In the News


Mitzi Merkel, cancer survivor, ringing the bell at CARTI Cancer Center

A year ago this February, Mitzi Merkel of Benton – wife, mother and nonprofit employee – was a newly diagnosed cancer patient. Since then, she’s faced the ups and downs of juggling treatment and a busy personal and professional life. But the surprising theme through it all? A whole lot of JOY. Here are a few lessons she’s learned along the way.


It all started when Mitzi felt a lump in her breast, a “funny story” as she likes to say. Mitzi had jumped up to go help the oldest of her four children with a family emergency and, quickly putting on her bra, felt a lump in the bottom of her right breast. Previously she’d felt some pain there, but chalked it up to the discomforts of an underwire bra with triple-D breasts. 

She got in to see her OB-GYN the following Monday, with her husband by her side. The nurse practitioner was concerned right away. A flurry of appointments later, Mitzi was referred to The Breast Center at CARTI for a biopsy. On February 15, 2023, the results came in: positive for cancer. Mitzi had a slow-growing, hormone-driven mass measuring 4.4 centimeters.

“I figured it was going to be positive,” Mitzi recalled. “It was one of those ‘hope for the best, but receive the negative’ situations. I called my husband, had a 10-minute meltdown and then I had to get back to work. I had interviews set up to hire a new employee! I had to recompose and push on with life. Because that’s what happens, you’ve got to keep on living.”


Then it was time to tell her family, starting with their two daughters still living at home who were 12 and 17 at the time. After some initial crying, the mood shifted. “In my house, we deal with situations like this by joking!” Mitzi said. 

“Throughout my journey, I would say something and my kids would say, ‘Yeah, give her what she wants – she has cancer!’ Or I would look at them and say, ‘Really? I have cancer.’ And then we would bust out laughing. That’s how we deal with things, we try to make a positive.” Mitzi also encouraged her kids to talk about the experience and process their emotions, to “find that escape.”

SIDE NOTE: If you’re lucky enough to talk with Mitzi in person, be sure to ask her the funny comments from her daughters that made them all laugh that first night!


In March, Mitzi started receiving chemo every 15 days. “The steroids, that was a big learning step for me,” she said. “I am a natural redhead, and my skin has a reaction to any and everything. So these chemo drugs, I’d have to take lots of steroids. The first time, I cleaned out my closet! But it took me five days of exhaustion and body aches to recover from doing it. I learned that even though I want to stay busy, there are only certain things I can do.” 

The next step in her treatment was a big one. After ringing the bell for her last chemo treatment in July, Mitzi had a double mastectomy on August 8, 2023. Her response to this life-altering surgery? “I lost nine pounds!” But she also gained some new perspective.

“This is just a humbling experience. Before my daughter moved to college – after my surgery, after my husband and other family members went back to work – I still needed assistance showering, things like that, because my ability to reach just wasn’t there. It’s a very humbling experience to have your child bathe you. I learned to have patience.” 


For starters, we’re talking hair! “I had what they call the ‘red devil,’” Mitzi said, “so I lost all my hair. Before I shaved it off, though, I got to dye it crazy colors, peacock colors – blue and purple and green!” Although Mitzi wore turbans for a week or two, they weren’t comfortable for her so she “rocked the bald” instead.

Another happy move? Mitzi used the special canvas bag her out-of-state family gifted her for appointments as a source of encouragement. I took that bag and had everybody at CARTI sign it. People that checked me in. Nurses. Doctors. A couple of other patients that I formed a bond with. They all just left such positive notes on there!”

She also credits family and friends with keeping her spirits high. Care packages, snacks and goodies, kind words and sometimes even no words. “I’m a big huggy-touchy person. A lot of people didn’t say anything, they just hugged me! And that meant more than any words they could say.“


“There’s a couple of things that will get you through it and make the journey a little bit easier,” Mitzi said. “To me, that was God. My friends and family. And most important – maybe not most important, but just as important – is a positive attitude. If you’re going to walk around and have a pity party, then that’s what the journey is going to be. But if you walk with your head high and have a positive attitude, then you’re going to get a positive result. That’s just one thing that I’ve always lived my life with. There is a positive in EVERY situation.” 


We’ll let Mitzi explain why in her own words. Everybody was exceptional. I didn’t know there were so many nice people in one place! From the people who checked me in, the people who drew my blood, the people who gave me my chemo treatments, everybody was just so knowledgeable. The nurse that gave me my first treatment, Lisa, she told me EVERYTHING without even looking at a piece of paper. Everything about the medicine I was receiving. Possible side effects. She took the time to share the information and she wasn’t rushed. All the nurses, they were so upbeat, so positive. Most of them I came across, you meet them once and they just remember you. They call me by my name still! 

Dr. Gentry is my oncologist. Funny story about Dr. Gentry, I think it was the second time I was seeing her, after my first set of chemo treatments, she peeked in the door and said, ‘Are we still friends?’ I said, ‘YES, we will always be friends – you’re one of the reasons I’m going to beat this!’”


Of course there were difficult days and challenges all along the way, but Mitzi’s hardest times were seeing how cancer impacted others. “My grieving was never for me, it was always for everyone else,” Mitzi said. “I know I’m going to live, I know I’m going to be the same person. My breasts don’t define me. People know me from my positivity, my pretty smile, being a ray of sunshine. So losing my breasts has done nothing for me.” 

Well – ALMOST nothing. “I don’t have to buy bras anymore, thank you!”

Clearly, Mitzi is the kind of person who really does look for the joy and find the humor in every situation. But surely she would change things if she could, right?

“This is going to sound ridiculous, but I truthfully wouldn’t change anything. I fully believe in things happening when they happen for a reason. I had a great positive attitude and I’d always spent time with my family, so I guess if I could go back I would just give myself a thumbs-up and say, ‘You’re going to do great. Keep up the positive attitude!’”

Discover more about CARTI, from our team of cancer treatment experts to our wide range of cancer care services. Also, CARTI offers resources for all cancer patients and their caregivers through the Bridge programs. Learn more about the Bridge here.