Grand Thoughts: Treatment for breast cancer guided by angels on Earth

Life has its twists and turns, ups and downs, good and bad. In the last three months, I've experienced it all.

It started in mid-October with a routine mammogram on the day before I was scheduled for a brow lift. I had been diagnosed with "hooded eyes," where my eyelids had started to droop over the outside edges of my eyes, making me resemble a hound dog and negatively affecting my peripheral vision.

The surgery worked as expected. The procedure removed the creases in my forehead and lifted the droopy eyelids so that my peripheral vision has been restored.

The night before the surgery, I was nervous about the procedure, which required a lengthy incision across my forehead at my hairline that would take 24 staples to close.

I couldn't sleep as a result.

I read, played on my phone and checked my email throughout the night. Around 4 a.m., I found a disturbing message from the MaryEllen Locher Breast Center, following up the routine mammogram I'd had earlier in the day.

This was the first time I'd ever had a call back after many years of annual breast screenings. The message said I had an "inconclusive mammogram" and that I needed to schedule another mammogram, as well as an ultrasound.

I debated canceling the brow lift, which was scheduled at 9 a.m., so that I could go to the breast center as soon as possible for the tests. I opted to go ahead with the surgery. Though breast cancer was on my mind every second throughout the procedure, I'm glad I had it done.

Four days later, I had the subsequent mammogram and ultrasound. Within the hour of my testing, I was sent to what I now call the "bad news room" and was soon introduced to a nurse navigator, a term I'd never heard.

And this, ladies and gentlemen, is where my twist and turns, ups and downs, good and bad officially begin.

Firstly, it turns out, a nurse navigator is an angel on Earth.

I was taken from the "bad news room" to the office of Jeanette Ramirez, a breast nurse navigator. She told me the results of the test I had just completed (the lump, albeit tiny, was suspicious) and what would happen next (a biopsy). She offered compassion, support, education, encouragement and a true friendship.

Four days after my brow lift, with 24 metal staples in my head (a conversation starter at the breast center), I realized there was a real possibility I had breast cancer.

Four days after my biopsy, my fears were confirmed: I was diagnosed with Stage 1 invasive carcinoma in my left breast.

My doctor, Takeyla Williams, another angel on Earth (in fact, every single person I came into contact with at CHI Memorial is an angel on Earth), called late on a Friday evening to tell me the results. All I could hear, at first, was "cancer, invasive, Stage 1." But I calmed myself down and heard her offer words of encouragement. I also wrote down what she was saying and sent it to my two scientist children, doctors Kit Nazor (in San Diego) and Karah Nazor Rivers (Chattanooga). They told me I was going to be OK. Still, I was shell-shocked. I was relieved to have their professional input, but all I wanted to do at that point was go to bed at 7 o'clock on a Friday night. I needed to process.

Instead, my husband, Hank, who was taking the news about as well as I was, called Karah to come to our house and cheer me up.

I didn't want company. I wanted to go to bed. I was annoyed that Hank called Karah.

I was wrong.

One minute after my daughter walked in the door, she had me laughing. I laughed for the next two hours. Her background as a scientist also helped to calm my fears. Stage 1 was good news. They caught it early.

Karah went with me to most of my appointments, while Kit attended via FaceTime.

Since the tumor was tiny, my doctor and I agreed that a lumpectomy would be the course of action. There was no evidence that my lymph nodes had been affected. All good news.

I was encouraged to be evaluated by a physical therapist, Anne Rothenbach, who checked my range of motion in my arms and tested my strength in my hands. Apparently, I'm super strong for a woman my age, 71. She was surprised by my strength and asked if I lifted weights. I said I had been lifting children for 50 years.

She will do a follow-up post surgery later this month to make sure I'm regaining my strength.

The day of my surgery, with Hank and daughters Karah and Kacee offering me love and support, I was nervous. While the nursing staff and anesthesiologists were preparing me for surgery, I felt a warm hand reach under my blanket to hold my hand. I looked over to see that it was Dr. Williams who was comforting me.

Any fear I had flew right out the window.

The gesture felt as though my own mother, who died in 2014, was right there with me telling me I was going to be OK. It was as though Dr. William channeled my mother through her own comforting kindness. I will never forget how wonderful she made me feel in that moment.

The test result was good. Clear margins. No evidence of cancer.

My pain was surprisingly minimal, thankfully. Christmas was just around the corner and my family, including my five precious grandchildren, ages 5 to 17, would be with me — just the medicine I needed. Cancer was gone, and Christmas was here.

I decorated my house and yard, did all the shopping and got my house all decked out for the holidays.

It wasn't until everyone was back home and the new year had started that my 16 radiation treatments began.

Again, new doctors, new blessings.

I first met with my radiology oncologist, Dr. Nitesh Rana, in early January, who offered me encouragement. He told me what to expect during treatment. My treatments throughout January were enjoyable thanks to the nurses and radiology technicians there.

Meanwhile, there was still one hoop I had to jump through to fully relax. Despite everything going the way the doctors predicted early on, chemotherapy hadn't been completely ruled out. I had to take another test to make that call.

Oncologist Brooke Daniel, also a godsend, ordered an Oncotype DX Breast Recurrence Score report that determines whether or not chemotherapy is beneficial. After surgery, tissue from the cancerous tumor is sent to a lab to be tested, and the results are numbered 1 to 100. If the result is 25 or below, chemotherapy is ruled out.

The day I was notified of the result, Dr. Daniel came into the examining room with a giant smile on her face. I scored 18 and therefore did not require chemotherapy. Though she had told me she suspected I wouldn't require it, she was as happy as I was.

On Friday, Feb. 2, I participated in a rite of passage after my last radiation treatment. With Karah, some of the staff and other patients and visitors present, I rang the big brass bell in the lobby indicating my treatments were over.

I didn't think I'd get emotional, but I did. It was a bittersweet moment. Every single person whose path I crossed during this three-month experience, from the receptionists at the front desk, to every physician, nurse, technician and those in administration I talked to, will forever have my respect and love.

There's one clear message from my experience: the importance of early detection.

Breast cancer does not run in my family, until now. I am a perfect example of why women should get tested annually. It's not a comfortable procedure, but it's worth it.

Contact Karen Nazor Hill at khill@timesfreepress.com.

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