Kay Santema and her husband, Harlyn, both survived cancer.

Survivor: Kay Santema

May 5, 2018

Kay Santema has devoted her life to caring for others.

From the time she was a young girl growing up in rural Iowa, Kay spent her days taking care of her family. She became a candy striper, and when it was time to choose a career, her decision was easy.

Kay became a nurse and started her career at Sioux Valley Hospital, now Sanford Health. Over the next 44 years, she rose through the ranks from a pediatric nurse to the vice president of cancer and support services at the Sanford Medical Center.

During this time, Kay was part of a team that brought expert caregivers, advanced technology and the best in patient care to Sioux Falls. She helped make Sanford a destination for cancer treatment in South Dakota.

“Those were some of the best years of my life,” Kay said. “Cancer research and care was growing and expanding. There were so many new opportunities to diagnose and treat these diseases, and the doctors were so excited about the progress being made.”

Then a month before Kay was scheduled to retire, the unimaginable happened. Kay was diagnosed with an aggressive form of breast cancer that had already spread to her lymph nodes.

Kay’s diagnosis came after a 3D mammogram, technology that wasn’t available the year before, in December 2012. She immediately went into caregiver mode, thinking about treatment plans like she would for any other patient.

Then the reality sunk in, and Kay knew her life would change dramatically.

“It was totally devastating,” Santema said. “It never crossed my mind that I would have breast cancer. Even though I knew one in eight women will get breast cancer, I never thought I’d be the one.”

But the people Kay had worked side-by-side with for so many years did exactly what they were trained to do. They focused on her needs and created a treatment plan that worked for her. She could finish her last month of work, be with her family for the holidays and even winter in Arizona as planned.

They were upfront about her diagnosis and encouraged Kay to have surgery right away – instead of waiting until after her retirement – because of the aggressive nature of her cancer.

“Personally, I think it was all meant to be,” Kay said. “I helped care for so many cancer survivors, and now I ended up being one.

“Now I knew we had done the right things, brought in the right doctors and created the right programs. I cannot brag enough about the medical team.”

Kay underwent a double mastectomy shortly after Christmas that year. Before she went into surgery, there was a moment she will never forget. Her coworkers, members of her Sanford family, gathered around her. They placed a prayer shawl on her shoulders, put their hands on her and prayed.

“That was such a tender and special moment,” Kay recalled. “I was proud and humbled to be a small part of this amazing cancer center. They are so passionate and care so much about what they do.”

Her team showed up when she needed them most, as they had with countless cancer patients who came before her and will continue to do for all those who come after.


Your impact

Join the fight against breast cancer today! With your support, we can accelerate breakthroughs and save and improve lives of breast cancer patients across your region.

To make a donation or find other ways to get involved, visit sanfordhealthfoundation.org/edith.