Tag Archives: cancer

Curing Cancer One Machine At a Time

July 26, 2018 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Driving down Leavenworth or Dodge streets, the average person might see the Fred & Pamela Buffett Cancer Center, located on the UNMC/Nebraska Medicine campus, as something of a museum because of its notable artwork and architecture. 

It is also vital to note the advanced medical technology used to detect and treat cancer at UNMC/Nebraska Medicine. 

Mihaela Girbacica is a registered nurse who works directly with cancer patients every day and depends on smoothly functioning tech to do her job.

“I sit next to a patient one-on-one for their entire treatment,” Girbacica says. “We become like a family. I bond with them, I know what makes them comfortable and [feel] taken care of when they are with us, and when things go well, I’m so happy to be there for that, too.”

Having a support network (or favorite nurse) is a key facet to fighting the cancer battle, but finding and targeting cancerous tumors is at the forefront of fighting the war. 

Dr. Chad LaGrange demonstrates an MRI Ultrasound Fusion Biopsy

Dr. Chad LaGrange, a urologist with the cancer center, has helped to revolutionize the discovery of prostate cancers by using an MRI Ultrasound Fusion Biopsy. Essentially, this procedure, which takes place at Nebraska Medicine’s Lauritzen Outpatient Center, blends the technology of an ultrasound and MRI by combining one image with another, overlaid, image to fuse into a 3-D view.

LaGrange says this tool allows technicians to view a clearer image of the area they must work on to remove all of the cancer. The fusion biopsies also remove needless worry and unwarranted medical procedures if patients are not diagnosed with life-threatening cancers.

“It’s been a night-to-day difference,” LaGrange says. “Patients will come into our office to find out that their regular biopsies didn’t tell the whole story. Our equipment ensures that part of the major diagnosis doesn’t go missed.” 

While this computer-aided detection has been used for mammography and breast cancer screenings for years, its assistance in prostate cancer detection has reimagined—and reimaged—the way doctors analyze potential deadly lesions. 

From easily treatable small cancers to aggressive life-threatening cancers, the next step can often lead to radiation and chemotherapy treatment.

Dr. Charles Enke, chair of Radiation Oncology, regularly uses the department’s Varian True Beam Linear Accelerator, a radiation device that delivers treatment to patients 75 percent faster than any other previous piece of tech used at Nebraska Medicine. 

“We’ve gotten up to seeing 115 patients in one day because of this much more elegant system,” Enke says. “The delivery time for this kind of treatment has decreased from 18 minutes to about three, meaning we have the ability to treat more patients with less machines.”

The Fred & Pamela Buffett Cancer Center is home to three of these machines, which Enke says has increased the speed and quality of most radiation plans. Treatment has transformed from a six-week plan to five simple treatments, maintaining a Nebraska Medicine culture of patient-centered care. 

Enke also has the ability to work from home using the machine’s remote system. This makes room for peace, quiet, and well-rested research, resulting in an environment where work done in the office directly affects patients. 

People often assume a cure for cancer will be a revelation; a singular miracle. However, that in-office work, albeit common and routine, is what will bring further knowledge to the professionals. Curing cancer is a daily goal, comprised of small and strong steps, increased technological advancements, and a medical team ready to work. 

To learn more, visit nebraskamed.com.

This article was printed in the August/September 2018 edition of B2B.

A Varian True Beam Linear Accelerator at the Fred & Pamela Buffett Cancer Center

Colonoscopy Cocktail

February 24, 2017 by

Gary Kropf, 62, spent the entire evening reading Wine Spectator magazine cover to cover.

On the toilet.

“It was a busy day,” Kropf recalls. A powder laxative mixed in 64 ounces of Gatorade helped clear his gastrointestinal tract for inspection.

He doesn’t regret a single minute. It wasn’t a fun day, but it was easier to drink the dreaded “colonoscopy cocktail” than die.

What his doctor discovered after Kropf had the procedure were two polyps, or growths in the intestine, which could develop into cancer. Kropf didn’t panic since he went through a procedure to remove polyps five years before. This time, however, one polyp flattened out and couldn’t be removed. His biopsy tests came back as slightly abnormal. Kropf sought a specialist.

“Gary, I’ve seen a lot of these. I bet it will turn into cancer,” colon and rectal surgeon Sean Langenfeld informed him.

Kropf understood the impact of those words more than most. His first wife died of uterine cancer. He had seen firsthand how fast cancer could take a life.

Unfortunately, Langenfeld was correct. Tests came back positive for cancer.

“I’m not a betting man. I don’t like the odds,” Kropf says.

In fact, according to the American Cancer Society, colon cancer is the third leading cause of cancer death in men and women. However, almost 59 percent of those 50 and older—the recommended age for testing—do not get tested.

Most, Langenfeld believes, do not get the colonoscopy procedure because it is embarrassing.

Geraldine Russmann, 80, had a laparoscopic colon resection after discovering cancer last year. Russmann, also a breast cancer survivor, has trouble talking people into having a colonoscopy because they think cancer won’t ever happen to them.

“It’s a day out of your life that will save your life,”
she says.

Preventive screening seems to be key to a longer life since many times there are no symptoms, as was the case with both Kropf and Russmann.

Excluding family and personal history, a colonoscopy is recommended every 10 years to identify polyps and cancers in patients before they have symptoms or the cancer spreads.

Kropf is remarried, and he is urging his second wife to get checked (she can’t stomach the idea of going through the pre-bowel prep experience).

But Langenfeld says the chalky cocktail is now “less miserable and tastes better.” The day of the procedure, the patient is sedated. The surgeon uses a colonscope with a tiny camera at the tip to see a visual of the colon and removes any polyps if necessary. It typically takes about 30 minutes.

“It can change your life to not wearing a bag or getting really sick,” Kropf adds.

