With a fulfilling career, good marriage and three lovely daughters, Kim DeLeo was at a place where she could bask in the successes and joys of her life. But life can always produce new challenges to overcome, and DeLeo faced her most difficult as she approached fifty.
One morning in June 2009, Kim DeLeo noticed that something about her right breast did not look right. She observed dimpling, felt a lump, and then her heart sank. She immediately made an appointment to see her gynecologist, Carol Manning, MD. The dimpling in the tissue under the right breast raised concern in Manning, and she performed an ultrasound on DeLeo. The ultrasound revealed an abnormality and Manning immediately referred DeLeo to a surgeon.
Within a week DeLeo had an appointment with the surgeon, who already had her diagnostic images. When DeLeo arrived at his office, she noticed the sign: Stephen Falkenberry, MD, Breast and Oncology Surgeon. That word-"oncology"-hit her suddenly and forcefully, bringing the gravity of her situation to the forefront of her mind.
She says that throughout her life she was blessed with good health and had been in the hospital only four times-when she was born and when she gave birth to her daughters. Now she realized she would be involved in a whirlwind of medical procedures and treatments, and be tested both physically and emotionally as never before. DeLeo reports that from that moment on, everything happened very quickly. Subsequent testing revealed additional tumors, and the decision was made to begin her treatment with chemotherapy, to be followed by surgery at a later date.
At the beginning, DeLeo says that the most difficult time was when she told her daughters, knowing that they would be upset and have many fears and questions about the unknown. She asked her nurse educator to meet with the whole family, and was appreciative that her daughters and husband were also offered support services. They all met with her doctor, her nurse navigator, a representative of the American Cancer Society, the nurse educator, a social worker, and other nursing staff. They were provided with information on resources and given around-the-clock contact information.
The second toughest thing for DeLeo was starting chemotherapy and not knowing what to expect. However, she found that the staff at the The Leonard and Adele R. Decof Family Comprehensive Cancer Center at The Miriam Hospital eased her fears and prepared her for what she would experience. In July, DeLeo started chemotherapy, which involved four treatments every other week. DeLeo's oncologist, Rochelle Strenger, MD, told her that though the road was tough, the end was in sight and her cancer was very treatable.
DeLeo says that she can't say enough about how supportive all the staff at The Miriam Hospital were. She says they all pull together to take the best care of their patients. "From the moment you walk in and are greeted by the receptionist to the phlebotomist-everyone was so kind. It wasn't just your nurse who took care of you…I think I was cared for at some point by all of the nurses there. They all work together as a team."
The focus at the center was on patients' individual needs. "Every step of this process I was given information that would help prepare me for what was coming, for how the drugs would make me feel, or how I would feel two days afterwards, or a week afterwards. I was very well prepared for everything."
And if she had any questions or concerns at any time, she could call and speak with her breast health navigator, who saw her through the entire process, helping her with her medications and her schedule. DeLeo says that she became very attached to her navigator. She found the beginning of her treatment especially difficult and called on her often, finding her very available and responsive. About her, she says, "The nurse navigator was crucial in my care. I did feel that having the navigator was important. You develop a relationship and I knew I could count on her for support."
During DeLeo's treatments, Strenger always stopped in to make sure she was doing well. In addition, she also appreciated visits from the social worker, the acupuncturist, the reiki therapist, the therapy dog…"whatever works to take your mind off what is going on and help you feel better." She also liked the privacy and comfort that the center offered. She could relax in a big comfortable chair, either chatting with others, reading or watching television as she chose, while volunteers brought refreshments or anything she needed.
About her time spent at the center, DeLeo says, "As weird as this may sound, most people that are in that cancer treatment center receiving these toxic drugs that are killing your cells, that are making you lose your hair, that are making you feel sick…they're smiling. They're laughing. They're kidding around with each other. It's a very comfortable place.
"The Comprehensive Cancer Center makes you feel like you're a survivor from the moment you walk in," DeLeo says. "They work on your treatment plan with you so you are definitely a player. You're not just a recipient of it. You are a major decision maker and you are involved in your treatment. You don't choose to have cancer, your choice lies within how you will treat it and what kind of an attitude you will maintain during your fight."
After her first round of chemotherapy ended, DeLeo had a lumpectomy. Test results showed that her lymph nodes were clear and the tumors had shrunk, but had unclear margins. Another decision had to be made: mastectomy or another lumpectomy. She says that her doctors discussed her options with her, but let her make up her own mind. After an in-depth conversation with Falkenberry, she decided on mastectomy. Before the mastectomy, she went through another round of chemotherapy, which was not as taxing as the first. One month after she completed the second round, she had a mastectomy.
Then another follow-up mammogram revealed a shadow in the image of her left breast, and at that point, she decided it was safest to have another mastectomy. After the mastectomies, reconstructive surgery restored, or improved, the contours of her chest. DeLeo happily reports that she is now fifty and looking good in a bathing suit.
"You are never alone on this journey."
She says that when she was through with her treatments, she felt like she was going to be lonely. But the staff at the center assured her that she was okay, and that they would stay in touch. She says that there was consistent follow-up after she finished her treatments. "You are never alone on this journey. The people at this cancer treatment center make sure that you and your family are always well cared for."
Despite the hardship of her lengthy ordeal, she is today a survivor and believes that the experience brought her and her husband closer together, and brought her family closer together. DeLeo was to celebrate her fiftieth birthday the summer she completed her treatments. She says, "For my fiftieth birthday, I want to invite all the people who have made a difference in my life-my friends, my family, the people from the cancer treatment center because I consider them part of my treatment family-I want to have a big celebration." She adds that instead of gifts, she would like donations made for cancer treatment and research. "Your idea of what is important in your life really changes after this, and it's for the better."
Looking forward, she says, "My hope for the future is that research is continued-that there are people who are willing to go through clinical trials to help find better drugs to treat more types of cancers or to treat cancers more efficiently. I'm sure those who went through this before I did were much sicker than I was, probably much more tired than I was. My hope is that one day we won't have cancer any longer."