Karin Sonneman



by Karin Sonneman, Winona County Attorney

For someone not used to sitting still, breast cancer decided I needed a long break from work. On October 1, my right breast was amputated. It was a fitting start to October’s National Breast Cancer Awareness Month. October is over, but the fight against breast cancer is never ending. The statistics are sobering:

• “One in eight women in the U. S. are diagnosed with breast cancer in their lifetime. In the U.S. in 2021, an estimated 281,550 new cases of invasive breast cancer will be diagnosed in women and an estimated 43,600 women will die from the disease. Although rare, men get breast cancer too. An estimated 2,650 men will be diagnosed with breast cancer in 2021 in the U.S. and approximately 530 will die,” according to the National Breast Cancer Foundation.

Getting breast cancer was one of my greatest fears. My identical twin sister was diagnosed with the disease 14 years ago and is a survivor. Twenty-three years ago, our mother was diagnosed with breast cancer. She valiantly fought it for two years until it killed her at age 67. She was a vibrant, keenly intelligent, and thoughtful person. Even before Mom died, I had done everything one should do to prevent getting breast cancer. I started my annual mammogram screenings at age 35. I do not smoke or drink alcohol. Well before my diagnosis, I had lost weight and exercised daily. 

I used the word “amputated” earlier because that’s what happened. My right breast was cut off, just like millions of women (and men) before me have gone through to save their lives. It was a disease so feared that for over a thousand years, women (most without the benefit of anesthesia) have been “willing to endure a mastectomy to banish breast cancer from their bodies” — quoting from Kate Pickert’s “Radical: The Science, Culture, and History of Breast Cancer in America.”

I mourn the loss of my right breast. I breast fed my children when they were newborns. Breasts are an important part of a woman’s sexual being and sense of herself. Among many things (and people) that have helped me move forward from the loss are two things that might strike one as odd: that mythological Amazon women warriors have only one breast because it’s easier to shoot an arrow; and there are artistic mastectomy tattoos I could get to cover up my lengthy scar. I am, literally and figuratively, a warrior, having been born under the astrological sign of Aries, the warrior. I was a warrior for the common good before breast cancer, and I will continue to be so going into 2022 when I run for County Attorney again. Now, I’m also warrior in my fight against breast cancer, and on behalf of others. 

You may wonder why I am being so public about my breast cancer experience. Like Minnesota’s U.S. Senator Amy Klobuchar, who recently disclosed her breast cancer diagnosis, it’s also important to me, as an elected official, to raise awareness of this disease that affects so many. I encourage every woman to get an annual mammogram and do self-exams on a regular basis. Early detection, diagnosis, and treatment of breast cancer can save lives. 

But I am also speaking up about my own breast cancer journey because I experienced first-hand, just like many others have, the frustrating delays in getting medical treatment for non-COVID-19, life-threatening medical conditions during the COVID-19 pandemic. I’ll call it the “COVID effect.” When told I had breast cancer, I just wanted to get the damn tumor out as soon as possible. But I had to wait over two months for my mastectomy surgery because so many women (and probably some men) were also suffering from breast cancer and were ahead of me in line for surgery. 

Staff at Mayo’s Breast Clinic told me that breast cancer patient numbers were among the highest they had seen in years. The reason, they speculated, was because people put off medical screening during COVID. Exacerbating the situation was that the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, like almost every hospital in Minnesota, was pushed to capacity caring for COVID patients and strained by COVID affected staff shortages.

The COVID effect delaying my surgery was very real to me. At the time of my diagnosis in July I was told that my lymph nodes appeared to be clear of cancer based on ultrasound images. After waiting in line for my surgery over two months, three of my six sentinel lymph nodes removed during surgery contained cancer. Thirty-two other lymph nodes removed were cancer-free. For breast cancer staging purposes, the COVID effect delaying my surgery may have moved me from Stage 1 or 2 cancer to Stage 3A and may have increased my breast cancer recurrence risk from 1 percent to 14 percent over the next 5 to 10 years. 

Another COVID effect I experienced was being sent home the same day I had my mastectomy, which is major surgery, and usually requires one or two days in the hospital. According to one of the staff I talked with after my surgery, the COVID effect led to a protocol change at Mayo for post-mastectomy patients. Mayo now sends patients home on the same day of mastectomy surgery if the patient is stable, thus freeing up a surgical bed for another patient. My surgery started at 6:30 a.m. I left the hospital heading home to Winona almost 12 hours later. In one sense, I was glad I was stable enough to be sent home. I have done well in my recovery, but I worry about individuals sent home the same day of surgery who do not have the great care team of family and friends like I had in those critical days after surgery. 

My breast cancer journey from diagnosis to surgery and post-surgery recuperation has been a first-person observation of the COVID effect straining our state’s hospitals, medical facilities, and resources, where over 90 percent of hospitalized COVID patients are unvaccinated individuals, according to the Minnesota Department of Health.

The result is that people at risk of experiencing more serious consequences of non-COVID medical conditions, such as cancer and heart diseases, that benefit from early intervention with medical procedures that only hospitals can provide, face delays with potentially deadly consequences — delays that would be so unnecessary if everyone who is medically able to do so gets vaccinated and wears a mask indoors, in public places. 

We, in Greater Minnesota, are blessed to live here, but we are not immune from the COVID effect. It was reported in the Star Tribune on October 23, 2021, an 87-year-old Hallock, Minn., man went to his hometown hospital with severe gastrointestinal bleeding and COVID-19. A search for space for him in a larger facility was unsuccessful because COVID had driven the space in other centers to capacity. He waited two days for an ICU bed while his bleeding exhausted his local hospital’s blood supply. He died waiting for that hospital bed.

As of the date I finish this writing, November 11, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) COVID Data Tracker, the entire state of Minnesota, including Winona County, is designated in high transmission of COVID status. Winona County’s positivity rate is 12.05 percent. “Unvaccinated people had a 6.1 times greater risk of testing positive for COVID-19, and an 11.3 times greater risk of dying from the disease. All COVID-19 vaccines currently available in the United States are effective at preventing COVID-19 as seen in clinical trial settings. So far, studies show that COVID-19 vaccines reduce the risk of COVID-19, especially severe illness, among people who are fully vaccinated,” according to CDC. 

I have received all three COVID vaccine shots, including the recently available booster shot, from the Winona County Public Health clinic. In addition to the Public Health clinics, COVID vaccine is readily available in our community from local medical facilities and pharmacies. Getting a COVID vaccination, social distancing, and wearing a mask indoors in public places are mitigation measures that work. COVID infection rates went up in the U. S., particularly in low vaccination areas, when mask and social distancing measures were relaxed.

So please, for the sake of those of us who are immunocompromised, for the public health of our community at large, and especially for yourself, and your family and friends, if you are not medically prohibited from doing so, get the COVID and flu vaccines. Wear your mask in public indoor settings. Practice social distancing. Save lives by doing so. 

This breast cancer patient and, I am sure, all my fellow breast cancer warriors will thank you for your unselfish act of taking these public health measures to protect your entire community. 


Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this writing are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Winona County Board, or the views of any of the other Winona County elected officials, or any other Winona County departments and staff.