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When Lillian Birrell worked as a medical secretary/assistant for a cancer surgeon who specialized in breast cancer in the late 1960’s treatment was invasive and often left women disfigured. Surgery involved removing not only the breast but also all the underlying chest muscles and lymph nodes. Radiation would often leave women with blackened skin. And patients had no post-operative care support. Women often had to endure long waits to see their family physician, and then wait again to find the right surgeon then add long waits between surgery and follow-up treatment.
While cancer treatment has vastly advanced since those days, memories of those stark images and prognoses stayed etched in Lillian’s mind.
Fast forward to April 2018.
Having worked at Henry Ford Health System for more than 25 years, Lillian was a loyal patient receiving her yearly mammogram at Henry Ford.
This time, Lillian’s annual mammogram detected a lump. A biopsy of the lump confirmed she had invasive breast cancer of her left breast.
Thinking back to her former job, she began to imagine the worst.
But times have changed – one phone call proved that.
Not long after learning news about her diagnosis, Lillian received a call from nurse navigator, Amber Misch, RN, at the Henry Ford Cancer Institute.
Amber was calling to discuss Lillian’s next steps and to inform her about the breast cancer program - where Lillian could meet her entire care team in one, convenient visit close to her home at the Henry Ford Cancer Institute at Henry Ford Macomb Hospital in Clinton Twp.
“(The nurse) said, ‘show up tomorrow at 9 o’clock and we will take care of you,’” explains Lillian.
Walking in for her appointment the next day, Lillian felt an immediate sense of comfort. The receptionist greeted her with a hug and told her that she would be seeing three breast cancer physicians. As she was handed her gown, Lillian was nervous to walk around in only a hospital gown from physician to physician, but the staff informed her that her doctors were coming to see her.
Prior to Lillian’s appointment, the entire breast cancer team met as part of a Tumor Board, to discuss Lillian’s case and map out the best course of treatment for her. During her clinic appointment, key members of Lillian’s breast cancer team would then meet with her to discuss treatment options.
Lillian met with breast cancer surgeon Lindsay Petersen, M.D., radiation oncologist Ibrahim Aref, M.D., medical oncologist Lynette Sutkowi, D.O., and cancer surgery Nurse Practitioner Crystal Rivett, C.N.P. – all in one room during her clinic visit.
“Dr. Petersen was a breath of fresh air – she was just wonderful!” Lillian exclaimed. And, Lillian, noted the unexpected support she received from Dr. Petersen’s Nurse Practitioner, Crystal: “I pulled out a piece of paper and pencil to jot down notes as the surgeon was speaking, and Crystal stopped me.” Lillian was able to listen to Dr. Petersen as Crystal took notes for her and outlined her treatment plan in writing.
She felt at ease.
After examining Lillian and explaining some treatment options, Dr. Petersen asked her what she wanted to do. Lillian told her: “Take them, I don’t use them.”
Dr. Petersen offered a lumpectomy, just removal of the cancer, as opposed to a mastectomy, which removes the entire breast. She also planned to test the lymph nodes during the surgery to determine if the cancer had spread beyond Lillian’s breast.
Surgery was set for May 11 at Henry Ford Hospital in Detroit.
After Dr. Petersen, Dr. Ibrahim Aref visited Lillian’s clinic room. “He was so caring,” she said. He scheduled her for a simulation to plan her radiation treatment, which would be done over the course of four weeks, five days a week.
Radiation was scheduled to start June 1.
Finally, Dr. Sutkowi came into Lillian’s clinic room. Dr. Sutkowi explained that since Lillian’s cancer was responsive to hormone therapy, she recommended that Lillian take an anti-hormonal pill every day. “I will be seeing her on a regular basis for the next few years,” says Lillian.
Lillian described the multidisciplinary clinic as “a bright light at the end of a very dark tunnel.” She said the handoff from one specialist to another “was seamless.”
As Lillian prepared to head into the OR for surgery on May 11, Dr. Petersen held her hand as she said her goodbyes to family. “She held my hand until we were in the operating room,” Lillian recalls.
After surgery, Lillian didn’t skip a beat during treatment. She continued taking care of her grandsons – and ballroom dancing with her husband, Duane.
“Surgery was on a Friday, classes were on Wednesday. I went to the next dance class after surgery,” she said proudly. In addition to dancing, Lillian and her husband are on their bikes as much as possible, riding on Mackinaw Island this past summer.
“Life is what it is, no sense in whining or wondering why me. I don’t have time to waste: I’m too busy watching my grandchildren grow, enjoying my adult children, traveling with my husband, camping, singing karaoke, celebrating life with family and friends, bicycling, ballroom dancing, ziplining (the last one parallel to Niagara Falls!) and working as contingent part-time nurse at WSU Student Health Clinic. With my faith in God, and the love and support of my husband, family and friends, my quirky sense of humor, and my world-renowned hugs, I live every day to the fullest,” she says.
Lillian also has shared her experience at a cancer community event. She gave a very heartfelt talk and recognized the wonderful care she received through each stage of her treatment – contrasting her experience today with what she witnessed working with breast cancer patients decades ago.
“Women are finally receiving the care and attention they need for breast cancer,” she said. “You have no idea what it means to have my medical journey set for the next two years.”