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In Their Own Words

Cancer - Dana S.

03/08/2016

In the fall of 2010, Dana Stevens was looking forward to the season ahead—the holidays, then Valentine’s Day and, just a few days later, her 40th birthday. Little did she know she was on the brink of an incredibly difficult journey. Not only was it to affect her immediate plans, it would profoundly change her life.

A registered nurse, Dana works in the regulatory compliance department at Good Samaritan Hospital. She had been motivated to become a nurse—especially in the field of cancer care—due to a strong family history of cancer. In fact, she is “BRCA positive,” a genetic mutation that contributes to breast or ovarian cancer in affected families. Earlier in her career, Dana had worked as a cancer care nurse.

Her journey began the morning she felt a lump in her breast while taking a shower. Although initial testing showed no abnormality, repeat tests after the holidays revealed an aggressive, tumor that had quickly grown to 4 centimeters in diameter. Further testing showed Dana had “triple-negative” breast cancer, a type that can be more difficult to treat and usually requires a combination of therapies.

“The diagnosis was confirmed on Valentine’s Day,” remembers Dana. “That evening, my husband Mike asked me how the tests went and I said, ‘Let’s have Valentine’s Day first.’”

According to Dana, besides being a great husband, Mike is her very supportive caretaker. The strength of their relationship has been a crucial factor in helping her face the cancer diagnosis and get through what turned out to be a very complex, sometimes life-threatening, course of treatment.

When Dana consulted Elwyn Cabebe MD, co-director of Oncology at Good Samaritan Hospital, she found the doctor who would help shepherd her through that treatment.

“Dr. Cabebe had a definite plan, which involved attacking the cancer with everything possible,” said Dana. “That’s what I wanted.”

The first step was six monthly doses of a very strong chemotherapy. After the third dose, Dana’s colon had become so thin it ruptured—a very rare complication. She was admitted to Good Samaritan’s intensive care unit in septic shock, and surgeons found it necessary to perform a temporary colostomy.

“I was so thankful to be at Good Sam during this time,” she says. “I had so many physicians watching my course of care, I believe it made the difference between life and death.”

After two weeks, Dana returned home. When she was fully recovered, she underwent double mastectomy. Pathologic tests showed no cancer except for a few microscopic cells in one lymph node. This was good news.

The next step was a month of radiation therapy. The treatment caused skin breakdown and burning, so Dana tapped into Good Samaritan’s Wound Care Center to help her heal.

Since then, Dana’s colostomy has been reversed and she is going through breast reconstruction. For her, this could take up to five surgeries. At the time of this writing, she is still in the process.

Now, Dana focuses on prevention. With her genetic make-up, she’s very aware of the possibility of reoccurrence. So, she exercises frequently, including taking bike rides with Mike on their cruisers. She also eats a low fat diet and uses a range of complementary therapies, such as massage, acupuncture and meditation.

Her experience with cancer has also affected Dana’s entire outlook, as well as plans for her career.

“I look at life day by day now, and I don’t want to miss anything,” she asserts.

More than that, Dana wants to take her experience and “play it forward.” She has decided to help other patients by becoming a breast cancer nurse navigator with Good Samaritan’s Breast Care Center.

“I know so much more now,” Dana concludes. “I want to take that knowledge and experience and support others so they won’t feel alone. It feels like I’ve come full circle from the time I first decided to become a nurse. In this way, my breast cancer has been a gift.”