In cancer circles, Heather Brown is known as an anomaly.
Diagnosed at age 34 with invasive ductal carcinoma, she has no family history of breast cancer. She eats well and doesn’t smoke. In other words, there is no good explanation for the lump she “caught the edge of” while applying lotion to her chest on Sunday, Feb.7, 2010.
Heather learned very quickly that you can’t be too young or too healthy for breast cancer. Within five months of feeling that lump – on July 8, 2010, to be exact, the day she completed her program of chemotherapy at the FirstHealth Outpatient Cancer Center – she had experienced most of the cancer services th has to offer.
Both she and husband Chris are convinced that she got the best care possible.
“We are very grateful and relieved that we stayed here,” says Chris.
Because it was a Sunday when Heather found the lump in her breast, she had to wait until the next day to call her OB/GYN practice for an appointment. By Wednesday, she was being examined by Tracey Phillips, a certified family nurse practitioner at Pinehurst Surgical’s Women’s Center, who didn’t like the way the lump felt.
The next day, she was having a diagnostic mammogram and ultrasound at Pinehurst Radiology, where radiologist John Roberson, M.D., told the Browns that he was 4.5 sure on a 5-point scale that they were dealing with cancer. A biopsy performed by general surgeon Raymond Washington, M.D., confirmed both Phillips’ and Dr. Roberson’s suspicions.
Heather is grateful for the quick attention she got from all of her providers and especially for Dr. Washington’s frank but compassionate assessment. “Dr. Washington concurred with the radiologist and told us that even if the pathology report came back clear, the lump was coming out,” she says. “He felt if it was not cancer at that time, that’s what it would turn out to be.”
Her treatment was arranged quickly, too. On March 19, 2010, Dr. Washington performed a radical mastectomy of Heather’s left breast and plastic surgeon Noel McDevitt, M.D., of Pinehurst Surgical, began reconstruction. Because pathology noted micro-metastasis in two sentinel lymph nodes, 10 more lymph nodes were removed on March 31.
Again, the care extended beyond the typical. During her hospitalization, Heather had several visits with Beth Dietrich, a licensed social worker specializing in the care of cancer patients, who shared information about the various support services that FirstHealth offers.
On April 28, Dr. Washington implanted a porta-cath in anticipation of Heather’s chemotherapy program, which began May 6 and continued through July 8 with medical oncologist Ellen Willard, M.D., of the FirstHealth Outpatient Cancer Center.
Heather had already seen Dr. Willard, on referral from Dr. McDevitt who was concerned about the possibility of blood clots in her legs. “It was natural for her to follow through with us,” Heather says.
The chemotherapy experience wasn’t at all what Heather and Chris expected. Instead of the gray walls and beds filled with “sick people,” Heather found a bright and open environment with upbeat nurses, staff and volunteers determined to keep their patients in a positive frame of mind.
“I kept waiting to get to the ‘sick patients,’” Heather says. “I was astounded how peaceful, how calm, how soothing it was. There was no time schedule, and all my questions were answered.”
“They care,” Chris says. “They take the time, and they care.”
Because of a fairly common tie between breast and ovarian cancer, Heather was at one time encouraged to seek what amounted to a second opinion at one of the state’s large teaching institutions. While the physician she saw was kind, helpful and knowledgeable, Heather found the preliminary care impersonal.
“When they say you are a number, you really are,” she says.
At every step of the way – from diagnosis to surgery to treatment and breast reconstruction, the Browns felt like Heather’s caregivers at FirstHealth stayed in touch with each other. “There was a continual line of communication about Heather and her care and her treatment,” says Chris.
They also believed they were in the hands of people who cared about Heather personally. “I always felt like I could call and someone would take the time and walk me through my concerns,” she says.
“And if a phone call didn’t fix it,” Chris says, “they’d say, ‘Come on up.’”
The Browns are “eternally grateful” for the care they received and continue to receive.
“I am confident that the choice we made to have our treatment at the Outpatient Cancer Center was one of the best decisions we could have made,” says Heather. “You won’t find a more dedicated, knowledgeable and caring staff than the team we have right here in Pinehurst.”