Two angels for cancer victims

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From The Manteca Bulletin, by Glenn Kahl August 24, 2010

Cancer victims aren’t alone.

Many have become their own cheerleaders coming together at a monthly support group at Doctors Hospital of Manteca. It is there that they are touched by two women they conside angels – medical coach registered nurse Debbie Aventi and medical social worker Crista Moore.

Nearly a dozen women meet at Doctors Hospital of Manteca to share their present and past experiences with each other in an effort to ease the mental anguish and to give others hope for a better tomorrow.

Many of them offered to share their stories that might help women in the community to realize that the diagnosis of breast and other kinds of cancer should not always signal a grim prognosis without hope for a brighter future.

Pam Romito, a formerreceptionist in a local doctor’s office, was all smiles in telling of a successful double mastectomy that she said saved her life.

“My cause is that women should get early detection and that mammograms save lives,” she said.

Speaking with her support group, she noted that her restoration took longer than most – almost three years after her 2006 surgery. But now she is sitting at the bedside of cancer patients showing them the outcome of today’s state-of-the-art breast surgery restorations – seeing firsthand how good the results actually appear. Pam said she often has to display her scars to make the patients believe what she is telling them – “they think my results are not possible.

“My scars are a testimony – they are my credentials,” she said.

She actually telephones cancer patients when she learns of their whereabouts and tells them she is there for them if they want to talk.

Women are still beautiful

Everyone at Doctors Hospital of Manteca “treated me wonderfully,” she said. “The surgical nurses were great and Dr. (Jerry) Weiner was awesome,” she recalled. “Women are still beautiful – every woman has an ‘inner cleavage,’- that (definition) is for them to find out – it is a treasure hunt, – that’s what I talk to them about,” she explained.

“Women need to know (the facts); When they find a mass, they are too scared to do anything, because they think it is the end of their life – and it’s not,” she stressed.

Another member of the group, Shirley Jennings, had her surgery in April of last year. She said she waited for two weeks before going to see a doctor after a mammogram discovered a suspicious mass. She remembers going to the hospital in May – two weeks later – and having a needle biopsy.

“I was very upset by that because I found that what most people don’t know – is that it can be as high as 20 percent of your needle biopsies that come back negative when they are really positive. That’s one in five and I didn’t want to gamble on those odds because I have an extremely high incidence of cancer in my mother’s family. I lost all my aunts and uncles – except for one – from cancer,” she said.

Shirley stressed that she was very upset with those odds and had her surgery done at another hospital. “I had the guided wire and they came back and said they couldn’t tell for sure – they had to do a lumpectomy. They did a lumpectomy and they still couldn’t tell,” she said.

From there they did a partial mastectomy “and when they got in there they found I had (DCIS) ductal carcinoma in-situ cancer,” she added. It was in her milk ducts in her left breast and she was told surgeons had to go back and “get a clear margin.” It has to be at least two centimeters, she learned, as she went back in for another surgery and they couldn’t get a clear margin, she said.

“I said enough of this nonsense – just take it off. So, I had my breast removed and when they got in there they found it had gone multi-focal, meaning it had spread, it had erupted in many different places in the area. It was a good thing I had it taken off, because it was still contained. They removed one lymph node and it was clear,” she said.

Shirley noted that the doctor told her a few months ago that she is cancer free now – “I’ve been cured,” she said smiling. “He said I could live to be 90.”

She pointed out that “the big thing” that happened that involves Doctors Hospital was the caring. “When I learned I had cancer I was devastated because my mother, my brother and my sister had all died from cancer prematurely and I thought it was a death sentence for me.”

Breast is gone but so is death sentence

She said fortunately her neighbor happened to be Mark Lisa, the CEO of Doctors Hospital who hooked her up with nurse Debbie Aventi. Lisa and Jennings have something in common – they both enjoy their motorcycles. She, too, is an accomplished artist in the watercolor medium as well as being a weaver in making cloth now doing everything she did prior to her surgeries.

“Debbie called me – bless her heart – and talked to me for over an hour, calmed me down and sent me all kinds of material and helped me through the remaining two surgeries – told me about this (support group) and as soon as I could I started attending this group,” she said. “Later I found that my health provider had a similar group but nobody had told me about it – so I sing the praises of Doctors Hospital and of Debbie Aventi. She was my angel and got me through this along with the support of friends.”

