by Mike Martin for the Columbia Business Times
Nothing can prepare you for the words my wife, Alison, and I heard just before Thanksgiving.
We were sitting in a clean, quiet room, and she was shaking and gripping my hand. I was focusing, almost rapt, on another hand that sketched a picture on the familiar paper sheet draped down an exam bed.
"It is a breast cancer," Dr. Paul Dale told us. It was like a boulder falling out of the sky.
Just before fall, Alison felt the lump Dr. Dale and his team at Ellis Fischel Cancer Center in Columbia would later diagnose as a malignant, HER2-positive tumor, a cancer named for an aggressive biochemical growth factor.
With a clean mammogram last April, we had been cautious but not worried. Most breast lumps aren't cancerous, and after studying up and visiting her doctor, we hoped it was just a benign cyst.
But the lump grew, and Alison contacted Ellis Fischel, where good friend Dr. Clay Anderson works.
Good thing. "The right doctors can make all the difference when it comes to treating cancer," said an October Newsweek article that also asked: "So why don't we know who the right doctors are?"
For one, we don't ask questions until we get the news. Then the survivors emerge. So many women, often with husbands in tow, have hugged and encouraged Alison and I saying, "I had breast cancer X years ago, and I'm doing just fine."
When their stories involve Ellis Fischel, the theme never varies: "Ellis Fischel is the most marvelous place," they say. "It's wonderful. It was just incredible. I can't imagine having gone anywhere else."
Had we not experienced Ellis Fischel ourselves, such effusive praise for a place where people treat a dreaded disease might have seemed odd.
But Ellis Fischel is no ordinary place.
It's a unique hybrid of community hospital and international cancer center, with a small, closely-knit staff and patients who drive there from all over the Midwest, for the latest, most effective treatments against all varieties of cancer, many of which, such as breast cancer, used to be killers.
Used to be. When you become the spouse of a survivor, you learn that, with early detection, you can stop a killer by turning a battle into a management.
You can lose a fight; you can lose a battle; but you can't lose a management, and managing cancer — often to the point of virtually curing it — is what state-of-the-art cancer treatment is all about.
Ellis Fischel has a ward devoted to breast cancer where Dr. Dale (left) — the hospital's chief cancer surgeon — drew fluids from the lump for a biopsy while I held Alison's hand. She was shaking and nearly in tears. Dr. Dale wouldn't lie: He didn't like what he saw in the long syringe, but we kept hoping it was only a cyst.
"It is a breast cancer," he said later, as he sketched the tumor on that exam table paper and laid out a plan. He was solemn but calm.
"I have f—ing breast cancer," Alison whispered loudly as we sat alone again in a different room, waiting to see our other new partner, oncologist Dr. Michael Perry (right).
"When you get a diagnosis, you need to have a plan," he told us. A management plan. We're not starting a war against this thing, he seemed to be saying; wars are disruptive, scary and uncertain.
Rather, Drs. Perry and Dale and our oncology nurses Dawn Frederick and Mary Johnson have implemented a calm, certain, step-by-step management plan that has kept fear — which can gnaw at you 24/7 and keep you awake all night — almost completely away.
But for the grace…
Five years ago, I hugged J. on the Avenue of the Columns during Earth Day: me, family in perfect health; she, young and pretty, with a husband and children and newly-diagnosed breast cancer.
"There, but for the grace of God, go my family and I," I thought.
Just before Alison discovered her lump, we were taking homemade sweetbread to another young mom with breast cancer. And around the same time, breast cancer brought the sister of a friend home from afar, a young mother of only 30 with a husband and children, too.
"There, but for the grace of God."
Given the many times I said that to myself, what were the odds Alison and I and our children would start down the same road, and that these friends — for whom we had previously worried and prayed — would, by example, lead the way?
Although the road is long — more than a year of various chemotherapies, radiation and surgery — friends who've been there inspired us not to freak out, but rather to move, calmly and swiftly ahead.
Ellis Fischel's physicians, nurses and technicians have made the road smoother, easier to manage and integrate into our daily lives. Four months in, their flawless execution of not a war but a management has gradually restored hope and life to our family.
Last week, when Nurse Mary was beaming over the greatly reduced size of my wife's tumor — from roughly 5 centimeters to about ½ centimeter — I found myself thinking something different from before.
I wasn't thinking, "There, but for the grace of God, go my family and I," but here.
Here, for the grace of God, my family and I have come.
[On March 11th, after four months of chemotherapy with two drugs called Adriamycin and Cytoxan, oncologist Dr. Michael Perry and oncological nurse Mary Johnson could no longer feel Alison's tumor at all. Only the tiny steel tag that marked its location remains. "And you haven't even met Taxol," Nurse Mary exclaimed. Alison started Taxol -- another anti-cancer drug -- last week.]