Cancer care includes a variety of treatments, systematic therapies, surgery and clinical trials.
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Sitting comfortably on the floor at the Southeast YMCA in Bloomington, Carrie Robb arches her arms overhead with the fluidity of a practicing gymnast, stretching first to the right, then to the left. Her well-coiffed, but short, curly brown hair, frames her pleasant smile and chocolate-brown eyes, belying her struggle to recover from a life-threatening illness in the last year.
In the summer of 2016, this Registered Nurse at IU Health Bloomington Hospital became the patient; her co-workers became her caregivers. With the resolve of a medical professional, she recounts how the diagnosis unfolded:
“It was July 8 and I went for my regular mammogram. I then got a letter in the mail requesting I return for more tests. I had received a letter before so I wasn’t shocked or overly concerned when I went in for the ultrasound. Shortly after the exam, the radiologist at Southern Indiana Radiological Associates (SIRA) came into the room and said I had a 2-centimeter tumor at the two o’clock position on the right breast and wanted to schedule a biopsy. Even then I wasn’t worried, because they still had to do the biopsy.”
Carrie weighed the chances the tumor would be malignant. Cancer didn’t run in her family, she was living a healthy lifestyle and she was only 43. Although she could now feel the newly-discovered lump, she scheduled the biopsy with confidence.
Her family, in a show of love and support, made plans to be present when the results came in. Ryyan, her husband of five years, his mom and the couple’s children, Evan, Koby and Kadee, got the medical report alongside Carrie. It was cancer – Invasive Ductal Carcinoma, Stage 2 B.
Joyce Bynum, RN—a navigator with the Olcott Center—was there to help. She talked with each of the children individually, making sure that as a family they had the facts. “Joyce is just great, the whole office is amazing,” Carrie says, reflecting on her experience at the local cancer resource center.
Whether her medical background or her faith propelled her forward, she remained positive. “I thought, ‘let’s deal with it.’ The next step was to find a surgeon. I chose Dr. Fadi Haddad because he has a lot of experience with patients here in the area, and we wanted to stay local. We did seek out a second opinion, but we felt comfortable with Dr. Haddad.”
On Aug. 31, with her family waiting close by, Carrie underwent a mastectomy of her right breast at IU Health Bloomington Hospital. Twenty nodes were also removed from her armpit, after a sentinel-node biopsy showed two nodes contained cancer cells.
“That’s the first thing I asked about when I woke up. When I heard the results of the node testing, I knew I would need chemo,” she says, explaining how her medical background helped her analyze the situation. Soon after, however, her tenacity would crumble.
“My family was there for me, totally. But when they left to eat dinner, that’s when it hit me. I realized I had no range of motion in my arm. It was then that I moved my gown and took the first sneak peek. At that moment, I sobbed and sobbed.”
As the weight of the illness settled on her in that hospital room, a nurse pulled a chair to the bed, sat down beside Carrie and asked her to share her feelings.
“It was amazing,” Carrie says of the compassion. Others on duty were equally kind. “A nurse I had worked with in the emergency department (who had since transferred to surgery) altered her schedule to be with me throughout the procedure. She came in and held onto the cart and walked me into surgery.
“As soon as I woke up, she messaged me and said: ‘You did great.’”
Their kindness, Carrie says, has changed her forever.
“It’s taught me to be a little more patient with my patients,” she says. “So often in the ED or Urgent Care, we are so task driven, trying to take care of immediate needs. Slowing down, a softer touch and paying attention to the patient’s emotions are so important.”
The next day Carrie was released from the hospital and her resilience, both emotional and physical, made a resounding comeback. “Three days later my husband and I went out for dinner and an IU football game,” she says.
Not that it was easy.
“I had a special recliner so I could get up and I slept elevated in bed. My husband had to bathe me for three weeks,” she says, praising him for his devotion. “God couldn’t have handpicked a better partner for me to go through this with. My husband is unshaken. He reacts positively to things, not to mention, he’s very domesticated. And during this, he had taken a new position at work, so he had to deal with both. In truth, my husband had a better attitude about this than I did.”
Just four weeks later on Oct. 6, she started chemotherapy, receiving eight rounds, one every other week. She would routinely work in the mornings on Wednesday, take a five-hour treatment at 2 p.m., work Thursday morning and then crash by Thursday night, sending her into a grueling weekend of nausea and weakness.
She recalls distinctly that her second dose happened to be on a Thursday; her hair started falling out on Friday night.
“My hairdresser was so great. She closed her shop early that following Monday night and came to my house. In a show of solidarity, my husband, my brother-in-law and I had our heads shaved together.”
The last obstacle in her chemotherapy treatments would come just two weeks after the final dose. “That’s when my eyelashes and eyebrows came out. That was actually harder on me than losing the hair on my head.” Her hair – now a wavy crop – began its triumphant return in March.
Fresh from a weekend trip to Louisville for a U2 concert, Carrie is still beaming as her shift comes to a close at the hospital. On an extraordinarily warm day in July, she is immediately off to the YMCA to work on her muscle strength.
“I was in bed for about 30 days during the treatment,” she says. The YMCA’s, commonly-called W.I.S.E. class – Working Out to Increase Strength and Endurance – is helping her rebuild her overall strength. The class is designed specifically for individuals going through treatment for a cancer-related illness or those who have completed their therapy. Those with other medical issues are also welcomed into the program.
The upper body moves are the most challenging for Carrie.
“This one is going to be tough,” she says as she lifts some light weights. With determination she works through the routines, conquering each one.
While Carrie hopes the cancer is permanently eradicated from her body, she will minimize the chances of its return. She is opting for a subsequent surgery this year to remove her left breast. Her decision comes as a result of taking the BRCA mutation genetic test, which helps determine whether cells are likely to become cancerous. While only two of the 28 tests came back positive, it increases her risk of another bout with cancer by 30 percent. She wants no part of it.
In addition, she faces reconstructive surgery later this year or in early 2018.
Carrie’s journey was unexpected and its lingering affects unwanted. But as a patient and a nurse she offers encouragement and advice for women facing the decisions that come with a breast cancer diagnosis.
What should someone expect? “Be aware there will be emotions of anger, sadness, disbelief and doubt. It’s kind of like the five stages of grief. You have to progress through them and realize ‘this is real. I do have to deal with this.’”
She counts off practices that helped her get through the treatment. “First, I got lots of rest. I was in a lot of pain, so resting was imperative. Secondly, when I was hungry I ate what I wanted, meaning comfort food. And lastly, do what you feel like doing. We went to Florida right after my last chemo treatment. It was beautiful and restorative.”
Carrie says how a patient approaches the diagnosis and treatment will ultimately affect the outcomes.
“I had a choice to be optimistic, a choice to be hopeful; that’s a choice we have to make for ourselves. But as a result of moving forward, I’ll get to see my kids graduate from college; I’ll get to travel; I’ll get to go to more concerts. Those are things I wouldn’t want to miss.”
When it comes to breast health, do everything possible to live a healthy life and reduce your chances of developing cancer.
Featured IU Health Bloomington Hospital Navigator with the Olcott Center:
Joyce Bynum, RN, BSN, OCN, ONN-CG, CCCM, CMF
Cancer care includes a variety of treatments, systematic therapies, surgery and clinical trials.
Chemotherapy uses specialized drugs either to kill cancer cells or to help manage side effects of cancer.
The most common cancer in women, we help you every step of the way—from prevention to early detection to advanced treatment.