'For Better, for Worse, in Sickness and in Health'

How Laura and Kurt Hagemann helped each other face breast cancer

On a summer night in 1981, Laura and Kurt met on a blind date at a jazz club in Chicago. They instantly hit it off and were married the next November.

The couple would spend the following years traveling around the country — one of their common interests.

That was far from the only thing they would have in common.

Laura with breast cancer

After getting a mammogram in 2008, Laura needed another one for better imaging and a biopsy, which she got at RUSH University Medical Center.

 “I get my mammogram every year,” says Laura, who was 50. “But I didn’t have breast cancer in my family, I was healthy and wasn’t experiencing any symptoms, so I wasn’t worried.”

A few days later, Laura learned she had stage three cancer in her left breast.

“I was so upset and started crying,” Laura says. “That phone call was the darkest part of this whole experience.”

RUSH stepped in to help

Laura turned to breast surgeon Thomas Witt, MD, who recommended surgery.

“Kurt helped me get all the tests I needed to be approved for surgery like blood work, a nuclear test and a chest X-ray,” Laura says.

Within three days, Laura was cleared for surgery, where Witt performed a lumpectomy — a surgical procedure to remove cancer or other abnormal tissue from the breast.

After the surgery, medical oncologist Ruta Rao, MD, recommended a full course of treatment — including chemotherapy and radiation.

“The team at RUSH went through every step and the potential side effects, so I knew what to expect,” Laura says. “They really made me feel comfortable and not afraid anymore.”

When Laura experienced some of those side effects — including hair loss — Kurt, his brother-in-law and two nephews shaved their heads as a surprise on Christmas Eve.

“She’s pretty tough, and it brought a smile to her face,” Kurt says.

Laura has now been cancer free for 13 years. “I am very pleased with the outcome,” she adds.

A setback

In the summer of 2018, Kurt noticed a pain in the left side of his chest.

 “I was taking a shower and was washing around the nipple area and realized it hurt,” says Kurt, who was 63. “I thought maybe I bumped it, but then I could feel that a lump was there.”

Laura urged Kurt to get it checked out, and he made an appointment at RUSH Oak Park Hospital, where he got a mammogram and a biopsy.

A few days later, Kurt learned he had stage two breast cancer.

 “The phone call came out of the blue — it was all surreal,” Kurt says. “Having breast cancer was the last thing I expected.”

Kurt with breast cancer

Although breast cancer is most often found in women, about 1 out of every 100 breast cancers diagnosed in the United States are in men.

 “I was very self-conscious about my diagnosis at first, but I got over it quickly,” Kurt says. “It doesn't take away from your masculinity at all.”

Kurt met with a surgical oncologist, who performed a mastectomy — the surgical removal of one or both breasts — on Kurt’s left and later his right breast.

After Kurt’s successful surgeries, he was reunited with Rao to coordinate his own chemotherapy and radiation treatments.

 “I didn’t realize that 10 years later Dr. Rao was also going to be my oncologist, but it gave me comfort since I knew her,” Kurt says.

Kurt and Laura Hagemann with Ruta Rao, MD

A key part of managing the side effects of cancer treatments is staying hydrated — something Laura knew well.

“If I didn't think Kurt was drinking enough,” Laura says, “I'd put a glass of water in front of him and say, ‘You have to drink this — it’s so important.’”

Kurt has now been cancer free for four years.

 ‘For better, for worse, in sickness and in health’

In November, Laura and Kurt will celebrate 40 years of marriage.

“We really took for better or worse seriously,” Laura says. “We were always there to support each other. I think this whole experience made us stronger.”

And in Rao’s 17 years of practicing medicine, Laura and Kurt are the first married couple she has treated for breast cancer.

“They were definitely caregivers and very supportive of each other’s journeys,” she says. “Everyone deals with cancer differently, but for Laura and Kurt, they were willing to face it head on — they took it all in stride.”

As survivors of breast cancer, Laura and Kurt send this joint message to others:

“If you don't feel well, don't hesitate,” they say. “It's really important to pay attention to your body, remember to keep up with your screenings and reach out if you experience any symptoms — it saved our lives.”

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