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After mom’s cancer battle, a daughter’s diagnosis

Amy Peterson and her beloved dog Hadley sit in the room where Peterson has created a wall based on the theme “I choose joy.” Cards and notes of support are tacked to the wall. Peterson, 37, is in the beginning phases of a battle with breast cancer. (Bob King / / 2
A photo of Amy Peterson’s mother, Pam (left), and Amy is tacked to the wall. One of her inspirations is her mother, whose Hodgkin’s lymphoma, diagnosed this summer, is in remission. (Bob King / / 2

When Amy Peterson suspected she might have cancer, her mother was not among the first to know.

“I did not know right away until she went in to meet with the surgeon, and then she figured she had to tell me,” said Pam Peterson, 60, of Wausau, Wis.

The reason for the delay: Pam had just been through her own battle with cancer. Her last round of chemotherapy for Hodgkin’s lymphoma was in late February. Amy, who lives in Duluth’s Lincoln Park neighborhood and works for the Housing and Redevelopment Authority, first noticed a lump in her right breast in early March.

Now defiantly engaged in the early phases of her own fight with breast cancer, Amy counts her mother among her chief allies.

“She’s this amazing specimen of a human being,” Amy said of her mother. “She’s totally my hero. It brought us as a family — we were already pretty close — but it brought us so much closer.

“She has definitely been a role model,” Amy said.

Pam Peterson first reported a lump on the side of her neck in June 2013.

After a long series of tests, she was diagnosed July 31 with Hodgkin’s, a form of cancer that attacks the body’s immune system. Amy was with her mom and dad, Bob Peterson, in September during the early phases of Pam’s treatment. She was there on the 14th day after the first chemo treatment, when her mom’s hair fell out in clumps.

“For her it was very devastating,” Amy recalled. “Even when you’re an adult, when you watch your parents cry, you watch your dad watch my mom crying, and he’s so upset he falls to his knees in tears because she’s going through what she’s going through — and I’m watching this and I’m trying to be a rock, and I’m broken up inside. No one prepares you to deal with that.”

Her mom never complained, Amy said, as she endured a hysterectomy and 12 chemo treatments over a span of 24 weeks. On Jan. 15, a scan revealed Pam was cancer-free, although she had to continue the chemo through February.

When Amy started going in for her own tests, she told her father and her godmother, a breast cancer survivor. A mammogram and an ultrasound revealed nothing, but Amy knew that in younger women breast density can hide growths. It took a surgical biopsy on April 14 to confirm she had cancer.

Amy was accompanied that day by her friend Kerry Gauthier, the former state legislator. The two have common bonds: Both are gay, and each is a photography enthusiast.

When she came to after the biopsy, she said, Gauthier “teared up and he told me that I had cancer. And I cried, and then I didn’t. I’ve only cried twice, and that was the first time.”

Gauthier notified Amy’s closest family and friends, and she went public about her cancer on her Facebook page that evening. That paved the way to finding additional allies.

She met Sean Maguire, a Texan who also is battling cancer, through her college roommate. A free spirit like Amy, Maguire frequently exchanges what Amy calls “silly pictures” with her. Despite the burden of chemotherapy, he continues to run 5Ks, and has encouraged her to stay active.

They share the theme: “We choose joy.”

Amy took up the theme by creating an “I choose joy” wall in her home, filled with cards and trinkets from friends. “So when I wake up every day, rather than looking at a wall, I’m looking at joy,” she said.

During an interview on Wednesday, 14 days after her first round of chemotherapy, she had her blond hair cut in a short spike. It gave her a resemblance, she claimed, to Beaker from the Muppets.

That night she experienced — as her mother had at the same point — her hair falling out in clumps.

But she was ready. Amy had asked friends to send her bandanas representing themselves “so I could wear a different bandana every day when I didn’t have hair.”

It’s part of what she describes as an “irreverent” attitude toward cancer, sprinkling her conversations with phrases like “When I beat this little bug …”

Her upbeat attitude reflects her mom’s. But it’s hard on Pam Peterson to see her daughter relive that battle.

“It was very difficult,” Pam said, weeping as she recalled first learning the news. “It was harder than hearing it for myself.”

As mother and daughter have talked, though, they agreed on the proper approach.

“You have to be positive and you have to fight and just keep yourself healthy and pursue it,” Pam said. “Because you’ve got a lot to live for.”

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