Part two of a continuing story
I've seen few people with a wider grin than surgeon Paul Dale, M.D., when he told my wife Alison that she was one of an "elite group" of breast cancer survivors, of which there are many these days.
After eight months of chemotherapy, and surgery last month called a "lumpectomy," pathologists with Mizzou's Ellis Fischel Cancer Center in Columbia couldn't find the slightest trace of a once 5-centimeter tumor that was growing so fast Alison had found it on her own.
No tumor in her breast. No cancer cells in her lymph nodes. Nothing.
"It's a work of art!" Dr. Dale exclaimed, referring to Alison's outcome and her surgery, which left two breasts that look mostly the way they did before.
That work of art was a team effort, with my wife's oncologist, Michael Perry, M.D., her surgeon, Dr. Dale, and the nurses, residents, and medical students at Ellis Fischel; our children, family, and friends; pastor Amy Cortright, the congregation at Columbia's Calvary Episcopal Church, and several other prayer groups; the University of Missouri's timely and well-organized health care insurance provider, Coventry; our personal nurses, Dawn Frederick and Mary Johnson, who were always encouragingly upbeat; and the patient herself, who walked to chemotherapy from work for the exercise -- even on the hottest days -- and never lost her smile.
Heart and soul
When Alison and I heard the news, we felt joy, relief, and residual anguish, from all the uncertainty suddenly resolved.
The tumor -- an aggressive variety named for a protein scientists call "HER2" -- had vanished to the touch after Alison started chemotherapy last December. Four different types of chemotherapy drugs had pushed the cancer back and finally, out, following a routine so well-orchestrated that she avoided any major side effects.
Nurses at Ellis even controlled for possible mouth sores, giving her popsicles during treatments, which sometimes lasted 3-4 hours.
Amazingly, Dr. Dale and Dr. Perry predicted this outcome right after they diagnosed Alison last November. They didn't rush in and remove anything, preferring chemotherapy to first reduce the tumor, then a lumpectomy to take out whatever might be left. That meant my wife would have both breasts intact, more healthy tissue, and greater peace of mind.
When the tumor started to shrink after Alison's first round of chemo -- the drugs Adriamycin and Cytoxan -- Nurses Mary and Dawn couldn't restrain their delight. "And you haven't even met Taxol!" Mary would say, referencing a chemo to come.
Months later, during pre-planning for surgery, Alison's MRI and other imaging data was so clean, medical students and radiology fellows gathered to look at the pix, inspiring and educational windows into the heart of modern medicine and the soul of a powerful team.
Race for the cure
Breast cancer is eminently treatable these days, and in many cases, virtually curable. Every day Alison and I meet people who've "been there, done that" years -- even decades -- ago.
But "cure," in this case, means no cancer right now, today, in the here and now. For those who have had cancer before, it will always lurk -- as a much higher risk, the possibility of recurrence, and the lifelong need for vigilant early detection.
With each passing year, though, the risks decrease. New research promises new treatments and new ways to avoid cancer or detect it early; new patients meet new healthcare teams; and like jets safely landing at the airport -- one after the other -- someone goes before, helping guide the way for someone else.
Alison has been enrolled in a research clinical trial since we began involving a chemotherapy specialized for her cancer type called Herceptin. And she's currently involved with a team at the University of Missouri School of Medicine, helping the Susan G. Komen Foundation fund more breast cancer research, and find more ways to live.
Cancer is hard work. It's frightening and challenging, and lands on you like a boulder falling from the sky.
Managing it has involved, most of all, great trust -- trust that doctors and nurses are making the best decisions; trust that the information we have -- from lab results to research findings -- will guide the best way; trust that the business of it all -- all the bills -- won't wreck us. Trust -- and faith -- that everything will be all right.
Trust, after all, is faith. And Faith, they say, can move mountains.
It does seem to me, looking back on all this, that the ever-mysterious, often-miraculous team of Science and Spirit has moved a mountain -- all five centimeters of it -- once again.
-- Mike Martin for the Columbia Heart Beat
Part one of this story:
Susan G. Komen Race for the Cure information: