Young Brainerd mother grapples with breast cancer

Developing breast cancer at an early age seems rare but since her diagnosis, Cassie Stenson has learned it is more common than expected and finds support from other women under 40 who have shared their experiences.

A mom poses with her young daughter and son.
Cassie Stenson, center, poses with her daughter, Ruby, left, and son Luka.
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CROSBY — Cassie Stenson of Brainerd, age 33, was breastfeeding her second child, then 19 months old, when she noticed changes in her breast. Her first thought was that it was a side effect of pregnancy and nursing but when she felt a lump, she decided to get it checked out, just in case.

She went to see Women’s Health Nurse Practitioner Donna Claypool at Cuyuna Regional Medical Center, who promptly scheduled an ultrasound and upon receiving the results, asked to come back for a mammogram right away the same day.

“I thought that definitely was not good, and when the technician seemed very concerned and I was told I needed a biopsy, I started to worry,” Stenson said.

On Aug. 2, Stenson was told four words she thought she would never hear: “You have breast cancer.” Being a single parent with two young children to care for, she was shocked, and their lives were upended.

Then a whirlwind began — more testing, lab draws, PET scans, MRIs, and visits with CRMC oncologist Dr. Basem Goueli. Because she was so young, Goueli said he would go above and beyond to do everything he could to save her and ordered numerous medical imaging and laboratory tests to determine what treatment would be best. To put her at ease, the oncologist also ordered genetic testing from which she learned there was no mutation of the cancer, so she does not think her daughter is at risk.


On Sept. 7, Stenson underwent a double mastectomy. After recovering from the surgery, in mid-October she began the first of eight hours-long infusions of chemotherapy medications.

Cancer did not run in Stenson’s family. It was something, she said, she just did not think about, and she was completely blindsided. Developing breast cancer at an early age seems rare but since her diagnosis, Stenson has learned it is more common than expected and finds support from women under 40 who share their experiences in a Facebook community.

Adding to the stress, shortly after her surgery her rambunctious 2-year-old son Luka broke his foot and needed to be carried. Because she could not lift him, he needed to stay with his father.

Fortunately, Stenson had a lot of support as she began the months of aggressive treatment. In addition to her mother helping her navigate the diagnosis, her daughter Ruby, 13, is being a great caretaker and helping around the house. She is also grateful for her amazing co-workers, friends and other family who have been supportive, as well as her nurses and other patients.

Because she has been out of work since being diagnosed, Stenson applied for CRMC’s Courage Cabinet which provides financial assistance to area cancer patients undergoing treatment. When she was awarded $1,000, she put the money into a savings account knowing she is going to need it to pay her mortgage and utilities.

“It’s my safety blanket,” Stenson said. “I don’t have to stress about being broke after this, I’ll still have a little bit of money.”

After some lean years, Stenson said she recently became financially stable and just last year bought her first house. She knows a cancer diagnosis is the second leading cause of bankruptcy, so she is preparing ahead of time by being as frugal as possible.

Although Stenson has good insurance, her policy has a high deductible and not all expenses are covered. She expects all her savings to be depleted after one medical bill is paid.


A collaborative social worker at Garfield Elementary School in Brainerd, Stenson has been out of work since August.

“My job is to worry about others, and I cannot do that when I am so focused on my own self,” she said. She hopes to feel well enough while undergoing treatment to be able to return to work part-time.

Stenson’s gotten by financially so far because her co-workers showed incredible support and donated over a month of their own sick time to her so she would continue receiving her paycheck and benefits.

“I am blessed with an amazing team of co-workers,” Stenson said. But now that she has started chemotherapy, Stenson may be too ill to get back to work and all her vacation and sick leave benefits have been used. “There are so many unknowns.”

Stenson will continue to undergo chemotherapy and then radiation treatments for about six months. For the next five to 10 years, she will also have hormone therapy and expects to experience early menopause. To ensure the cancer does not return, she will also undergo regular screenings.

Kaleidoscope to Raise Funds for Courage Cabinet

Stenson will be the featured speaker at Kaleidoscope — A Night Among the Survivors, a fundraiser for the Courage Cabinet 5-7 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 27, at the Ironton American Legion.

All proceeds from the fundraiser will benefit Cuyuna Regional Medical Center’s Courage Cabinet which provides financial assistance to the growing number of area cancer patients who are battling for their lives. The Courage Cabinet is open to all cancer patients in CRMC’s service area. The limit of Courage Cabinet funds is $1,000 per patient annually.

The Courage Cabinet helps families with non-medical needs, such as gas cards/vouchers for travel to treatment, hotel, rent, and meals or groceries. Courage Cabinet funds can also be utilized to pay for any medical bills, drugs, and non-covered medical equipment, supplies, and dressings.


Planned at Kaleidoscope is an in-person and online auction of items donated by area businesses and CRMC staff; view and bid at There will also be games, appetizers and beverages. Tickets are $20 in advance at or $25 at the door.

For more information about Kaleidoscope or to donate to the Courage Cabinet, contact Charitable Fund Coordinator Jennifer Podsiadly at , 218-545-4455.

Peggy Stebbins is director of marketing and public relations at Cuyuna Regional Medical Center in Crosby.

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