Kropf had much anxiety in those dark days, but felt confident in Langenfeld’s abilities. Langenfeld, a five-year University of Nebraska Medicine veteran, has seen many of these cases. He knows if a polyp gets out of hand, a person can die. He has seen these red or pink masses become so huge they “block the road.” The biggest was the size of a football, while others were like softballs.

As of December, Kropf’s blood work came back favorable.

How did he celebrate?

“I had a nice glass of wine,” Kropf says.

Visit cancer.org for more infomation.

Micrographs show what colon cancer looks like under a microscope.

This article was printed in the March/April 2017 edition of 60 Plus.

Black Elk Still Speaks

January 6, 2016 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

The blood of a warrior, holy man, healer, mystic, and visionary runs in the veins of Myron Pourier, whose broad face, jet-black hair, and dark, narrow eyes provide a window to his proud heritage. Pourier’s great-great-grandfather, an Oglala Lakota named Black Elk, straddled two distinct eras in the history of Native Americans.

“For 16 generations of our family, we lived the good,” says Pourier, 45. “But when Grandfather (Black Elk) was still a young man, we started living the bad, when the first European settlers came.”

The story of Black Elk became the stuff of legend in 1932 when author, teacher, and critic John Neihardt—Nebraska’s first poet laureate—published Black Elk Speaks, a moving account of his historically fascinating life.

The “good” for Black Elk and the Oglala Lakota lasted only a few years after his birth in 1863, when “everything was in harmony and you only took what you needed from the earth,” says Pourier.

At age 13, Black Elk took his first scalp from one of General George Custer’s soldiers at the Battle of the Greasy Grass—the Lakota translation for the Little Big Horn River.

Wounded during the massacre of Lakota men, women, and children at Wounded Knee on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota in the winter of 1890, Black Elk surrendered his way of life. He lived out the rest of his days at Pine Ridge where, at age 68, he entrusted Neihardt, whom he considered a kindred spirit, to “spread the word.”

Like Black Elk, Pourier possesses the heart of a warrior. Unlike his great-great-grandfather, Pourier’s warrior instincts have drawn no blood. They arise from deep despair.

“Life on the reservation is a struggle,” he says with slumped shoulders, looking out the window of his trailer in Porcupine, South Dakota. “We have 85 percent unemployment among 44,000 enrolled members.” Pourier, who receives a small military pension, goes through a litany of ills plaguing Pine Ridge: cancer, diabetes, high blood pressure, alcoholism, fetal alcohol syndrome, and teenage suicide rates soar above the national average.

Pine Ridge, considered the poorest reservation in the country, spans 3,468 square miles of prairie grass, most of it unsuitable for growing anything. Tattered trailers and rusted-out cars and trucks dot the landscape. Children play on large propane tanks. The sound of laughter: nonexistent.

Why does Pourier stay? “To keep fighting for my people and mend the sacred hoop of Grandfather’s vision.”


The vision to which Pourier refers comprises the longest chapter in Neihardt’s book, one that makes Black Elk Speaks a spiritual classic.

Rich in Native symbolism and almost biblical in its content, the vision came to Black Elk at age 9 during a severe illness. It eerily foreshadowed the decimation of the Lakota. Black Elk sees his people dead or dying, only to be revived through the power of a sacred hoop he’s been given. As he stands “on the highest mountain of them all,” he sees the whole world as one, with the hoops of many nations united in one hoop, “living together like one being.”

Black Elk’s vision defined him in later life. “He believed his people could be saved if we fix the hoop one generation at a time,” says Pourier, one of only an estimated 6,000 who can still speak the Lakota language. “That has been my mission in life, to stand up for our rights as a people and to make others understand who we are as a people.”

One way to heal, Pourier believes, involves changing the name of Harney Peak in the Black Hills of South Dakota—the “highest mountain” in the vision—to Black Elk Peak. The tourist site is the highest point east of the Rockies and bears the name of a U.S. Army general blamed for wiping out a Brulé Lakota settlement in 1855.

“I went to Washington in August and met with the Board on Geographic Names,” says Pourier. “I told them the name is as offensive to the Lakota as waving the Confederate flag is to African Americans. I felt a positive energy at the meeting.”

South Dakota’s process for such name changes seeks consensus, so the state opted against the name change after a huge backlash from citizens who pointed out that blood was shed on both sides during the Indian Wars. But after Mount McKinley was recently renamed Denali in Alaska, Pourier believes the Feds will override the state’s decision soon. A large photograph of an elderly Black Elk standing on top of Harney Peak, arms outstretched, hangs in Pourier’s home.

Curiously, John Neihardt ends Black Elk’s narration at Wounded Knee, omitting the next 60 years of his life and his conversion to Catholicism in 1904. Baptized Nicholas Black Elk, he embraced Christianity fully.

A Native Catholic church in Milwaukee began a petition drive last summer to make Black Elk a saint, based in part on this inexplicable occurrence:

“The night he died [Aug. 19, 1950], Grandfather told his children some sign would be seen in the sky,” says Pourier. “The next day at his wake, the skies filled with a brilliant light.”

In fact, a spectacular electrical storm, documented around the world that day, was so pronounced that it disrupted military communications in the Korean War.

Perhaps the last chapter has yet to be written.


Keeping Clean, Fighting Cancer

September 22, 2015 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Fighting cancer is tough enough on its own. Add to that the rigors of daily life and the experience can be beyond overwhelming.

Imagine having cancer while needing to clean up after youngsters.

“I was 34 years old with two small children, ages 2 and 5, when I was first diagnosed,” says Amber Blohm. “I needed to concentrate on keeping myself healthy and spending as much time with my children as possible.”

She had neither the time nor the energy for cleaning, but she also did not have money to pay a professional service.

Blohm happened upon an ad in which a cleaning company offered free cleaning services to women with cancer. In short order, the staff of Pink Shoe Cleaning Crew became her new best friends. “They really were a tremendous help through our family’s most challenging months,” she says.

