In his long career as a broadcaster and journalist, Tom Brokaw has heard people of all walks of life tell their stories of joy, challenges, pain and triumph.
Early Saturday afternoon in RED Steakhouse in downtown Vermillion, he listened, in a casual, informal setting, to the stories of six courageous women. They are of varying ages and backgrounds, but they all have two things in common.
They all have been diagnosed with breast cancer.
They all have triumphed over the disease.
Brokaw, who grew up in South Dakota, is a graduate of the University of South Dakota and is best known for his reporting and years as anchor of the NBC Nightly News, returned here last weekend to serve as honorary chairman of the third annual Susan G. Komen Race for the Cure hosted by the organization's South Dakota affiliate in Vermillion on Sunday, Sept. 26.
The meeting of Brokaw and the six women – Dr. Mary Helen Harris, Dr. Kristi Egland, Ann Hamilton, Gloria Top, Michelle Bruhn, and Collette Madison – was arranged by Sanford Health, the premiere sponsor of the South Dakota Komen Race, to honor their bravery and advocacy.
It was a chance for Brokaw to meet cancer survivors who represent many walks of life – one is a physician, several are mothers, some work as executives and volunteers. There is a grandmother in this group, a breast cancer researcher and a nurse.
Near the end of their meal together, Brokaw stood, raised a glass, and gave a toast to the women for their resilience, and the efforts they are currently making to hopefully find a cure for breast cancer by being active in the Komen Race for the Cure.
"I want you to know how deeply impressive this is, what you are doing in terms of finding a cure for cancer, but also what you are doing for each other," he said. "I think, in fact, that's the essence of the Race for the Cure."
He joked that for the last 35 years, he has lived only with women, referring to his family. "Women are so much better than the guys are at supporting each other and sharing and helping each other along," Brokaw said. "You should feel very good about what you're doing, and the rest of us are in looking in with a sense of awe and inspiration and great admiration for your courage."
What follows are the stories of three of the women who dined with Brokaw Saturday:
Collette Madison of Sioux Falls, who works as ambassador for patients at Sanford Health, is a survivor of breast cancer but lost her sister-in-law to the disease.
"What I see with research is how we've come such a far way," she said.
Madison was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2002, and has recovered to live a full life.
"My story is really about losing my sister-in-law about 16 years ago, and how devastating that was to my family," Madison said. "Little did I know that I would be next, and the neatest thing about my care and treatment was they (the medical personnel) used a titanium chip to put in where the cancer was. They followed that titanium chip with a radioactive dye, and they only took out the (lymph) nodes that they needed to.
"It saved me a lot of recovery time, and also, I didn't lose the use of my arm and sometimes women who lose all of their nodes lose the use of their arms," she said. "That's why I think it's important to have research. The Susan G. Komen organization has done a wonderful job, and they are well known throughout the country."
She was excited to meet Brokaw Saturday, adding that he is part of the group of survivors that dined with him that day.
"His wife is a survivor, and the cool part of that is it is a family. It affects all of us," Madison said, "whether it affects us personally or it affects someone in our family."
Dr. Kristi Egland
Dr. Kristi Egland was diagnosed with breast cancer at age 37 in June 2007, shortly after the birth of her second child. When she no longer was nursing her infant son, she noticed a problem with her right breast, and immediately sought medical treatment.
Egland and her husband had moved to Sioux Falls in 2004 after she was hired by Sanford Health as a breast cancer researcher.
She underwent a double mastectomy and had her axillary lymph nodes removed from her right side, near where a cancerous tumor was discovered.
"It was very challenging at first, being diagnosed with breast cancer and still, at work, dealing with the science," Egland said, "and the way that I took control of my disease was actually asking the pathologist to save all the surgical waste, and paraffin-embed it, and he also saved my normal tissue.
"Now I have control over my cancer," she said, "because I actually have it in the lab, and I know the characteristics of this tumor, and so I can throw it in as controls in our experiments."
Egland said the knowledge she had before being diagnosed about breast cancer and its treatment played an important part in her recovery.
"But going through this as a patient, I learned what kind of questions that patients were asking, and the fact that science alone does not always apply to provide the answers," she said. "I've taken that knowledge back into the lab, and currently we're trying to develop a blood test for cancer where we're trying to find the antibodies that are made against the cancer proteins to be a very early and sensitive test."
The Komen Foundation is very special to Egland. Two years ago, she was asked to be the honorary survivor at the first Komen race held in Vermillion. The Komen Foundation also has provided $450,000 in grant funds over a three-year period to help Egland continue her breast cancer research.
"Having Tom Brokaw be the honorary chair of this event shows how important it is to bring awareness of breast cancer, and with Sanford Health, we help women with breast cancer, but we're also establishing a very strong breast cancer research program that goes beyond health care. We're actually trying to find a cure."
Gloria Top, a registered nurse from Sioux Falls who is certified in breast care, was diagnosed with breast cancer five years ago.
"At that time, I was not working in breast care nursing, but three years after I was diagnosed, I became passionate and needed to help other people through their own journey of breast cancer and so I became a nurse navigator."
After women are diagnosed with breast cancer, Top meets with them during their first visit with doctors before surgery.
"I meet them at their first surgical visit and follow through with them during their oncology, their surgery, and try and help them as they journey through their disease," she said.
Top said Saturday she was proud and honored to be chosen to have lunch with Brokaw Saturday.
"The Susan G. Komen organization is such an excellent thing for so many patients, and I see patients daily," she said, "who benefit directly from this organization."
"There are real connections here," Brokaw said following the luncheon. "Even though we (he and his wife, Merideth) have not lived in South Dakota for a long, long time, we still feel that we have more than a casual connection to the state."
Brokaw describes his wife as being "very lucky" following her diagnosis with breast cancer.
"She had early detection and good treatment," he said, "and so she was able to get through it with a minimum of distraction in her life and there has been no reoccurance.
"We're at an age and a stage in our lives where we've lost a number of friends to breast cancer," Brokaw said, "and we've been through the ordeal with other friends who have survived. It's never easy, and they're making progress, but it's still quite maddening."
The efforts scheduled to take part in Vermillion over the weekend are a welcome change to attitudes once commonly harbored by folks, he said, when hearing that someone they knew had been diagnosed with the disease.
"I'm old enough to remember when people didn't talk about cancer," Brokaw said. "If they had it, it was like it was a scandal of some kind. The assumption in the past was that once you got cancer, you were going to die, and people didn't want to go there. Now, you see these women supporting each other emotionally as well as in terms of raising money for research, and finding common cause and knowing how to get through it.
"It's all very heartening," he said.