Article and photos by Nicole Thom-Arens 

A month before her 37th birthday, Tonya Peterson was diagnosed with stage IV lung cancer. She’s never smoked and was otherwise healthy — it took months before doctors realized she didn’t have pneumonia and wasn’t experiencing migraines like they originally thought. 

Her health troubles began on a trip from Texas to North Dakota. She experienced a pain under her breast that felt like a heart attack. Her sister, Tiffany, took her to the ER in Soux Falls, South Dakota. 

“I told them I had this pain like I was having a heart attack. They got me right in, they hooked up a machine, and they were like, ‘No, you’re not having a heart attack,’” Tonya recalls. 

Hours later, she left with antibiotics for pneumonia after x-rays revealed a spot on her lung. While the chest pains subsided, Tonya began experiencing painful headaches. She saw a specialist and tried migraine medicine, but it didn’t work. 

“Then one morning, I woke up — I still had really bad headaches — and I couldn’t see out of my left eye. Well,” Tonya clarifies, “I could see but everything looked a little faded — red wasn’t red and blue wasn’t blue.” 

She and her husband, Trent, drove two hours to the nearest hospital that could she her quickly. After six hours, she’d had an MRI, which showed a mass behind her eye. Doctors ordered a whole-body MRI right away. 

“They found another spot in my lung when they did this whole-body MRI, so I never really had pneumonia,” Tonya says. “The antibiotics they gave me would’ve never worked to get that spot away in the lung.” 

She and Trent left that evening for Minneapolis at the doctor’s urging. 

“We got there at about four in the morning and they admitted me to the hospital and they had to run their own tests,” Tonya remembers. “They actually took a piece of my lung tumor and that’s how they determined the type of cancer I had. They (the doctors) were pretty confident that most likely it was lung cancer before they even got the results.” 

Tonya started treatment at the University of Minnesota immediately. 

“First of all, I did my radiation to reduce the masses behind my eye and on my skull. My headaches went away. And then they wanted me to do chemo for the spots that were on my organs,” Tonya says. 


That was October 2016 — more than two years ago — when her two kids, Drew and Abby, were 10 and 6 respectively. Since first learning of her cancer, she’s strived to be honest with them about her health. 

“I was the parent that when they told me I had cancer, I didn’t care about anything else but I wanted to see my kids. I wanted them to know that I was sick, yet I wanted to be the one that told them I was sick, and I would tell them that I had cancer,” Tonya remembers. 

Tonya with Abby and Drew and her nephews Liam and Mason in Minneapolis during one of her rounds of radiation

She’s had radiation twice more for spots on her neck and back, and she’s been through numerous types of chemo drugs. For almost a year, she’s been on a chemo treatment that seems to be working well. She still travels to Minneapolis every nine weeks for scans to assess the tumors. 


“When the doctors told me that my cancer is treatable not curable, that was probably my biggest problem. When I hear ‘curable,’ it’ll be gone. When they say ‘treatable,’ treatable means you will have it until you die,” Tonya says. 

Tonya and Abby 
show off their sun 
hats while camping 

“My doctors told me — this is probably the best thing they could have ever told me — stay on your routine. Don’t give up what you do every day. If you want to ride your bike with your kids, ride your bike with your kids. If you want to go camping, go camping. Don’t get out of your routine. Because if you get out of your routine, your life isn’t the way that it used to be.” 

Tonya’s listened to doctors and kept her routine, but in the past two-and-a-half years, her life has changed. She’s made countless trips from her home in Langdon, North Dakota, to Minneapolis, but she’s also traveled with friends and family to Las Vegas, Arizona, Florida, and the Dominican Republic where she served as matron of honor for Tiffany’s wedding. 

“We don’t really talk about me having cancer. We go on like we’re a normal family. I’m still a mother,” Tonya says. “I’m kind of a more laid back mom than I was before. I’m still strict. I still make them do everything a mother does, but I don’t freak out as much about the little things like them not brushing their hair or brushing their teeth like I used to. 

“You don’t think it (motherhood) changes, but it does. When you tell the kids, you have a headache, they’re like, ‘Oh no is something wrong with her?’ I forget that I can’t say that stuff as a mother now because I’m a mother that’s living with cancer.” 

The cancer, Tonya says, forced her to reevaluate her goals. Instead of thinking about retirement, she sets her sights on the present and near future. 

“I think I like to watch them do their sports more than I used to — knowing that maybe in two years I won’t be able to see them doing their sports. I wanted to be there before, but it was OK if I missed one, but now I’m not OK if I miss something important that’s going on in their life.”