Started in 2010, Pink Shoe Cleaning Crew is a small residential and commercial cleaning business. Last year, the company partnered with the nationally recognized nonprofit Cleaning for a Reason, an organization partnering with maid services across the United States and Canada to offer free, professional house cleanings to improve the lives of women undergoing treatment for all types of cancers.

Women can connect with Cleaning for a Reason easily through the company’s website or their doctor’s office. A woman needing services will be matched with a local cleaning company, such as Pink Shoe, who will then reach out to the requestor.

Allison Helligso, owner of Pink Shoe Cleaning Crew, says her experience with the national organization has been rewarding and deeply emotional.

Her company offers four monthly cleanings through the partnership. “These are women who were busy living their normal lives when they were hit with an illness that robbed their health, energy, and time from them,” she says. “While we can’t make them feel any better, we can, in a small way, help them through their journey by helping them make their home the clean and healthy place it needs to be.

“These women have so much gratitude and appreciation for the service we provide that it feels humbling and is such a pleasure to be able to help them in this way,” Helligso explains.


“Flush Him Down the Toilet”

May 26, 2015 by
Photography by contributed by Falls City Journal


Article originally published in Omaha Magazine May/June 2015 issue.


I hadn’t talked to Dennis Ryan in more than two years when I called him in early March.

In that earlier discussion in late 2012—15 years after his release from prison for torturing and killing James Thimm near Rulo, Neb.—we talked about the usual, catching-up stuff.

Same this time. His wife is well, his son is doing well in school. Dennis said he is making the best money of his life as a long-haul truck driver. He joked that the days on the road were actually strengthening his marriage: “You know what they say: Absence makes the heart grow fonder.” He said he is becoming a serious audiobook junky. He particularly enjoys John Grisham books. Bronson Pinchot is his favorite narrator.

“Wasn’t he in some squirrelly ‘80s show?” I asked.

“Sure. But just listen to him,” Dennis said, sounding a bit miffed as if I had insulted a friend. “He’s the best out there at bringing the characters to life.”

Amid all the catching up, I almost forgot the main reason I had called: I wanted to know his thoughts on his dad’s failing health.

“What’s wrong with him?” He asked.

“You haven’t heard?”

“I don’t hear anything about him,” he said. “No connection. Don’t want one. Last I heard from him he told me I was going to hell.”

“He’s dying of brain cancer,” I told him, realizing as the words came out that I was informing a man that his father was dying. “Just got announced in some Legislature debate on the death penalty. Your dad probably has a couple months left.”

There was a brief pause.

“So he’s finally going to die,” Dennis responded, his tone cold and steady. “Best for everybody. Good riddance. Flush him down the toilet for all I care.”


Michael Ryan and his son, Dennis, were both convicted in 1985 for the murder of James Thimm on a farm near Rulo. The story of the Ryans’ bizarre doomsday cult made national news and has remained one of the most notorious crimes in Nebraska history.

Michael was sentenced to die for the murder (He also pleaded no contest to second-degree murder in the killing of 5-year-old Luke Stice). Dennis, only 15 at the time of his arrest, was sentenced to life in prison, a sentence many both inside and outside the criminal justice system believed was far too severe for a teen who had been thoroughly brainwashed by his father.

At the small cult’s secluded compound on a high bluff above the Missouri River, Michael taught Dennis to fire automatic weapons and kill with his hands. Dennis had to be ruthless, he father explained, because Dennis would soon be leading the elect few against the forces of evil during the coming battle of Armageddon.

In 1997, due to a legal technicality, Dennis was released after 12 years in prison. For the last 18 years, he has lived a quiet life with his wife of 17 years and high-school-aged son in south-central Kansas. Dennis, who has lived in Kansas near his mother and brother since his release, has been a long-haul truck driver for the last five years for a company based in Nebraska.

His father has remained on death row for 30 years. In early March, Thimm’s sister announced that she had learned that Michael Ryan has terminal brain cancer, a diagnosis State Sen. Ernie Chambers repeated during a state legislative debate on the death penalty.

Although a prison spokesman told me he was not allowed to comment on the medical condition of inmates, two other sources have confirmed that Ryan likely has only a few months to live.


In 1997, while working for the Omaha World-Herald, I called Dennis’ attorney, Tim Nelsen, asking if there was any chance Dennis would talk to me.

I  hoped to follow him on-and-off through the first year after his release. My rationale: What is freedom like for a man who spent his childhood in a doomsday cult and his formative and early adult years in prison? How would he adjust to being dropped into the real world at age 27?

I tried to play a homeboy card: I grew up in Falls City, nine miles from Rulo, I told Nelsen. I was a senior in high school when Dennis was being tried in the courthouse a few blocks down from my home.

Dennis agreed to talk to me. He suggested we meet at a lake in northeast Kansas. He had fished at the lake as a kid. He had always dreamed of going back there. I brought my tent and other camping gear. We talked and fished late into the night.

He was 27, but, having spent his childhood under his father’s thumb and the rest of his life in prison, he was coming into freedom with the fresh energy and idealism of a college freshman just unbound from home. He wanted to go to college and major in psychology. He wanted to help at-risk kids from troubled homes. He figured he knew something about troubled upbringings.

He was starting to learn, though, that universities were not interested in 27-year-olds with prison GEDs and murder convictions. And he didn’t have any money. He just needed to get a job working for anyone who would take him.

He was awkward with women; some men were scared of him. He knew many people looked down on him. Potential employers weren’t thrilled about hiring a convicted felon, let alone a man who had tortured a man to death. He was struggling with frustration and anger, emotions he knew could destroy him if he couldn’t stay calm and focused on his goals.

He said he might be willing to partially forgive Michael if he would apologize to those he had harmed and take responsibility for his actions.

Instead, the last time Dennis had contact with his father, Michael blamed him for “not completing the circle.” Michael said that Dennis’ loss of faith and testimony against his father in 1985 were the reasons Michael’s end-of-days prophesies had not materialized. Michael even convinced Dennis’ grandmother that Dennis was the reason Michael was on death row. “She called me a snitch,” Dennis told me.

