Walk into the St. Luke’s Breast Center on a Thursday, and Mary Holmelund might greet you. She wears a volunteer jacket, a breast cancer awareness pin and a smile.

And she has experience on both sides of the desk.

Months after Holmelund started volunteering, she was diagnosed with precancerous cancer.

“I kept telling them that it was all their fault,” she recalled with a laugh.

Holmelund, 67, has a history of breast cancer in the family, and in May 2015, cancerous cells were removed from her left breast and below her armpit. Further tests showed a high likelihood cancer would spread to her right breast.

Mary Holmelund checks in Elizabeth Teppo before her appointment at St. Lukes Breast Center on Thursday. Tyler Schank / tschank@duluthnews.com
Mary Holmelund checks in Elizabeth Teppo before her appointment at St. Lukes Breast Center on Thursday. Tyler Schank / tschank@duluthnews.com

She couldn’t have chemotherapy or hormones due to a pre-existing autoimmune disease, pemphigus, which causes blisters and sores on the skin.

So, Holmelund had a bilateral mastectomy. “I needed to do what they said was best," she said.

The first weeks of recovery were rough. She had drainage tubes, and she couldn’t use either of her arms. The surgery was successful, but it took about a year for her to feel “really good,” she said, without phantom pain or twinges. There are still parts in the breast area that will probably always feel numb.

When she was first diagnosed, she had three or four people with similar experiences whom she could talk to, and that connection helped, along with family, prayer, positivity — and taking it a day at a time.

Today, Holmelund gets checkups every six months, and she looks forward to her work at the breast center.

“When I see women coming in for their second callback, for a second mammogram, some are very calm, some are very upset, some are very anxious.

“… You tend to know what they’re going through,” she said.

Holmelund started volunteering because her friends were doing it, and she felt she needed to do something after retirement. She works one eight-hour shift a week, confirming appointments, helping patients register and walking them to the dressing area before screenings.

“Everyone who walks through the door is pretty much here because we’re screening for cancer. That comes with some anxiety,” said mammogram tech Sharon Kelekovich.

Mary Holmelund make phone calls to remind patients of their appointments at St. Lukes Breast Center on Thursday. Tyler Schank / tschank@duluthnews.com
Mary Holmelund make phone calls to remind patients of their appointments at St. Lukes Breast Center on Thursday. Tyler Schank / tschank@duluthnews.com

Holmelund knows how to interact with patients, and she’s good at reading and responding to their needs. “She’s the first person there, and it helps to have someone who is cheerful. … You can hear her laugh up front,” Kelekovich said.

Kathy Campbell works in the breast center and was one of the techs who worked with Holmelund when she was a patient. Campbell expressed gratitude for Holmelund, and the facility’s volunteers in general. “They care … and it shows.”

Ronda Ankarlo sat in the breast center on Thursday after her annual mammogram.

She recalled years of soothing greetings from Holmelund at the front desk.

“Ever since my kids were little, she’s been in that spot every time. Would always give paper and pens to my kids to draw with,” Ankarlo said. “She’s always pleasant.”

Holmelund said it’s fulfilling work to engage with the staff and the patients.

“There’s been a few times when women will come out, and they’re scared. I’ll say ‘I went through this, and you’ll get through,’” she said. “I feel that maybe that’s why I’m there, and I feel good about it.”