On track to recovery

FL School Superintendent Linda Madsen well on her way to beating breast cancer 


Cliff Buchan
News Editor

As fitness director Derek Otto put Linda Madsen through a series of exercises at the YMCA in Lino Lakes last week, Madsen’s mind drifted back to July of last year.

Under the watchful eye of Derek Otto, fitness director at the YMCA in Lino Lakes, Linda Madsen goes through an exercise routine designed to strengthen and tone muscles. Along with the YMCA program, Madsen is running three miles a day several days a week. (Photo by Cliff Buchan)

This July marked the one-year anniversary of Madsen’s personal commitment to work herself into better shape. She dove head-first into a grueling program of muscle building and toning exercises. She was running five miles several days each week to augment her YMCA program.

And it was working. She was dropping weight and feeling great.

“My goal was to lose weight, be more fit and build core strength,” Madsen said. “I felt the best I had in 20 years.”

Madsen was seemingly on top of the world.

But then came late December and a visit to the doctor for her regular mammogram. A full physical the next day helped confirm what the preliminary results of the mammogram had indicated — Madsen had breast cancer.

It was Dec. 23, 2011 and Madsen spent the Christmas and New Year’s holidays preparing for the fight of her life.

Ready to Fight

As the superintendent of schools in Forest Lake and a lifelong resident of the area, Madsen fully understood the challenges that she faced — both in treatment and her professional career.

Her job is time consuming and sometimes stressful. It’s not uncommon for Forest Lake’s superintendent to log 60 hours a week — sometimes more.

Coupled with what she knew would be a long medical treatment process, Madsen made up her mind to move forward with both. While some individuals may have opted for a medical leave to fight the disease, Madsen believed she could do both without compromising her job or her treatment.

She spent January meeting with doctors at the Virginia Piper Cancer Institute at Abbott Northwestern Hospital in Minneapolis and Minnesota Oncology. Doctors determined that the tumor was not attached to the chest wall and that was good news, Madsen said.

Her medical team designed a nine-month treatment program to fight the disease. On February 1, Madsen commenced a 12-week chemotherapy program with Minnesota Oncology at the Unity Hospital Campus in Fridley. The first round of chemo was followed by four additional sessions that pumped two combined cancer-fighting drugs into her body.

Through it all, Madsen continued her sessions at the YMCA, pushing her body to remain fit. She continued to run for the next three months before backing off from the cardio-building program in May.

Her trainer, Otto, said last week he could count on one hand the number of sessions that Madsen has missed since February. And those were mostly work-related. Otto describes Madsen as a “role model” for others who need inspiration in their struggles to improve their fitness.

Madsen’s medical treatment program was coupled with a good diet, extra efforts to get plenty of sleep and staying strong emotionally. She drank lots of water to help flush the body.

Madsen said the physical fitness routine at the YMCA helped her remain strong, both emotionally and physically.

“I did not get tired from the chemotherapy,” she said. “I handled chemo a bit better than some people do.”

There were some negative side effects. The last round of the combined cancer-fighting drugs dulled her appetite, but she found ways to continue to get nutritious foods into her body.

And there was the hair loss.

By the end of her third chemotherapy treatment in February, her hair was nearly gone. She invested $500 in a wig, but used it for only a week.

She looked at herself in a mirror with the wig on and with it off. “It seemed more like me,” she said of the hairless image that looked back at her.

The Results

At the end of her 16-week treatment program, Madsen received news from the doctors in early June that any cancer patient would want to hear. Her tumor was reduced to virtually nothing by the end of chemo treatments. “It’s almost disbelief,” she said of the news, “but that’s your hope.”

This time the mood swing was positive, Madsen said, thinking back to December and the dreary news that she received.

Linda Madsen and fellow cancer survivor El Ewert posed at a Lakeside Park event with their matching hairdos. Both will take part in the Forest Lake Relay for Life Survivor’s Walk on Friday night at Forest Lake High School. (Photo by Cliff Buchan)

Madsen understands the battle is not yet over. There would be more treatments and surgery. After what she called “a good conversation” with her oncologist, surgeon and nurse coordinator, Madsen moved on with an lumpectomy.