At that time, Dennis was still, in a few instances, sympathetic to Michael. He said his father had a tough childhood. Michael, he pointed out, had been brainwashed himself by the rabid teachings of James Wickstrom, a radical Christian identity minister and white supremacist.


Later, as we sat by our campfire, Dennis scared me for the first time. He was talking with his usual intensity about his mindset during his three years at the farm north of Rulo, a time he thought he was the son of God, a time during which he was willing to partially skin a man and thrust a shovel handle up the man’s rectum at his father’s bidding. In the dancing firelight, Dennis’ strong features took on a menace I wasn’t sure was wholly unintended. In a deep, booming, agitated voice he told me what it feels like to think you’re a god.

“I felt powerful. I felt important,” I remember Dennis saying. “How could you not? I was 15 and being told I was ‘The One.’ How could it not feel good?”

Then, he said, soon after believing he was God’s chosen one, he learned he was living a sick lie. In fact, he learned he was a lowlife pariah who, instead of going to high school, would be spending the rest of his life in prison.

“How would you feel?” He asked, leaning toward me.

“I would have hanged myself,” I remember responding.

Dennis told me soon after those comments that he had forgotten to bring a tent. So, we bedded down beside each other in my tent for the rest of the night. He snored. I know that because I was awake those few hours before dawn wondering if I had just made my own deathbed.

The next morning we cooked bacon and eggs. We fished and talked. In a strange moment of small-world bonding, we discovered the man who first attempted to rape him in prison in Lincoln was in fact a 3rd-grade classmate of mine in Falls City. We agreed Richardson County, also home to the murders made famous in Boys Don’t Cry, has a pretty seedy underbelly.

Increasingly, the conversation was nothing more than the jabs and banter of two buddies on a fishing trip.

I suggested he might want to cut down on the number of f-bombs he dropped in each sentence. “I know,” I remember him saying. “It’s f*ing tough not to cuss when you’ve been in prison for 12 years.”

In the 18 years since that night, I’ve never once felt frightened by Dennis. In fact, as he increasingly succeeded in building the normal life he craved, I began to deeply admire him.

That year, I visited Dennis two more times in Kansas. We spent a few days together each visit, playing video games, watching sports, visiting a nearby bar. In time, we talked less about the past. He was becoming increasingly frustrated trying to find gainful—let alone meaningful— employment. He had gone on dates a couple times, but there hadn’t been second dates. I increasingly found myself giving what I fancied was sagely advice. I don’t have a little brother. I was 29. He was 27 with no real-world experience. I imagined I could help him navigate troubles.

In 1998, I wrote about that first year out of prison. It had been a frustrating stretch for him, but he was settling into a rhythm. Life was pretty dull and uneventful—a mundane “boy-meets-world” kind of year. In his case, though, at least in my eyes, uneventful meant wildly successful.

Soon after that, I moved to Arizona. In 2004, Dennis was going to come visit me in Phoenix. We made plans to go four-wheeling in the Sonoran Desert. I don’t remember why that never happened.

Dennis got married not long after I wrote that first story. I remember telling him he should wait. But he was in love. His son was born a year later.

Over the years, we talked about coaching youth sports, the newest video games, and the mercurial rhythms of married life—the usual stuff. Of course, there was ribbing about the highs and woes of local sports teams. He’s an insufferable Kansas Jayhawks fan.

Sometime after I moved back to Nebraska in 2007, we planned to meet up for a day at Worlds of Fun in Kansas City with our kids. For the usual reasons amid busy lives, those plans also never gelled.


In our talks after 1997, we spoke less and less about life before 1997.

In fact, that recent March phone call was probably the longest time we spent talking about his father in 18 years.

Michael Ryan came within two weeks of being executed in 2012. In the weeks prior to his execution date, Michael, who is housed at the Tecumseh State Correctional Facility, reached out to a cousin of Dennis’ to discuss where his body should be buried.

The cousin called Dennis to discuss the topic. By that time, Dennis had only contempt for his father. He didn’t deserve a proper burial, Dennis said. He belonged in the sewer with the rest of the human excrement.

But, like numerous condemned inmates around the country, Michael’s execution was stayed due to problems with how prison officials obtained one of the three drugs needed for a lethal injection.

Although Ryan has exhausted nearly all of his appeals, the state still has failed to obtain one of the three drugs, a drug that companies around the world now refuse to produce for ethical reasons.

Michael Ryan refused to be interviewed for this story.

In response to a request I made in 2007, I was told he said he also had no intentions of speaking with his son.

Dennis said he’s not sure how he would react if his father called one last time before his death. “It would probably sound pretty ugly,” he said. “But he won’t call. He’s a coward.”

Dennis last spoke to Michael in 1985, the year they were arrested. Michael told him, “The circle is not complete. You’re with Satan now.”

A few years later, a prison psychologist suggested Dennis write a sort of farewell letter to Michael and “be done with him.”

“I tended to always write song lyrics to express things back then,” Dennis said in March. “I just sent him the words to ‘I Don’t Care Anymore’ by Phil Collins. They seemed perfect at the time.

I don’t care what you say,

I don’t play the same games you play.

Yes, “The circle is not complete.” And, also, no. Thirty years later, Michael’s hateful words are taking on new meaning for Dennis.

The self-professed prophet accidentally got it right. The circle is not complete. The son didn’t become the father. Dennis has taught me that even disastrous nature and nurture can be overcome by will and love.

Back in 1997, I remember asking Dennis’ mother what differences she saw—differences that would be critical to Dennis’ survival—between her ex-husband and her son. Months before at the lake I felt I had seen in his agitation the brewing of a storm. I was wrong. At that time, his mother, I believe, already knew why Dennis would succeed against such terrible odds.

“He cares,” she said. He’s around people who care about him now. He has goals. I believe he can make it.

“And here’s something big: Dennis is not mean,” she told me then. “Simple as that.”

