Kathleen Corey recently moved into a new home in Hudsonville, Michigan.
She and her husband, Steve, have been taking down wallpaper, painting and upgrading countertops.
But in the midst of creating a new life in a new home, a routine mammogram at the beginning of a new year uncovered a life-changing diagnosis—cancer.
“It was high up under my left armpit, about the size of my little pinky,” said Corey of the early January finding at Spectrum Health Zeeland Community Hospital. “I ended up having two biopsies.”
She met with the multispecialty team at the Spectrum Health Cancer Center on Feb. 15 and had an MRI on Feb. 16, just a day before she planned to leave for a Florida vacation.
“It was kind of a whirlwind because I had the vacation scheduled,” she said.
Vacations are supposed to be relaxing for body, mind and spirit.
That’s tough to accomplish when your mind is preoccupied with thoughts of cancer, when your body is preparing to battle it, and when your spirit is desperately trying to integrate it.
Staying with her sister in the Tampa area, Corey tried to block thoughts of cancer from her mind.
“I tried not to think about it, but then I had the looming of the MRI and what they were going to find on that,” she said. “We sat out in the sun, went to flea markets, car shows and enjoyed the weather. I found out while in Florida that there was a spot in the right breast that was suspicious. We actually ended up coming back a week early because of everything that was going on.”
With the two-week trip sliced to one week, as vacation ended, so did her method of avoidance.
“I tried not to think about it, but when you get home, the reality sets in,” she said.
On March 7 she had a right breast biopsy. She got the results the next day. Non-malignant. Good news. The cancer remained only in the left breast.
“She has early stage breast cancer and has an excellent prognosis,” said Melinda Miller, MD, Spectrum Health Cancer Center breast oncologist and surgeon at the Lemmen-Holton Cancer Pavilion. “She desired breast conservation and had a partial lumpectomy followed by breast radiation.”
Dr. Miller performed the lumpectomy on Corey’s left breast on March 11.
“The surgery went really well for me,” Corey said. “She was able to get the tumor and lymph nodes out of one incision, so that was a plus. There was only one incision to heal, so that was good.”
Corey credits another member of her clinical team for her healing—Marilyn Thompson, her nurse navigator at Zeeland Community Hospital.
Spectrum Health’s nurse navigators provide a wind-beneath-your-wings type of support system for many patients, guiding them through a sometimes complicated series of appointments and procedures.
Dr. Miller said the navigators provide a valuable service.
“The nurse navigators do a lot for our patients behind the scenes,” the doctor said. “I recall that (Corey) was headed to Florida on vacation two days after our consultation visit. Our nurse navigator was instrumental in getting her breast MRI scheduled prior to her leaving for her trip, which was very helpful.”
Thompson guided Corey to more geographically pleasing care options that Corey was not aware of—like treatments at the Spectrum Health-affiliated radiation center in Holland, Michigan, much closer to her home than driving to Grand Rapids.
“She’s been very helpful,” Corey said. “She has been a good resource. She doesn’t have to call me, but she continues to.”
That connection and caring helps Corey feel better.
“Marilyn calls me every couple of weeks just to see how I’m doing,” Corey said. “She’s wonderful. It makes me feel like somebody out there cares.”
When Corey had a bone density test in Zeeland, Thompson called her shortly thereafter to check on her.
“She popped in to see me but I had already left,” Corey said. “She said she’s been watching me. She sees where I am, which is really nice.”
Corey expected to conclude her treatments May 31. She’ll next meet with Dr. Miller and Amy VanderWoude, MD.
“I have to be on the cancer drugs for five years,” Corey said. “I’m just taking it one day at a time.”
And she’s taking it with optimism—she has Thompson as her guide, she’s moving into a new home, and she’s sensing spring.
“I feel like everything is going to be OK,” she said. “I’m convinced everything is going to be OK, and I’m going with that.”
And if she runs into an emotional or medical stumbling block? She knows navigational aids are only a phone call away.
“I would have no issues with calling Marilyn,” Corey said.