Marcia McMullin, breast health navigator at Carroll Hospital Center and Dr. Dona Hobart, medical director of the hospital’s new Center for Breast Health.
When Herdis Moser of Manchester found a lump in her breast in 1989, shortly before her 50th birthday, the medical community knew less about how to treat the disease and there were fewer services for breast cancer patients at the local hospital.
The BRCA gene that increases breast cancer risk and leads some to have preventive mastectomies, as Angelina Jolie did recently, would be identified in 1994. Sentinel node biopsy, a technique that would spare more swelling-reducing lymph nodes by identifying cancerous nodes that had to be removed, would be developed in the 1990s.
The Women’s Place at Carroll Hospital Center (CHC), which offers help with the frightening and unfamiliar process, information on health topics, merchandise such as wigs and mastectomy bras, stress-reducing massages, acupuncture and reiki massage therapy, would open in 1999. The Oncotype DX test that can help predict whether cancer will recur would be developed in 2004.
No hospital support staff existed to shepherd Moser through the process. But she had support from family and friends in Carroll’s farming community. She and her husband, Richard Moser, were dairy farmers.
“I was prepared for the worst,” said Moser. “I don’t think I shed any tears. I believed you can’t do anything about it, so what’s the use [crying]?”
Moser had a good general surgeon, to whom she and Richard turned for guidance after a follow-up mammogram confirmed the presence of a mass.
The doctor could not be certain it was cancer at that point, but his advice was: Have the mastectomy. He operated at the local hospital. After a biopsy during surgery confirmed cancer, he excised the breast and lymph nodes, the filters that trap bacteria, cancer cells and other substances.
“A couple of the lymph nodes were positive. That was scary. But I’m one of the lucky ones,” said Moser.
The hospital gave Moser post-surgery chemotherapy intravenously in three six-week sessions, with breaks between sessions. The Carroll Regional Cancer Center for outpatient treatments would open in a separate building in 2000.
Chemotherapy meant loss of her hair, weakness and fatigue, and being forbidden to go to the barn because of the danger of infection. She hated the wig because it was hot, so wore scarves that she learned to knot attractively.
“The memory, thank goodness, fades,” she said, “but I can walk into the hospital today and smell that same smell and go ÔOop.’’
Moser still has occasional swelling in her arm from the lymph node removal. She decided against reconstructive surgery, so must deal with custom underwear and hard-to-find swimsuits. But her doctor’s estimation years ago that there was 66 percent chance that the cancer would never return has held good.
Theresa Pstrak, 51, of Mount Airy, wanted to look good during and after breast cancer. If she had to lose her hair to chemotherapy, she wanted eyebrows, to help her feel “not as sick as you are.” If complications from reconstructive surgery risked destroying her nipple and areola, she wanted a breast, “not just scars.”
Five years ago, Pstrak began bleeding from a tumor in the milk ducts of one breast. A breast cancer specialist in Frederick was able to do a lumpectomy rather than a mastectomy because the cancer was confined to the ducts. She had reconstructive surgery a year later, but complications raised fears that a double mastectomy might be necessary. She raised the areola and nipple issue with her doctor.
“You can have that tattooed on,” he said, prompting an ah-ha! moment. After recovering, Pstrak trained to become a makeup artist. She is now owner of Beautiful Faces, serving clients with cancer, alopecia, scleroderma and Parkinson’s disease, as well as healthy women.
The cancer experience initially made Pstrak dread October’s National Breast Cancer Awareness Month, for its painful reminders. But she has moved beyond that to an active role with the American Cancer Society’s Reach to Recovery program, which pairs breast cancer survivors with newly diagnosed women. She chairs the annual Mount Airy Breast Cancer Walk.
Four years ago, Ginny Weaver of Westminster turned 65 and became eligible for the free “Welcome to Medicare” examination, which includes cancer screenings. Her mammogram and a follow-up were suspicious, and a sonogram confirmed a breast mass. Weaver underwent surgery at Johns Hopkins Hospital, where a surgeon dedicated to breast cancer was available. She had follow-up radiation, but did not have to endure chemotherapy.
The diagnosis hit Weaver hard emotionally, and she does not have family nearby. She drew support from nurse Eileen Overfelt, manager of The Women’s Place. Overfelt is now CHC’s director of integrative health and navigation.
“She gave me information as I could absorb it,” said Weaver. “She got me appointments when others could not. She let me cry when I needed to. She’d call at night, on weekends.”
CHC now has a surgeon dedicated to breast cancer, Dr. Dona Hobart, medical director of the new Center for Breast Health. In addition to surgery, she coordinates and initiates services to provide breast cancer patients, “a complete treatment program.” She said “complete” means medical care from diagnosis through survivorship, psychosocial aid, such as assisting with family, financial and transportation issues, and spiritual support, such as stress reduction and nutrition counseling.
Breast health navigators at the center are, “first and foremost a listening ear – there are a lot of emotions and disruptions in life” for patients, said navigator nurse Marcia McMullin. Navigators speed test results to patients, make appointments and meet with families.
When life coach Linda Coratti of Hampstead, 50, was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2010, she fought down panicky “get it out – now!” thoughts. First, she gathered information. She interviewed three doctors and discussed treatment options with her sister and friends before opting for a lumpectomy at Northwest Hospital.
Coratti relied on her church community for emotional support and The Women’s Place for services such as massages and yoga to ease arm muscle tightness. Her sister, church community and Women’s Place staff “just loved me through it,” she said.
Support Services & Resources
Breast cancer can be expensive, emotionally devastating, and physically debilitating. Here are some resources:
- Breast Cancer Support Group, Carroll Hospital Center Education and support, facilitated by a nurse educator. Spouses and partners welcome. Meets second Tuesday of each month. Free. 410-871-7000.
- Center for Breast Health, Carroll Hospital Center Help with diagnosis, treatment, recovery; scheduling diagnostic mammograms, biopsy, surgical consultation. Peer consultations, survivors share experiences. Beginning the Journey, new educational and support sessions for patients within one month of diagnosis. Navigation services free; charges apply for procedures. 410-871-7080.
- Look Good, Feel Better American Cancer Society program that teaches beauty techniques to women undergoing cancer treatment. Offered through The Women’s Place at Carroll Hospital Center. Free. 410-871-6161.
- Reach to Recovery American Cancer Society Program that pairs survivors with patients at varying stages of diagnosis and treatment for support, information, temporary breast forms. Free. 1-888-227-6333.
- Stacey Davis Breast Cancer Fund Financial aid for Carroll residents who need assistance. Grants available for treatment-related travel and food, and uninsured medically necessary expenses and supplies. 410-876-5505
- The Women’s Place, Carroll Hospital Center Library of books and CDs on cancer and other health-related topics; wigs, hats, breast prostheses, mastectomy bras, swimwear, medical alert bracelets, limited supply of free wigs, hats and turbans; acupuncture, reflexology, cancer and mastectomy massage, reiki. Financial assistance through partnership with Red Devils, a Maryland nonprofit organization providing help with everyday tasks. Aid for housecleaning, home delivery of meals and groceries, copays for prescriptions, chemotherapy and radiation, supplies. 410-871-6161.