Eighteen years later, pondering the death of his father, Dennis brought up that widely held concern in 1997 that he would, at best, flounder, and at worst, kill again.

“I’m demanding,” he told me. “I’m selfish. I’m a hard person. It’s good that I’m on the road a lot. I joke that I’m a typical Virgo. Just your typical pain-in-the-ass Virgo.

“But I’m driven. And I’m not mean. You know that. Anybody who knows me knows that I’m not mean.”

I’ve never known him to be mean. I have never heard anyone who knows him say he is mean. In my mind, he is remarkable. These quiet years quietly attest.

“Michael was mean,” Dennis said. “Terribly mean. I assumed that he wasn’t always mean, but mom says, ‘No, he was mean from the start.’ He was abusive. That’s who he is.

“And that isn’t me. The proof is in this life.

“When he’s dead, it’s over. It’s time for it to be over.”

Faith, Friends, and Facebook

January 7, 2015 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Popular singer-actress Camille Metoyer Moten is a fun-loving, free-spirited soldier of faith.

That faith got tested starting with an April 2012 breast cancer diagnosis. After treatments and surgeries over two years she gratefully proclaims, “I am healed.” Anyone unfamiliar with her spiritual side before discovered it once she began posting positive, faith-filled Facebook messages about her odyssey and ultimate healing, which she attributes to a Higher Power.

Her frequent “Fabulous Cancer-Free Babe” posts gained a loyal following. Many “Facebook Prayer Warriors” commented on her at-once intimate, inspirational, and humorous musings. One follower quipped, “Your posts are like going to church at the Funny Bone.”

Metoyer Moten decided cancer was an experience she couldn’t deny.

“When you perform, your whole thing is pulling people into this artistic moment with you,” she says. “When I got the cancer and started posting about it I thought, ‘Well, this is my song, this is the song I have right now and I want people to feel everything I’m feeling, the good parts and the bad parts.’ And at the end I want them to see the glory of God in it.”

The humor, too. She described the asymmetry of her reconstructed breasts. While losing and regaining hair she called her bald head “Nicki MiNoggin.” Once patches of growth came back it was “Chia Rivera.” She’s since dubbed her swept-back scraggle, “Frederick Douglass.”

“I wrote it as I saw it, Metoyer Moten adds. “If it struck me funny, that’s what it was. I will talk about anything, I just will. I’m just like this open book.”

That extended to shares about weight gain and radiation burns.

Mainly, she was a vehicle for loving affirmations in a communal space.

What support most touched her?

“Probably just the amount of prayer,” says Metoyer Moten, whose husband, Michael Moten, heads One Way Ministry. “Every time I said, ‘Please pray,’ there were people right there, and sometimes they would put their prayer right on the post, which was awesome. Some of the encouraging things they would say were really special. The Facebook people really did help to keep me lifted and encouraged and they said I did the same for them.

“It almost never failed that there were things I read I needed to hear. We had this beautiful circle going of building each other up.”

The sharing didn’t stop at social media exchanges.

“The thing I loved were the personal notes I got from people asking me to write to loved ones going through something, and I wrote to them just to encourage them because that was the whole purpose—to tell people who you go to in time of trouble.”

She’s now writing a book from her Facebook posts.

“My goal is to encourage people and to glorify God and to talk about how social media can be a meaningful thing.”

Camille, being Camille, went beyond virtual sharing to invite Facebook friends, all 2,000-plus of them, to “chemo parties” at Methodist Estabrook Cancer Center. “I usually had about 12 to 15 people. The nurses were very sweet because sometimes we’d get too loud. Other patients sometimes joined the party, which was kind of my point, to liven it up. We just had a ball.”

It wasn’t all frivolity.

“We would pray on the chemo machine that the chemo would affect only the cancer cells and leave the good cells alone. Once, a woman rolled her machine over for us to lay hands on hers as well. It was just a beautiful testimony.”

Cancer didn’t stop Metoyer Moten from cabaret singing or acting

“Even though I had a little harder time every now and again,” she says, “it didn’t stop me from doing anything.”

She even believes she came out of it a better performer.

“I’m not a very emotional person,” she continues, “but sometimes to connect spiritually you have to have a little more emotion involved. I think now the stuff I’m doing on stage is better because I think I’ve connected to myself better emotionally. I think I had stuffed things down a long time ago. This made me realize it’s okay to have some emotions.”

Fellow performers David Murphy and Jill Anderson walked with her on her journey. Now that they’re battling their own health crises (Murphy’s vision problems and Anderson’s MS), Metoyer Moten is there for them.

She’s glad her saga helps others but doesn’t want cancer to define her.

“A long time ago I decided there’s no one thing that’s the sum total of your entire life,” she says. “I’m happy to talk about what God did for me during this experience, but I’m not going to dwell on the cancer bit forever. I don’t want people to look at me and say, ‘Cancer.’ I want them to look at me and say, ‘Healthy…healed.’”

Green Thumb – Pink Dreams

November 3, 2014 by
Photography by Sara Lemke

October will be loaded with events that recognize Breast Cancer Awareness Month. Project Pink’d supporter Karen Kruse will certainly make at least a showing at a select event or three, but she’ll manage her time to leave room for the most important of tasks—tending to her pink-pinker-pinkest garden.

“I call it my Survivor’s Garden,” Kruse says of the front-yard space that is the jewel of Blondo Street between Country Club Avenue and 52nd Street.

Kruse finished planting her garden in 2010, exactly one year to the day after her first chemotherapy treatment. There’s only one rule in this garden—it has to be pink. Besides featuring a monochromatic array of plantings in the hue forever associated with the iconic ribbon that will be everywhere to be seen this October and beyond, Kruse carries the theme into patio furniture, planters, and surrounding tchotchkes.

But there’s more.

“I’ll buy anything pink in products where a portion of the proceeds go to the battle against breast cancer,” says the woman who sports a shoulder tattoo with the words “Fight like a girl” accompanied by the familiar pink ribbon. Which answers the question behind her pink gardening gloves, shears, pail…heck, even her garbage cans.

