Just days after receiving a breast cancer diagnosis, Coleen Walter was introduced to the world of cancer care by Jean Lilja, who worked as a nurse navigator at St. Luke’s Mountain States Tumor Institute (MSTI) in Meridian.
The Meridian woman was still processing the news she received on New Year’s Eve: a biopsy revealed invasive ductal carcinoma.
“Two days after New Year’s, I got a call and this bright cheery voice said ‘Hi, this is Jean. I’m your cancer navigator,’” Walter said. “She was always there for me, every time I turned around.”
Lilja, now retired, was a much-needed support system for Walter. Nurse navigators help new patients “navigate” this unfamiliar new world they’ve just been dropped into.
“When I first got the diagnosis from my doctor, all I could hear was CANCER,” Walter said. “I don’t remember anything else she said. I couldn’t think straight. There was so much to take in. But Jean has kept me thinking straight.”
“We try to call within 24 hours of a person getting the diagnosis, accounting for weekends and holidays” Lilja said. “We want to let her know there’s a plan, and it’s very predictable, and it’s going to be okay.”
Walter always made it a point to get her annual mammogram.
“I did my mammogram every year because I thought it was important,” she said, “but I truly never believed I’d get breast cancer.”
In 2015 something strange showed up on her mammogram, even though she never felt a lump and hadn’t noticed anything different. After an ultrasound and a biopsy, she got the diagnosis on New Year’s Eve. Invasive ductal carcinoma is the most common type of breast cancer, making up about 80 percent of all breast cancer cases.
Walter’s older sister had been diagnosed with the same type of breast cancer that same year. Her sister felt a lump and got right in for a mammogram, but the cancer had already advanced to stage three. Her treatment included a double mastectomy, chemotherapy and radiation therapy.
Because Walter’s cancer had been found so early, she was able to avoid chemotherapy. She had a partial mastectomy followed by several weeks of radiation therapy at St. Luke’s MSTI in Meridian.
“I was one of the lucky ones,” she said.
Although Walter began 2016 with a cancer diagnosis, the support she received from Lilja and others on the MSTI team helped her face the challenge with confidence.
From the mammogram, ultrasound, and biopsy to the surgery, radiation, and office visits, “everyone cared,” Walter said. “They make it as easy as possible for you. You lose that fear over time, relax more, because of them.”
Screening Saves Lives
Breast cancer is the second leading cause of cancer death in women, after lung cancer. More than 230,000 women and 2,000 men are diagnosed in the United States each year. But death rates from breast cancer have been dropping since about 1989, due to finding it earlier through screening and increased awareness, as well as improved treatments. Today there are more than 2.8 million survivors in the U.S. alone.
“How very lucky I am that the mammogram found the cancer,” Walter said. “My sister had a much harder road. But her attitude is so fabulous—that’s why mine has been so good. If she can do it, I can do it. She’s my hero.”
Walter believed in the value of mammograms before her cancer diagnosis, and now she shares that message with younger generations.
“I’m very thankful for my health,” Walter continued. “I have five daughters and eight granddaughters, and I want them all to get regular mammograms. My sister’s cancer grew so fast. How fast might mine have grown had I waited another six months or a year to go in for my mammogram?”
Anna Fritz is a writer and editor with St. Luke’s Communications and Marketing.