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A Journey Through Cancer

15th annual Heart Ball to benefit Mammography at BGH By Patty Hutchens, Bonner General Health Foundation | Photo Courtesy of Cassie Watters

Sandpoint resident Cassie Watters was living her dream. At the age of 34, she was a young mother to 2-year-old Granger and enjoying life with her precious son. But that all changed in an instant with a cancer diagnosis.

"I felt a lump when I was breastfeeding and sought the advice of the lactation consultant at the pediatrician's office," explained Watters. "We decided that it was a clogged milk duct, and I became all consumed in being a mom and forgot about it. This was in January of 2020.”

One year later, Watters had open-heart surgery to repair a valve that had been damaged during her pregnancy. While recovering, the lump in her breast became more prominent, so Sandpoint Women’s Health ordered a mammogram, which revealed a tumor.

Everything moved quickly forward to her diagnosis of stage 4 metastatic breast cancer that had metastasized to her bones and liver.

Watters' initial treatment involved six rounds of chemotherapy. Afterward, her scans showed no evidence of active disease in her breast or in her bones and liver, where it had metastasized. Then, approximately six weeks later, Watters began to experience headaches. Her oncologist immediately ordered an MRI of Watters’ brain, which revealed four tumors—one very close to her right optic nerve.

“Five days later, I was at Lovelace Hospital in Albuquerque, New Mexico, receiving gamma knife surgery. It was an in-and-out procedure, and I was hiking the next day,” said Watters, who credits Hannah Badger of Sandpoint Women's Health for the transition to New Mexico. “Without her, I truly would be suffering.”

She recently began a new treatment that is known to permeate the brain. "I will have a follow-up MRI soon to see how the surgery went and how my tumors have responded to this new treatment," said Watters.

While Watters’ paternal grandmother died of breast cancer at the age of 47, Watters does not carry the BRCA gene—a gene mutation that puts people at a higher risk of developing breast or ovarian cancer.

Watters expressed her gratitude to Sandpoint Women’s Health and the urgency with which they responded to her symptoms. The day after her appointment, she was able to have her mammogram and was scheduled for a biopsy a few days later.

“The schedule was very busy, but the staff at Sandpoint Women’s Health advocated for me to get in immediately. If it wasn’t for their staff, who knows how much more the cancer would have spread,” said Watters.

Unfortunately, not everyone can obtain their mammogram at Bonner General Health so promptly.

"Due to our population growth, there are unfulfilled screening mammogram orders in our system. This means there is likely undiagnosed breast cancer in our community,” said Daniel Holland, Director of Diagnostic Imaging at Bonner General Health.

Bonner General Health Foundation is hoping to change all that. The Foundation’s 15th Annual Heart Ball’s primary focus is to raise funds for an additional mammogram machine, which will allow the Diagnostic Imaging department to perform 20 additional mammograms each day.

“The addition of a new mammography machine will decrease wait times and increase capacity for both screening and diagnostic mammograms, which will result in lives saved,” said Holland.

This year’s Heart Ball will be held on February 4, and the Board is thrilled to announce that it will be in person this year at the Bonner County Fairgrounds. It's an elegant evening with a gourmet dinner served by Pack River Store, dancing, and amazing auction items.

“We had an amazing two years hosting the Heart Ball virtually, but everyone is eager to gather together again and celebrate our 15th annual Heart Ball,” said Board Member and Heart Ball Chair Georgia Simmons.

This year's auction items have something for everyone including, but not limited to, international travel, family adventures, and staycations.

The dessert auction has always been a highlight of the night, with tables bidding on the various desserts offered by local restaurants and individuals who donate their culinary skills to create delectable sweets.

There are several opportunities to participate in and support the 15th annual Heart Ball. Businesses and individuals can purchase a table of eight or a table of 10. There are also various sponsorship opportunities available.

“We have people who have stepped forward and would like to have their sponsorship be in memory or in honor of a loved one who had breast cancer. It’s a wonderful way to honor someone,” said Molly Behrens, Community Development and Foundation Specialist for Bonner General Health.

The Bonner General Health Foundation Board of Trustees is comprised of a cross-section of various community members whose goal is to ensure exceptional health care for all of Bonner County's citizens and visitors.

“As a foundation, we strive to build meaningful connections and be a liaison between the hospital and the community, sharing updates, triumphs, and challenges,” said Behrens. “We are storytellers of the care and compassion illustrated daily at Bonner General Health.”

Unlike other nonprofits, whose boards are involved in the day-to-day operations of a business, the function of the Bonner General Health Foundation Board is to raise money to enhance the patients’ experiences. Since its revival 15 years ago, the Foundation, with the incredible support of the community, has raised over $1.4 million for Bonner General Health.

“The generosity of our donors has led the way to creating healthier futures for our patients and community. These individuals understand the importance and uniqueness of our hometown hospital,” said Behrens. “The excellent care given inside our doors would not be possible without their support.”

Cassie Watters is also grateful for the community support she has received in her ongoing journey. She received her cancer care at Kootenai Health's Clinic, located at Bonner General Health, and said everyone was amazing. "The nurses are angels," she said, adding that everyone from the scheduling department to the social workers were instrumental in her getting to where she is today.

In all that she has been through, Watters has also found time to give back to her community. As the treasurer of Community Cancer Services, a local nonprofit that assists cancer patients with financial and emotional needs, she has found a fellowship of women and men that support her.

“Being involved in a program like this helps me take the focus off my struggles and toward helping such a great community,” said Watters. “I enjoy the challenges of the position, fundraising where I can, and contributing to events.”

She urges others to advocate for their health and says mammograms are essential to detect this horrific disease.

“I was a busy mom with 10,000 things to think and worry about, and if I had put myself a little higher on that list, maybe cancer would be in my past,” said Watters. “It is essential to prioritize your own health; no one else will do that for you. As a young woman, I believe it is even more important. Breast cancer does not care how old you are, what your finances are like, or who you are taking care of. It's up to you to be an advocate for yourself.”

She goes on to say that what she has learned about cancer and life is not about medicine, science, or technology. It has also taught her a lot about people.

“Some people are scared of cancer and run away. I've lost a lot of friends through this process, but so many people have resurfaced in my life to fill those holes,” said Watters. “So many new people have come alongside me to support, pray, and laugh with me. Cancer is really about the journey and the community that comes around you. It's a beautiful thing to know you are prayed for and thought of when everything in life hurts.”

To learn more about the 15th annual Heart Ball and the Bonner General Health Foundation, go to BonnerGeneral.org/Foundation. You may also contact Molly Behrens at 208.265.1005 or email her at molly.behrens@bonnergeneral.org.


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