“It taught me to love and appreciate more, to give more, and not to let fear control me and to believe I can do hard things,” said Stacy Fousek.
Struggling to conceive her second child after having one with the help of fertility medications three years prior, paperwork from Fousek’s fertility doctor prompted her to perform a self-breast exam in 2014.
“I was 29, so I never really had, but I did a self-check right there in the kitchen that very moment,” she said.
Initially, Fousek chalked the hard, moveable lump that she estimates was five millimeters up to hormones and continued with her family’s plans to vacation in Florida. Thoughts of the lump were on her mind the entire time, however, and she called her gynecologist’s office on her way home on Feb. 10, 2014. The nurse there said she was sure there was nothing to worry about, but Fousek scheduled an appointment with a nurse practitioner at Avera St. Benedict Health Center in Parkston for later that day anyway.
“You could just read it in her face,” Fousek recalled, adding that the reaction of the physician who was called into the room was the same.
An ultrasound-guided biopsy was scheduled for Feb. 12, and Fousek received a call Feb. 13 that she needed to come to the clinic. A surgeon at the Avera Cancer Institute in Sioux Falls diagnosed Fousek with stage 2B triple-negative ductal carcinoma, grade 3, and gave her a 50-percent chance of survival with treatment.
“It was kind of a blur, because it happened so fast,” she said. “They said that, if I would have waited six more months, it would have been all over, because it was … the most aggressive type.”
As she entered into what would become a 13-month journey of 16 infusions with four chemotherapy drugs, 34 blasts with radiation, a double mastectomy and breast reconstruction surgery, Fousek was angry.
“I had a three-year-old I wanted to see grow up and get married. I wanted to be a grandma. You kind of see all of that disappear in those first couple of weeks (and you wonder), ‘Am I going to make it? Will my son have a mom?’” she said. “It’s hard to relive it.”
But a desire to see her son, Brody, grow up, and the feeling that the tumor was shrinking as her body was flooded with cancer-killing drugs, changed her mindset. About a month into treatment, Fousek decided to take an active role in her fight.
“I really think our energy affects our physical health. I don’t think you could go through treatment without a positive attitude and have a positive outcome,” she said.
Stacy Fousek, right, works with Aniyah Bruguier on coding during a computer class in Fousek’s classroom earlier this week at Wagner Community School. (Matt Gade / Republic)
Just three months after diagnosis, Fousek, who laughs at any suggestion that she was athletic in her teens and 20s, participated in the Avera Race Against Breast Cancer with her husband, Jim, their family and friends and several of her students and then-coworkers from Tripp-Delmont School. Feeling the strong effects of chemo, Fousek walked as much of the race as she could, but was pushed in a wheelchair for much of it.
She sat out the following year’s race to recover from her breast reconstruction, but “I have run that 5k three times since I was pushed in a wheelchair that day,” and, while she hasn’t finished first, Fousek said she has “won it over and over, physically and spiritually.”
Prior to her battle with cancer, Fousek said she was anxious and consumed by stress.
“I could buy a box of Oreos in Tripp and have the whole thing gone by the time I got to Armour 25 miles away,” Fousek said. “I was just living life. I was just getting by.”
Now she is focused on reducing the risk of recurrence for herself and keeping her family healthy because, though triple-negative ductal carcinoma typically is genetic, she does not have the gene commonly associated with it.
“That’s a good thing for my family, but we don’t know what caused it,” so she makes a daily, conscious effort to do as much as she can to reduce her risks of recurrence through diet, exercise and stress management. Fousek serves her family eats whole foods with minimal sugar. She’s her family to heald and beauty products known to be clean of toxins associated with increased cancer risk. And she has ditched harsh chemical and instead cleans her home with water and essential oils.
“I always say that I’m probably (over-the-top) about it all, but I think a lot of us just walk through life being unaware, not thinking about it (until we have to),” she said.
Three months before diagnosis, the Fouseks joined Redeemer Lutheran Church and befriended the Rev. Nabil Nour. Fousek admits that, while she was raised in a Christian home, she had all but fallen away from her faith.
“I was a believer, and I went to church, but not very often,” she said, and Nour pushed her to stay positive and rely on her faith to get her through the tough days. “God put him in my life, and He knew what He was doing.”
