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Her saving grace: Dahlheimer credits husband, doctors for support 43 years ago

Patti Dahlheimer of Alexandria, one of this year's Relay for Life honorary survivors, has participated in many Relays in the past. She is a 43-year cervical cancer survivor. (Echo Press file photo) 1 / 2
Patti Dahlheimer2 / 2

While working as a nurse at an Anoka clinic, Patti Dahlheimer began losing a lot of weight. The problem was she wasn't trying to lose weight, and she also felt sluggish.

"I just didn't feel like myself," said the 70-year-old from Alexandria who is one of two honorary survivors at this year's Relay for Life.

Dahlheimer, who was only in her late 20s, told her doctor how she was feeling and after several tests, she was diagnosed with cervical cancer. She had no other symptoms, but said she just knew something wasn't right.

That was in 1975, a time when insurance companies could drop clients based on their diagnoses.

"I worked for some doctors and that was my saving grace," the 43-year cancer survivor said last week.

Dahlheimer explained that the doctors at the clinic where she worked changed insurance companies because of it. Then the doctors helped pay for her medical expenses.

"Congress eventually passed a law where insurance companies can't drop patients based on their medical condition," she said.

Before Dahlheimer could have surgery, she had to go through a medical process that helped to build her body back up so it could handle the surgery. She had a complete hysterectomy and her lymph nodes were checked. They came back clear, eliminating the need for chemotherapy treatments or radiation.

"It was because of the early detection and because I listened to my body and knew there was something wrong," she said. Dahlheimer stressed the need for yearly exams and for paying attention to body signs and pushing for doctors to figure out what's wrong.

For three years following her diagnosis, Dahlheimer would get checkups every three months. Eventually, the checkups went to once per year.

"Every year when the time comes in the fall, I think, 'Is this another year?' "she said. "It's kind of like I stop and pinch myself that I am still here."

Her guardian angel

When Dahlheimer was diagnosed with cervical cancer, she thought it was the end of the world.

"That word is poison. It is the scariest word on the planet," she said. "I thought I was going to die. But I had Bob and he was my positive."

At the time of her diagnosis, Patti had been dating Bob Dahlheimer, a divorced man with two young children.

"Had I not met Bob, I would have said, 'To hell with it,' " she said. "But he was my guardian angel. He made me want to live. I realized that when people are going through this, they have to fight, fight, fight!"

Patti and Bob have now been married for 41 years.

"It was a trying and challenging time," Bob said. "But I knew she needed support and I was ready to back her up."

Patti said she didn't have any children of her own and didn't live by any of her family members. Bob, she said, was her life and she is thankful she had him.

Patti praised the doctors for the way they treated Bob, even though they weren't married at the time. She said there wasn't a privacy act at that time, so Bob was allowed to know everything. He said it was "very comforting" to know what was going on with the woman he loved.

Although Patti had no children of her own, she said her stepsons were a gift.

"It's gone full circle and now, because of Bob and his boys, I am a great-grandma," she said, noting that she has three grandchildren and four great-grandchildren.

Part of a study

Dahlheimer said her mother was in her mid-40s when she became pregnant.

"My mom was in menopause and because of this, she was given a drug so she wouldn't lose me," Patti said. "The drug was experimental."

After Patti's cancer diagnosis, she was entered into a study through the University of Minnesota.

Through that study, she said, it was determined that the drug is what caused her cancer. Men and women who had cancer in their reproductive organs all had one thing in common: their mothers had been given the same drug.

"Everything made sense," she said. "Because of the medications given to mothers so they wouldn't lose their babies, those children, the offspring, ended up with cancer."

When Dahlheimer learned of this information, she decided to keep it a secret from her mother. She didn't want her mom to feel guilty. In fact, Patti said her mother, who has since passed away, never even knew that her daughter had cancer.

"I didn't want her to be told. I didn't want her to worry," Dahlheimer said.

Relay for Life

Patti and Bob have been participating in the Relay for Life event for years, but this year will be different. Patti is one of two honorary survivors and will share her story the night of the event.

That came about when Lorene Pitcher, the lead organizer for the Relay for Life of Douglas County, called the Dahlheimers, who are members of the Alexandria Evening Lions. She wanted to know if the Lions Club building at the fairgrounds could be used on July 13 for the Relay event.

While they were talking, Pitcher learned that Dahlheimer was a cancer survivor of more than 40 years, and asked Patti if she would be one of the honorary survivors.

"I didn't know if I wanted to, but she talked me into it," said Dahlheimer, who added that she considers it an honor to be a part of the event.

She said the Relay for Life brings hope to people, and shows people that everybody's bodies are different and act differently with different cancers.

Dahlheimer also shared advice for those who are not dealing with cancer.

"When you see someone, someone with a bald head who is going through cancer, give them a hug, ask them how they are doing, ask them how long they've been fighting," she said. "Make time for them. Make them feel like they want to live, (because) they might not have someone.

"Be somebody's positive."

Celeste Edenloff

Celeste is a reporter for the Alexandria Echo Press and has lived in the Alexandria Lakes Area since 1997. She first worked for the Echo Press as a reporter from 1999 to 2011, and returned in June 2016 to report on the community she calls home. Besides writing articles for the Echo Press, she has a blog, “Newspaper Girl on the Run.” Celeste is on a continuous healthy living journey and loves to teach bootcamp fitness classes and run. She has participated in more than 200 races with her husband, Al, covering the 5K, 10K, 10-mile and half-marathon (13.1 mile) distances.

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