Editor's note: In honor of October being National Breast Cancer Awareness Month, the Schuyler Sun is publishing a four-week series, "Think Pink," sharing the stories of people who have been affected by breast cancer. The Sun's masthead will also be pink in October instead of its normal black to commemorate the month.
Mildred Salak always seemed to feel tired.
Nearly every day after working from 6:30 a.m. to 6:30 p.m., the former Colfax County teacher trudged home feeling beat down.
“I was overly tired for over a year,” Salak said. “I thought I was overworked.”
When she moved on to a larger school in Dodge County, the exhaustion that she had in Colfax County carried over to her new school. Confused and in need of some answers, she decided that the best course of action was to speak with her family doctor.
“I said, ‘Maybe I should see a gynecologist,’” Salak said. “He said, ‘No, heavens no! You’re young. You don’t need to see a gynecologist.’”
She explained her exhaustion and the doctor told her to buy Geritol, which at the time was the recommended drug of choice for those who were bone-tired. That was of no help to Salak, so a friend of her husband - who just so happened to be a doctor - decided to take a quick look.
“He said, ‘Have you seen a gynecologist?’” Salak said. “I said, ‘No, but I tried. I went to see my family doctor and he told me I didn’t need to see one (because) I’m young.’ He said, ‘I disagree with him because he’s one of my best friends.’”
The doctor sent Salak to one of the best gynecologists in Omaha, who made the discovery that soon changed her life.
“He says, ‘You will not get by much longer than a year without a complete hysterectomy,’” Salak said. “Of course, I cried. We only had one daughter and hoping someday to have another.”
The next day, the family doctor notified her that she had cancer and needed immediate treatment. She soon checked into the hospital in Schuyler for a biopsy and a complete hysterectomy. From that point forward, her life as she knew it was about to change.
Salak was 32 years old at the time that she was diagnosed with cervical cancer and she decided to go on and live her life the way that she wanted to: With positivity and no fear. She explored the world, went on to begin volunteering to save other people’s lives through work as an EMT and continued her role as a teacher.
“I thought, ‘Now, I have to live my life to its fullest,’” Salak said. “I have to make sure that I enjoy everything there is out in nature, do lots of walking -which was miles of walking - enjoy my friends and keep busy.”
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Over the next five years, she did just that, doing everything that the doctors told her. As her life continues, she keeps that same level of positivity, something that has impressed friends like Betty Bohaty. Bohaty has known Salak for more than 40 years, and her children were taught by Salak. She sees in Salak an honest, caring individual who will do anything for her family, her friends and her students.
“She is one of the most compassionate, caring teachers that you could ever find,” Bohaty said. “I know that there were many, many students who were touched and moved to continue their educations. They would come back and talk to her (and) she touched a lot of lives and probably changed the course of kids from not really wanting to do things, but helping them to know that you are important. That’s something that she always tried to instill in those kids.”
One thing that the doctors told her to do after leaving the office was to take estrogen to help with the replacement of her uterus. Unfortunately, she developed a series of egg-sized cysts in her breasts. The possibility remained that the cancer that ravaged her cervix would impact her breasts.
“My specialized doctor said, ‘You know, there’s no end to these,’” Salak said. “One of these times, it’s going to be cancer. I said, ‘Oh! Not again! What can I do about this?’”
So she had a double mastectomy, which wasn’t ideal, but it turned out to be the easiest and best option for her.
“The doctor said, ’99 percent of the women will not do this,’” Salak said. “I said, ‘You know what, I’ve had cancer, I’ve been through a lot already with all the surgeries. How soon can I have it done?’”
She had the breasts removed, eliminating the cysts. She did not, as it turned out, have breast cancer. But it was a near miss and from that point forward, she became more aware of the dangers of cancer.
“I do a lot of reading, especially about cancer,” Salak said. “I was in (a doctor’s) office for an appointment and he had Life Magazine. I go over and pick up the Life Magazine (and) I open it up to the centerfold. There was a picture of the whole United States. It said across the whole two pages, ‘Greatest Cancer in the U.S.A.’ Here’s Nebraska, right in the middle. That many years ago, we were considered the worst cancer place in the United States.”
She said that even young women need routine checkups, including mammograms. More importantly, she wants people to keep the same positive attitude that she did, even when it seems like there is no hope.
“I think that’s half of healing,” Salak said. “(Having a) positive attitude is a big part of healing. I have said that to so many people when I first find out that they have cancer, I don’t care where. I just can’t reinforce that enough. I am a positive person, I try to feel that way in my teaching.”
In addition, she has the support of many around her - including friends like Bohaty - who find her to be the kind of person that the community cannot do without.
“She’s just an enjoyable person, just fun-loving and she’s a treasure to our community,” Bohaty said. “I think that we were very blessed that God placed her among us.”
Zach Roth is a reporter for the Schuyler Sun. Reach him via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.