Because it helped her through her hardest struggles, her faith has become a solid foundation in Fousek’s life. Now, she finds strength scripture on the hard days and rejoices in it on the good ones, and she shares her faith journey openly on social media.
“I wake up every morning, thanking God for letting me see the sunrise,” she said. “Cancer saved me spiritually. I believed in Jesus, but I don’t know that I ever gave Him complete trust before.”
Fousek said she is a completely different person post-cancer than she was before.
“I could go on and on about how I’m different,” she said. “You wouldn’t recognize me, because I’m not the same person that I was before. I don’t know how you could go through this and not change. But it’s about choosing how to change — whether to use that energy positively or negatively.”
Stacy Fousek works with her students on coding during a computer class in Fousek’s classroom in Wagner. (Matt Gade / Republic)
Since her first Avera Race Against Breast Cancer, Fousek has found a love for running. A year ago, she finished her first half-marathon out of three so far.
“It’s just kind of crazy that it started that fire for me,” she said. “When you’re training for a half-marathon, you have a lot of ups and downs and struggles, (just like in) life. That’s why the half-marathons are fun for me. It just reminds me of my journey, going up and down. You just keep going until you cross that finish line.”
After she was deemed cancer-free, Fousek added other adventures to her life. Last year, she traveled to Oregon for a week with other adult cancer survivors under the age of 40.
“I was scared out of my mind. But with cancer, you’re scared out of your mind, but you get up and you keep going,” she said. “It was just so fulfilling. I get shivers thinking about it.”
And she hopes the adventures continue.
“I want more life. I want to travel and see things, and I want my family to come with me and do these things, because you don’t know what tomorrow is going to bring,” she said. “Living for today has just changed my life.”
Fousek said she and her husband focus on the days — rather than the years — ahead.
“We are choosing to live life in the present instead of the future,” she said. “We plan for retirement, but we also live life. You can’t work yourself to death. You’ve got to go out and enjoy yourself.”
The couple has welcomed extra joy into their home in the last couple of years. Just under three years after her diagnosis, Fousek’s oncologist gave the couple the go-ahead to consider adding to their family but cautioned Jim that he “may have to raise the baby alone.”
Having already overcome the unthinkable, the couple decided to take the risk. Six months later, when she returned for a checkup, the oncologist was surprised to see that Fousek, who is naturally slender, had gained weight.
“I came back from that appointment … pregnant,” Fousek said. “They didn’t think I would, because chemo … puts your body through hell (and) we couldn’t get pregnant before.”
Since the birth of Tatum in September 2017, Jim and Stacy Fousek have delighted in a living, breathing symbol of her mother’s renewed life. A year after her birth, Fousek accepted a teaching position a bit closer to home in the Wagner School District.
“I have everything I ever dreamed of, just five years later,” Fousek said. “You go through that stage of life that you’re not sure that you’re going to make it until next year. And here I am, five years later, and I’m alive and I’m thriving and I’m healthy and I’m strong. … Everything I prayed for, I have.”
Earlier this year, Fousek enthusiastically shares, her scheduled lightened when she was “kicked out of oncology.” She no longer has to go in for regular checkups because she has lived past the five-year mark that typically is the cutoff for relapse with breast cancer. She knows she is lucky to be on the right side of the 50 percent probability she was given six years ago, but admits that she feels guilt at times, too.
“There are so many people who were fighting with me who are (now) fighting again,” she said, adding that she does what she can to stay healthy, focusing on scripture — especially Psalm 46 — and be a beacon of hope for the newly diagnosed. “I am hopeful that, if someone was diagnosed today and just starting this journey, they could look at me and say, ‘I can do this.’”
Fousek and two other Armour women who were diagnosed with breast cancer about the same time have come together as a cancer survivors’ support group.
“They call us the group no one wants to join,” she laughed. “But when you join it, you know you’re going to get support and that we care. … Not everyone can understand what you’re going through, but when you get with these ladies, they know exactly where we were coming from.”
Fousek also has taken on small projects to help others face cancer with confidence. For one, she gathered supplies into small bags she gives away personally and through the Avera Cancer Institute, filled with simple cosmetics and other items that made her feel better when the chemo got the best of her. She said it is a small way that she can show other breast cancer patients that the misery and uncertainty are not forever, but the impact is.
“Just because my treatment ended, it doesn’t mean the journey did,” she said. “It’s just there — it’s part of you.”