Kruse, who is featured in the just-released, pin-up-girl-style calendar that is a fundraiser for Project Pink’d, says that her garden is so much more than a mere hobby.

“This garden is an important part of my recovery,” Kruse explains. “This is about an attitude that is more than just surviving. When I’m working in the garden I am thriving. I want to be more than a survivor. I want to thrive.”

Just like her pretty-in-pink riot of color planted along Blondo Street.

Visit projectpinkd.org for more information.


Heartland Family Service’s Salute to Families

November 23, 2013 by and
Photography by Billings Photography Studio

Every year, Heartland Family Service honors families from Nebraska and Iowa with their Salute to Families Celebration during the annual Heartland Family Service Family Week. The local families are recognized for their strong family life, community service, and leadership.



Robert and Thresia Hettinger of Papillion and their five children sat down and had a serious discussion about how they could help their family after Robert’s sister passed away from multiple myeloma cancer. After rearranging their home and lives to accommodate a big change, they officially adopted six of Robert’s sister’s children while the others stayed with their father. Recently, the family added their nephew, bringing their family total to 14. Robert, a District Network Specialist for Millard Public Schools, and Thresia, a stay-at-home mom, teach by example. Monday nights are solid family home nights reserved so that everyone can focus on enriching their spiritual lives through lessons, activities, songs, and prayer. The children are respectful and disciplined, big on sports, and genuinely focused on what they can do to help others.


Pastor Nathan and Tina Sherrill of Council Bluffs, Iowa are intentional role models for their children. Together, they worship, study, work, and play. Nathan is pastor of St. Paul’s Evangelical Lutheran Church, where he is an active promoter of Christian education and has helped establish an Early Childhood Center, Music Conservatory, Christ Academy, Camp Creation, and other opportunities. Tina has a degree in elementary education and homeschools three of their six children. Because of her natural love for both children and music, she also teaches 12 piano students, has accompanied church and school choirs, and teaches Sunday school. The oldest three children are piano students of their mother and perform in recitals and local music festivals, as well as with St. Paul’s Children’s Choir.



Patti Richardson of Omaha is all about kids. For 30 years, Patti has opened her arms to special needs foster children, adopting several of them. Ragina, 22, was born with Fetal Alcohol Syndrome, ADHD, and congenital heart disease; Wesley, 10, has ADHD after being exposed to methamphetamine before birth; Aidan, 7, has congenital heart disease and had open heart surgery at just 2 mos; Anahla, 5, had a liver, small bowel, and pancreas transplant when she was just a year old; and Lasia, 4, is the only adopted child with no health problems. She also has three biological children—William, Jeffery, and Mikayla—who share her pain in losing son Andrew to brain cancer. The family suffered a second loss with Corey, a shaken baby who Patti fostered at nine months and adopted at 3. While the family has had their share of misfortune, Patti believes the humor they share helps them work through the difficult times.


Chris and Nicole Shives of Council Bluffs, Iowa met at Iowa Western Community College, where she was a Certified Athletic Trainer and he was the Head Golf Coach. In 2008, an MRI revealed a lesion on the left side of Nicole’s brain. Over the next two years, Chris and Nicole married and had their first child, Jaxson—a pregnancy that required a C-section, a blood transfusion, and hospitalization for Nicole. In 2010, Nicole learned the tumor in her brain was a malignant cancer called anaplastic astrocytoma and began radiation therapy. Meanwhile, Nicole started a new career as a college instructor, obtained a second master’s degree, and kept up her duties as a full-time mother and wife. Chris left his job to be home with Nicole and eventually became a Corporate Events Director with the American Heart Association. Today, Nicole is cancer-free. She also gave birth to their second child, Ashlyn, in April 2012.



Joel and Felicia Rogers of Papillion have raised their family to value spiritual growth, family honor, commitment to excellence, heritage, and service to the country. They have seven children—Javin, Clifton, Blake, Darnell, Dwayne, Ryan, and Zoe. Joel is a veteran of the U.S. Marine Corps and now serves as Legislative Policy Analyst with U.S. Strategic Command at Offutt Air Force Base. Throughout his 28-year military career, he led outreach and volunteer efforts, earning numerous honors including the Military Outstanding Volunteer Service Medal. Currently, he volunteers with the Papillion Recreation Organization (PRO) and Toys for Tots. Felicia serves as the District Director for U.S. Congressman Lee Terry. She has been heavily involved with Wesley House Leadership Academy, Toys for Tots, Girls Clubs of Omaha, and she served as a 2nd Lieutenant with the 99th Pursuit Squadron of Civil Air Patrol.


Dave and Sheri Smith of Crescent, Iowa felt a calling to reach out to children of fatherless families. Together, they founded Trailblazers of the Heartland Ministry to defend the cause of the fatherless, inspiring hope for their family’s future that is rooted in everlasting love. Today, Trailblazers has programs tailored to all ages from newborns to seniors, involving more than 300 at-risk children and 170 families in building healthy, positive reciprocal relationships with each other. The Smiths and Trailblazers have received many awards and honors including the State of Iowa’s National Guard Family Program Community Award in 2011 and the Iowa Governor’s volunteer award in 2012. In addition to Trailblazers, Dave volunteers about 300 hours a year to the MICAH House homeless shelter, and Sheri has worked part-time for the Phoenix House domestic abuse shelter. All five children follow in their parents’ community service footsteps as well.



Dr. James and Nancy Armitage of Omaha have provided leadership in the Omaha community and contributed to the medical profession. Jim is an internationally renowned hematologist-oncologist with expertise in bone marrow transplantation and the management and classification of lymphoma. He is the Joe Shapiro Professor of Medicine at the University of Nebraska Medical Center, and received the Robert A. Kyle Award from the Mayo Clinic last year. Nancy practiced psychiatric and intensive care nursing until the demands of family and children took priority. Since then, she volunteered on local boards and committees for schools, churches, and nonprofits. The couple was honored as Samaritans of the Year by the Samaritan Counseling Center of the Midlands, and they currently serve as board members and trustees of several community organizations, including the University of Nebraska Medical Center Auxiliary and Faculty Wives Club, Munroe Meyer Institute Guild, and the Nature Conservancy of Nebraska.


