For Penny Kuntz, 37, of Circle, Montana, family means everything. She spends most days as an insurance agent with Circle Insurance Agency in eastern Montana, where she has enjoyed working for the past seven years. When she arrives home after a busy day, she is greeted by her loving husband, two daughters, and four energetic dogs. This is a routine that she has grown accustomed to.
Kuntz’s way of life took a turn in early 2019, though, when she found out that she had been diagnosed with breast cancer at the age of 36. After losing a considerable amount of weight from a healthy lifestyle change, Penny began to notice a mysterious lump that appeared as the size of a nickel on her breast. Fortunately, she got the lump checked within a few days, but the wait for results felt like much longer. She was diagnosed with breast cancer in April of 2019 -- a day that she will never forget.
“I think about that day all the time,” Kuntz said. “I was at a track meet cheering for my daughter during one of her races. That’s when I got the call.”
Kuntz took the news head on and immediately began treatment. After her diagnosis, her first treatment took place at the SCL Health Cancer Centers of Montana - St. Vincent Healthcare, in Billings. Following this, she began a long process of treatment at Holy Rosary Healthcare in its Infusion Center.
Penny’s treatment and breast cancer journey is much different than that of most patients. She was diagnosed as HER-2 positive. HER-2 represents the protein human epidermal growth factor receptor 2. This protein, when activated, promotes cell growth. Individuals with HER-2 positive breast cancer harbor an overexpression of the HER-2 gene and thus extra growth factor receptors located on the cancer cells. This excess receptor promotes an increase in cell growth and division.
Following her diagnosis, she required a year-long chemotherapy treatment. She did six rounds of this, three weeks of radiation, and did a year-long treatment of Herceptin, a therapeutic agent that targets the HER-2 protein and reduces the recurrence rates following treatment. Much of her additional treatment was done virtually through the telemedicine program with Dr. Troy Fiddler, who was located in Billings.
“Because you live in rural Montana and you know that it takes a long time to drive anywhere else, telemedicine is a great option,” Kuntz said. “I was able to ask Dr. Fiddler anything I needed to ask and still receive a high level of care, even digitally. It works wonderfully.”
Kuntz’s experience with Dr. Fiddler and the telemedicine program complements the care that was provided in person at Holy Rosary, in that the nurses made the process seamless. Because of this quality of care, she will continue to receive treatment with the hospital.
“The nurses were right there with me and were always willing to help,” said Kuntz. “They became family and Miles City became my second home. I wasn’t just a number and they knew me by name. They were always super gentle and cared about my well being, always being sure to answer questions as best as they could.”
Keeping care close to home is a priority at Holy Rosary Healthcare. Our breast care centers offer comprehensive resources for breast health and direct access to a wide variety of resources and programs if you are high risk or are diagnosed with cancer. Together you and your family doctor can decide what’s best for you.
“For many women, it's simply easier to not get regular mammograms, and we understand that,” said Dr, Troy Fiddler, Oncologist. “For some, it's because they're too busy or unsure if they're even due for a mammogram. Others may be concerned about the discomfort of getting a mammogram or the cost of the procedure. While it may be easier to put it out of mind, we want to encourage you to take this important step for the sake of yourself and your loved ones.”
Mammograms not only detect changes in a woman’s breast health well before an abnormal mass can be felt, they also greatly improve breast cancer survival rates. In fact, the average five-year survival rate for women is 98% when breast cancer is detected in its earliest stages. In addition to these benefits, mammography and early detection lower the need for extensive, late-stage breast cancer treatments and allow for improved breast conservation should surgery be required.
“Mammograms are very important, and so are self-checkups. It takes a minimal amount of time and it's nearly painless. Had I not caught this, my story would have been a lot different,” Kuntz said.“Deep down, there were days that I wanted to give up, but when I looked at my little girls, I knew I needed to fight harder.”
Kuntz had another mammogram in June of this year and the results came back negative. She is now awaiting her second scan, which she is hopeful comes back negative once again.
Fortunately, when breast cancer is found early, this disease is highly treatable. Getting a mammogram is a key to early detection.
To schedule your mammogram or learn more about the mammography services that Holy Rosary offers, visit hrh-mt.org/mammography.
Photo Credit: Hayley Heser Pawlowski