The medical team and Madsen discussed a full mastectomy. But based on survival rates which are the same for either surgical procedure, Madsen opted for the outpatient lumpechtomy. The surgery was completed on July 6.

Madsen now understands the dilemma that others with breast cancer face. As she entered her treatment program last winter, Madsen thought seriously that a bilateral mastectomy may be the end result.

But after going through the rigourous treatment and listening to her medical team’s update, she is confident she made the right call. “I think I can live with that,” she said. “I am at peace with that decision.”

After a one-month healing period, Madsen will return to the Unity campus in early August to begin up to eight weeks of daily radiation therapy every Monday through Friday to eliminate any cancer cells that may still be present.

The radiation sessions will be no different from her chemo sessions, Madsen says. She’ll complete the treatment and head to work at the District Office in Forest Lake.

“I looked at chemotherapy as just another appointment every Wednesday,” she said.

Her routine at the YMCA will continue where she works out with her husband, Tim. She is also back running and has built her distance up to three-mile jaunts, often with her husband at her side.

Past & Future

Madsen’s bout with cancer is not over, but she knows she is on her way to beating a tough opponent.

She’ll take part in Friday night’s Forest Lake Relay for Life on behalf of the American Cancer Society. She will walk in the survivor’s lap to help start the evening’s activities.

She will walk for herself and a 4-year-old niece who was diagnosed with leukemia at the same time Madsen was diagnosed. She will also walk in memory of her mother.

Lucille Madsen was just 48 when she lost a fight with breast cancer in the spring of 1979. She had been diagnosed with breast cancer in 1976 at age 46 and underwent a mastectomy but no chemotherapy or radiation treatment immediately following surgery.

The disease came back and claimed her mother’s life.

Madsen had graduated from Forest Lake High School in 1977 and was in her second year at the University of Minnesota when her mother passed.

“You assume that that might happen to you,” Madsen said of the possibility she may one day have breast cancer.

A Good Example

Madsen, 53, has been open with co-workers, friends and community members during her cancer fight. This is her first interview on the matter.

She is doing so, she said, to offer encouragement and hope to those fighting cancer and to remind women and men to stay on top of their health.

It is important to know your family medical history, she said. For women with breast cancer in their family history, start mammograms before the age of 40.

Self-exams are a must and yearly health screenings can also be life-savers, she said.

It is also helpful to maintain a diet that includes lots of fruit and vegetables. Eating red meat and consuming alcohol in moderation are both good ideas, she says. “It’s all about moderation,” she says.

And don’t forget exercise, she said.

As a former high school athlete at Forest Lake and a junior high school track coach for 10 years, Madsen said she is convinced her decision to become fit was a big plus in her fight with cancer, both physically and emotionally.

In making a personal commitment to improving one’s health, it can be easy to procrastinate, Madsen said.

“You need to get started,” she said, pointing to her decision to join the YMCA and becoming serious about getting into better shape. “If help is needed, find someone.”

Linda Madsen found more support in a skilled medical team, the strong encouragement of family, friends and co-workers and a personal determination to fight this disease with every ounce of her being.


Community Ed. Relay for Life team walking for Madsen

When the nine members of the Community Education for a Cure team take to the Forest Lake High School track Friday night in the Relay for Life, they’ll be walking for their boss.

The team has dedicated its walk in support of Linda Madsen, the ISD 831 superintendent of schools who is battling breast cancer. All funds raised by the team will be donated to the American Cancer Society in honor of Madsen.

“We’re holding her up, she’s our hero,” said Julie Ohman, director of community education and a team member. “We are so proud of Linda and so thankful.”

The team is still collecting last-minute pledges to support their effort on Friday night. Community members wishing to support the effort can drop off donations at the Community Education Office, District Office Building, 6100 N. 210th St.