Dan and Martha Peterson of Neola, Iowa own Peterson Angus Farms and have provided leadership to Southwest Iowa communities for more than a decade. Dan and Martha have supported Iowa Western Community College for almost a decade, serving on several boards and committees, chairing and co-chairing special events and projects, procuring auction items, working with youth, and hosting dinners in their home. In addition to IWCC, they are involved with the Council Bluffs Guild of the Omaha Symphony, Bluffs Arts Council, Alegent Charitable Council, Children’s Square, Visiting Nurse Association, and Heartland Family Service. Their children, Alexandra, Anna, Aiden, and Andrew, all belong to 4-H and incorporate the leadership qualities they learned from their parents in the own lives. The family also volunteers in Red Cross Blood Drives.


Salute to Families – Iowa will be held Nov. 14 at Mid-America Center (One Arena Way) in Council Bluffs from 6-8:30 p.m. $25 adults, $10 children. For more information, visit heartlandfamilyservice.org or call 712-435-5350.

Salute to Families – Nebraska will be held Nov. 21 at Happy Hollow Club (1701 S. 105th St.) in Omaha from 6-8:30 p.m. $45 adults, $15 children. For more information, visit heartlandfamilyservice.org or call 402-553-3000.

Getting Through the Emotional 
and Physical Challenges of Breast Cancer

September 24, 2013 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Even when it’s over, it’s not over, says one cancer survivor, who recently completed her treatment. The emotional turmoil and lingering fear of what’s going to happen next—Am I really cured? Will it come back?—continue to haunt many breast cancer survivors during and well beyond the treatment process.

The fear was so overwhelming for 39-year-old Melissa Holm that she decided to have a double mastectomy. This was despite her doctor’s assurance that the cancer cells were limited to her right breast and the chance of the cancer spreading to the other breast was very slim.

“I didn’t want to live with that fear for the rest of my life,” says Holm, a mother of two young girls and a boy. “I just wanted them to take everything and start from scratch. I know others who have had a lumpectomy, and they worry before every appointment. My diagnosis came after a year of watching. I didn’t want to continue that waiting game.”

“The number of women choosing double mastectomy over a lumpectomy has doubled from about 3 percent to nearly 6 percent over the last 10 years,” says Margaret Block, M.D., a medical oncologist at Nebraska Cancer Specialists. “We don’t really know why, but a lot of it may stem from the fear and anxiety following a cancer diagnosis.”

The fear and shock of a cancer diagnosis can be overwhelming, notes Patti Higginbotham, APRN, AOCN, nurse practitioner with the Alegent Creighton Health Breast Health Center. “The first thought of 90 percent of women is that they are going to die.”

Even after getting through the initial shock, women still have to endure another year or more of treatment, which may include surgery, chemotherapy, radiation therapy, and breast reconstructive surgery.

“The number of women choosing double mastectomy over a lumpectomy has doubled from about 3 percent to nearly 6 percent over the last 10 years.” – Margaret Block, M.D., medical oncologist, Nebraska Cancer Specialists

For Holm, dealing with the loss of her breasts and then her hair were two of the biggest emotional challenges during treatment. “You go through a period where you don’t even feel like a woman anymore,” she says.

Then, there was the constant fatigue, malaise, and missing out on her children’s events, like plays, basketball and volleyball games, and school meetings. “I slept a lot on the weekends following chemotherapy,” recalls Holm. “My children barely saw me the entire weekend. Thankfully, my husband was there to take charge of the kids, but still care for me. He was my rock.”

While a cancer diagnosis is never easy, there are several steps women can take to help ease the physical and emotional impact of a breast cancer diagnosis, cancer experts say.

One of the most important of these is the support of family and friends. “Women who try to do it alone usually don’t do as well physically or emotionally,” says Higginbotham. “Part of our makeup as women is that we need to talk about it. If you don’t have someone that you can lean on, we encourage women to seek support through a cancer support group, our social worker, nurse navigators, or other members of our staff. It’s also very important that you have a health care person you can connect with. If you don’t have that partnership, then maybe you have the wrong provider.”

“I couldn’t have made it without the support of family and friends,” notes Holm. “There is strength in numbers. They gave me strength through some of the most difficult times. I had to lean on so many people. I couldn’t have made it without all of their help.”

“Women who are informed and have the facts also do better and make better decisions,” says Block. “Faster is not always better. Once you get the diagnosis, you need to take some time to get through the initial shock and then ask questions and do some research. Otherwise, women tend to make decisions based on emotions rather than facts.”

“…we’ve found that physical activity will help with the emotional [and] the physical side effects.” – Patti Higginbotham, APRN, AOCN, nurse practitioner, Alegent Creighton Health Breast Health Center

“We encourage women to stay engaged throughout the entire process,” adds Higginbotham. “Ask a lot of questions, let us know if you are having side effects, ask what you can do for yourself, and seek support.”

Exercise, sleep, and good nutrition can also help with physical healing. “I remember the days when we suggested to women to take a leave of absence from work and to rest as much as they can,” says Higginbotham. “We’ve done a complete 360 since then. Now, we tell women to keep working if they want and to start exercising after surgery, as we’ve found that physical activity will help with the emotional [and] the physical side effects.”

Depression and anxiety are also “side effects” of breast cancer that should be discussed with your provider. “Women shouldn’t be afraid to seek additional help if they have a significant amount of depression and anxiety,” says Dr. Block.  “Sometimes, an anti-depressant can help a woman get through a really difficult time. While most women experience depression and anxiety following a cancer diagnosis, studies show that depression diminishes after treatment and recovery. Anxiety, however, can sometimes continue to linger.”

