When Mary Jo Buettner was diagnosed with stage II breast cancer, one of her biggest worries was the kids.
Not her own children. They were old enough to understand. But what about the 100-some young boys in the Land of Lakes Choirboys based out of Nowthen? How do you tell them? How do you tell their families?
“I just didn’t want it to be weird for the kids,” said Buettner, 56, who readily removes her brown, chin-length wig, revealing a new growth of gray hairs – hair she lost to chemotherapy.
Buettner, the choirs’ administrative assistant since 1999, decided to send word to the boys’ families by email. Doctors had caught the cancer early. It’s stage II. All is good, she wrote.
She was ‘blown away’
Music had always been an important part of Buettner’s life, but never did she expect the outpouring of support that she has received from a special group of young men who are helping her get through a major struggle.
When the Land of Lakes Choirboys (LLCB) learned that their beloved Buettner was diagnosed with breast cancer, they decided to rally behind her – with pink T-shirts, the international color for breast cancer awareness.
“I was blown away,” Buettner said. “I didn’t expect it. It was a total surprise. I was just dumbfounded.”
The boys usually switch the color of their T-shirts every year for choir camp. But last summer, P.J. Fanberg, executive director of LLCB, told Buettner to order green T-shirts.
“We just did dark green last year,” Buettner thought. Still, she went ahead with Fanberg’s request.
When she picked up the order from the printer, she found pink T-shirts awaiting her. The conversation went something like this:
“Here’s your T-shirts,” Wanda Storie, the owner of Ink Wizards in Elk River, told her.
“These aren’t our shirts. You must have the wrong order.”
“Nope. These are for you.”
Buettner was taken aback.
“Never did I dream they were going to be pink shirts,” she said. “I was in such shock when I saw them.”
Fanberg speaks of Buettner as someone who puts others first.
Her longevity with the choir keeps her connected with not only the boys, she also stays in touch with their families and families of choir alumni. If someone dies, Buettner is the first to send flowers and pass around a sympathy card for signatures, Fanberg said.
“She’s definitely the mother of the organization,” he said. “We call her the hub. We’re all spokes, but she’s the hub of the organization.”
Not only has Buettner received comfort from the boys in her health journey, the choir parents have been equally supportive. Seven of her women friends, whose kids have sung in the choir over the years, chipped in and bought her the brown wig she wears while her hair grows back.
Pink shirts for Buettner
This year marks the 20th anniversary of the LLCB’s summer camp held at Timber Bay in Onamia. About 120 of the boys, including adult staffers, received their T-shirts in August at the camp to mark the occasion and to support Buettner.
The words “Land of Lakes Choirboys” are printed across the top of the shirt. “Celebrating 20 years” on the bottom. The pale pink shirts feature a bright pink sun, created out of adjoining pink ribbon breast cancer symbols. The sun is shining down on a cabin and pine trees. Bright pink music notes adorn the quaint nature scene. The picture is enclosed by a bright pink border.
The last day of camp, the boys dressed in pink solidarity to make a statement about breast cancer and their friend Mary Jo, performed a 20-minute concert for families and friends.
Now that camp is over the boys continue to wear the shirts to school and to rehearsals.
“They wear them all the time,” Buettner said.
Choir member Sam Strub, 10, not only thought the idea of pink T-shirts was “pretty cool,” he went as far as having his braces fitted with green and pink rubber bands. Green for the Green Bay Packers and pink for Buettner.
“I thought she’d like that,” he said.
When Sam’s parents, Julie and Rick Strub, first heard the boys were getting pink T-shirts, they wondered how they would react to a color, well, usually associated with girls. Perhaps, they would be adverse to the idea.
“But when they found out it was for Mary Jo, they all thought it was super cool. They all thought it was great,” said Julie, who has known Buettner for eight years, ever since her son Jack,13, joined the prep choir.
In fact, three of the men in the Strub family, Rick who volunteered as a camp counselor, Sam and Jack all have pink T-shirts in support of Buettner.
“The response has been awesome,” Fanberg said about the color of the shirts. “The boys just love them. I don’t think I heard a negative thing about it.”
She had annual checkups
There is no history of breast cancer in Buettner’s family.
In January 2012, Buettner was diagnosed with invasive ductal carcinoma. She had religiously gone for her annual mammogram checkups. Her last one before the diagnosis was July 2011.
But six months later when she felt pain in her right shoulder, she reached up to massage the area and felt a lump, about one-quarter of an inch in diameter in her right breast.
She consulted with her doctor and underwent a second mammogram, which didn’t reveal a tumor either. The tumor did, however, show up in a subsequent ultrasound. A biopsy was ordered.
The results came in HER2 (human epidermal growth factor receptor-2) positive, an aggressive form of breast cancer, according to Buettner.
“I didn’t freak out or anything,” Buettner said about her diagnosis. “I had a feeling when I went in for the biopsy, it was cancer. It was a devastating bit of information, but I never felt like, ‘oh, my God, I’m going to die.’”
Buettner next underwent a lumpectomy at Maple Grove Hospital on an outpatient basis.
The operation was followed by three rounds of chemotherapy and seven weeks of radiation therapy every day, for five days a week. She was supposed to have six chemo treatments, but she felt too sick from the side effects to continue, she said.
Buettner started the chemo treatments May. Her last radiation treatment was in June.
She now has a port implanted in her chest to deliver medicine to her body. Buettner, a resident of Elk River, makes her way to Monticello Cancer Center every three weeks where Herceptin, breast cancer therapy, is administered through the port.
She is thankful for the port, which will be removed next April. Without it, she compared the poking of needles into veins somewhat similar to a “pin cushion” effect.
In April 2013, she will be finished with her treatments.
“I feel great,” Buettner said last week about her health. At this time her energy level is at about 75 percent of what it was, but her doctors assure her it could take up to a year to “feel normal” again, Buettner said.
She will continue to see her doctor every four to six months for the first few years. After that, once a year.
This is Buettner’s second bout with cancer. She was diagnosed with thyroid cancer in 1989. Her thyroid was removed and she underwent one round of radiation. She was pronounced cancer free in the same year.
A different lens
After undergoing treatment for breast cancer, Buettner now looks at life through a different lens. The experience has brought her closer to her husband, Dane. She realizes the importance of life, one that is too quickly passing by, she said.
“I’ve learned that friends are so important as I’ve gotten older,” she said. “Girl friends especially, but I have a lot of guy friends, too.”
Buettner has a message for anyone who will listen.
“Make sure you do your self-breast exams,” she says. “Who knows: That (tumor) could have been there six months ago. It was just my luck that I found it.”
When Buettner showed up the last day of choir camp wearing her pink T-shirt, the boys, dressed in their matching shirts, excitedly surrounded her. They gave her hugs. They asked her to autograph their shirts.
“It was very, very sweet,” Buettner said.
Elyse Kaner is at [email protected]