who was stationed in Italy at the time. The trip was possible thanks to help from the Minnesota Ovarian Cancer Association, who awarded Brenda with the “Dream Award.” The award was used to purchase plane tickets to Italy. Contributed photo
One of the ways that MOCA supports ovarian cancer patients is through a program called Dream Award. The Dream Awards are designed to be used by the survivor to help patients on their healing journey, strengthen their connection to her family or community, and help them do something that she might not be able to do without a MOCA Dream Award.
“My son, Brock, is a major in the Air Force, and he was stationed in Italy at the time,” she said. “The MOCA Dream Award helped pay for our plane tickets so we could visit Brock in Italy.”
This year, Sargent also made another trip — a return trip to Warroad to celebrate her brother and sister-in-law’s 70th birthdays. It had been 10 years ago since the trip to Warroad set off a big red flag that something may be very wrong. This time, everything went fine, and she was happy she was able to join them for the celebration.
For more information on the gala in Glenwood, visit www.mnovarian.org/events.