Life is getting back to normal for Holm. She completed breast reconstruction in late 2012 and says she is now focusing on turning her experience into a positive one by reaching out to others.

“I have volunteered to be a spokesperson for cancer survivors,” she says. “That regular interaction with other women and encouraging them to get mammograms or talking to women who are in the midst of treatment gives me strength.”

And she hopes to pass on some of that strength to others. “I’ve become a stronger person than I thought I was,” she says. “I have become more confident. I want to give other women hope—to let them know it isn’t easy, but you take one day at a time and count your blessings as you go.”

American Cancer Society

June 20, 2013 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Being “the official sponsor of birthdays” doesn’t mean the American Cancer Society shows up at parties to oversee the unwrapping of presents or the blowing out of candles on the cake. It’s a tougher sponsorship, one that requires copious amounts of fundraising, long-term research, and dedicated volunteers. Because they believe everyone deserves to have a full life without the looming threat of cancer.

“We are determined to make this cancer’s last century,” says Joy King, regional vice president of ACS in Omaha, who previously worked as a regional executive director in the Dallas/Fort Worth area. “We want to change the stats from two out of three people surviving today in the U.S. to three out of three surviving. As an organization, we have never been more ready to put the American Cancer Society out of business.”

The organization, which is currently celebrating its 100th anniversary, holds 47 Relay for Life events, two galas, and a breast cancer walk each year in Nebraska. Besides the events, ACS also supports several awareness campaigns and collaborative efforts, including Colon Cancer Awareness Month in March and the Great American Smoke Out each November.

“We are determined to make this cancer’s last century…As an organization, we have never been more ready to put the American Cancer Society out of business.” – Joy King, regional vice president

“We’ve played a role in nearly every cancer research breakthrough in recent history,” adds King. “Each year, we help cancer patients get the help they need when they need it. For example, last year alone, we assisted more than a million people who called us for help providing free services, like a place to stay while traveling for treatment, rides to treatments, emotional support, and so much more.”

King knows from years of working with ACS that silence and a sit-back-and-watch attitude don’t finish the fight against cancer—it’s action that accomplishes these breakthroughs.

Another person who understands the importance of action is cancer survivor Michelle Belsaas. She was 20 when she was diagnosed with thyroid cancer. “I thought cancer was an elderly person’s disease,” she says. “It came out of nowhere. There’s no known cause, so no one really knows how I got it. I was just reaching down to start the shower one day, and my neck cramped up…I went to the doctor, and he was like, ‘Oh, there’s a lump.’”

Belsaas had two cancerous nodules in her neck, but the doctor told her not to worry. After all, thyroid cancer is one of the lesser evils with about a 96 percent survival rate. “They took my thyroid out the next day, and then they gave me radioactive iodine to kill off the thyroid tissue.”

Although Belsaas didn’t need chemotherapy or lose her hair during her treatment, her thyroid cancer reared its ugly head once more about 10 years later while she was getting a check-up. This time, the treatment made her very sick and required her to be quarantined to a room in her home for weeks. “They had me withhold from foods with iodine for six weeks over Thanksgiving, which was really tough. You don’t realize how much food has iodine in it until you can’t eat it.”

“For once, I wasn’t alone. Knowing that there are people who go through the same thing and know how it feels to continually wait, it was like finding a family.” – Michelle Belsaas, cancer survivor

Today, Belsaas is 100 percent cancer-free. She still goes in for blood tests and ultrasounds every year to make sure her hormone therapy is regulated well—something that she will have to deal with for the rest of her life—but otherwise, everything is back to normal.

When she lived in Lincoln, Belsaas stumbled across Relay for Life. “I thought, ‘I’m a cancer survivor…let’s go!’” she says with a laugh. But when she did the survivor lap at her first Relay event, it suddenly dawned on her that what she had survived was a big deal. “I couldn’t emotionally handle it,” she says. “For once, I wasn’t alone. Knowing that there are people who go through the same thing and know how it feels to continually wait, it was like finding a family.” That’s when she decided ACS was the organization for her. She started getting more involved with ACS, volunteering her time and chairing events, like ACS’ newest fundraiser, Hope in the Heartland Gala.

This year’s Hope in the Heartland Gala takes place on July 19 at Stinson Park at Aksarben Village and is themed “An Evening at the Races.” In its first year, the event raised over $201,000. This year, ACS hopes to raise at least $300,000 through auctions, honorary luminaries, and more.

Connie Sullivan, who is chairing the gala alongside husband Tim and co-chairs Addie and Robert Hollingsworth, hopes to make this event the premier gala in Omaha. She says she can’t think of another charity that affects more people—both those suffering and those who know someone suffering.

Sullivan herself can attest to the effect cancer can have, as she lost both her parents to lung cancer in just three years’ time when she was in her early 20s. “I hadn’t ever been involved with anyone personally with cancer,” she says. “I was devastated. It happened so quickly between diagnosis and death.” Just when she thought it couldn’t get any worse, she lost her aunt and her cousin to cancer as well.

“It’s hard to say no to a cause that you believe in…I lost four significant people in my life to cancer, so I can’t think of anything else that I’d have more passion for.” – Connie Sullivan, chair of Hope in the Heartland Gala

Following the overwhelming grief of losing loved ones to cancer, Sullivan got involved with ACS. She and Tim lived in Lincoln at the time, but they helped out with a jazz festival event for ACS. “We just called and said that we’d like to volunteer, and we started going to meetings. I love the cause. It’s hard to say no to a cause that you believe in…I lost four significant people in my life to cancer, so I can’t think of anything else that I’d have more passion for.”

Since moving to Omaha, Sullivan and her husband have only gotten more involved with ACS. “ACS does so many good things for people with cancer…Diagnosis is overwhelming. [ACS] is there to help.”

The American Cancer Society Omaha will host its annual Hope in the Heartland Gala on July 19 at Stinson Park at Aksarben Village. For more information, visit cancer.org or call 402-393-5800.