She said her cancer was only two millimeters – only the size of a pin when they found it. It was so small. “But because it was so small I didn’t have to have chemotherapy and I didn’t have to have radiation therapy and I didn’t have to have hormone therapy,” she said. “All I had to do was lose a breast. I look down there today and see my breast is gone and I say the breast is gone and so is the cancer and so is my death sentence.”

Still another member of the group was Patricia Walker who was diagnosed in March of 2008 with breast cancer. She said she actually saw the telling spot on her mammogram when she went in for her yearly check asking what it was but the technologists couldn’t tell her.

She quoted them as saying, “The doctor’s not busy – let’s go talk to the doctor.”

Patricia said she did a needle biopsy and a sonogram. “I think from the moment the doctor looked at the sonogram and said it’s not a cyst all I heard from that point on was (mumbling),” she recalled.

Women in the group responded in unison saying, ” You don’t hear anything else at that point.”

“But once I talked to the surgeon and asked her basically what she would do – because I could have had a lumpectomy and radiation – she said you have to do what it takes to be able to sleep soundly at night. So, I called her the next day and said I want a mastectomy and reconstruction,” Patricia said.

She is from Lodi and didn’t have her first surgery in Manteca.

“I think God was watching because he got me to Dr. (Thomas) McNemar as my plastic surgeon and he got me to quit smoking. He told me he would not operate on me if I was a smoker. I was a smoker for 42 years and I told him next time he saw me I wouldn’t be a smoker.”

She said when she went in for her mastectomy she put out her last cigarette at the door, went in and that was the last cigarette she has smoked since. Dr. McNemar gets credit for that too, she added, saying he is a wonderful man. She further explained that when a woman has one breast removed the insurance companies are required by law to pay for reconstruction that matches the configuration of the remaining breast.

Last September she said she had pain in her back, legs and her left hand. Going back to the doctor it was discovered she had cancer in her lung that spread to her brain. She noted she again went through chemo and radiation and she is currently in remission where she plans to be for a long time.

“I drive from Lodi once a month because I am so impressed with staff and all the people here (in the support group),” she said.

“I’m going to make it another 20 years and I just renewed another magazine subscription for three years,” she chuckled.

Debbie Souza was diagnosed in November of 2008 with cancer in the right breast and she opted to have both removed to be safe, she said. She had a four-year-old son at home at the time and from the “get-go” nurse Debbie Aventi was there for her.

Dr. Weiner was her doctor and she too said he was wonderful. She went through six months of chemo and six weeks of radiation that ended in November when she found out she had thyroid cancer. A month later Dr. Weiner performed surgery to remove her thyroid with subsequent radiation for that cancer.

In December she started taking the cancer drug Herceptin for the breast cancer in a year-long treatment, she noted. Her son is now 6 and just started first grade last week.

Brenda Leslie was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2008 in the left breast. She said both breasts were suspicious and both of them had to be removed. She was told she wouldn’t need chemotherapy but her oncologist said without it she would have a death sentence. She claims that having chemo is why she is here today to raise her eight-year-old son.

She said she had her final treatment last week and now she is done saying her husband and her now 10-year-old son are the reasons why she is still here to fight this cancer.

Shirley Jennings interjected and told of a friend who was diagnosed with a stage 4 level breast cancer and was treated with a new clinical trial “Targeted Chemo” that focuses on the actual DNA of a cancer. She said she went through the added “bazooka dose” chemo every day for a week after her initial treatment was completed. She said they could not find any trace of the cancer in her lungs – she was a goner, she said, before the treatment. Currently they are running more tests to determine if there is any cancer anywhere else in her body.

Brenda has been in the DHM support group for two and a half years since it started. Those members encouraged her treatments saying the Targeted DNA Chemo was just another step forward giving victims of cancer a new hope for their survival.

Gloria Alvarez was diagnosed with cancer in the right breast in 1996 with Dr. Weiner finding the cancer and doing the biopsy. She said she had lost a son to cancer and would not take only one opinion, finally having surgery in Sacramento and four months of chemotherapy.

Later in 2007 she was diagnosed with cancer in her left breast with surgery in Tracy. She wanted to have reconstruction of both breasts but developed a massive infection during the process with expanders, she related.

“I use prostheses now,” she said. “I’m happy, my husband is happy.”

She said her husband was there for her to cry with her and to insert her intravenous tubes for her. “A lot of people, a lot of friends have made the difference,” she said including nurse Debbie Aventi. Alvarez previously worked for Sutter Health, she added.

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