Summer vacation is supposed to be a relaxing time for teachers.

But that’s not how it turned out for Cara Gregory.

The 50-year-old Grand Rapids middle school teacher hadn’t worried much before her June mammogram.

“No one in my family has a history of breast cancer,” she said. “I can’t point to single female relative with breast issues.”

During a visit with her sister, Chris, in Ann Arbor, she noticed a letter in her Spectrum Health MyChart portal, asking her to come back for further tests. They had spotted a suspicious spot on her mammogram.

She felt surprised.

She called Spectrum Health Betty Ford Breast Care Services and quickly felt reassured by the caring attitude and complete explanations she received on the phone.

“I felt comfortable because I knew what was going to happen,” Gregory said.

Another mammogram. An ultrasound. A core-needle biopsy.

Immediately after the tests, Spectrum Health diagnostic radiologist Geoffrey Remes, MD, joined Gregory to review the results. He suspected a radial scar, an abnormal growth in her breast.

It had to come out.

Info-seeker meets educator

Gregory met Melinda Miller, MD, at the Spectrum Health Lemmen-Holton Cancer Pavilion.

They were the perfect match: Gregory sees herself as an info-seeker. Dr. Miller, a breast surgeon oncologist, sees herself as an educator.

During the pre-op consultation, Dr. Miller used a whiteboard to draw a diagram of a breast. They reviewed their options.

“She really educated me about the biology of the breast,” Gregory said. “Until then, my only understanding of the breast came from breastfeeding.”

Dr. Miller explained that radial scars can co-exist with cancer cells or with atypical cells she calls “friends,” which may become invasive breast cancer.

“She made me feel like we were part of a team managing my care,” Gregory said. “I certainly did not feel like a number or a problem for them to solve.”

After outpatient surgery at Spectrum Health Butterworth Surgery Center, Gregory got some good news. She didn’t have any cancerous cells and she doesn’t need any further treatments.

But this leg of her health journey didn’t end there.

Next step: Breast health

Being a surgeon is Dr. Miller’s second career. She also worked as a chemical engineer for several years, but applied to medical school after losing her mother to breast cancer.

“It made me see health care in a different light and made me want to prevent what happened to my mom from happening to someone else,” she said.

Now Dr. Miller asks all her patients, including Gregory, to eat a breast-healthy diet with plenty of dark green, leafy vegetables and cruciferous veggies. This includes broccoli, cauliflower and Brussels sprouts, which help the body deal with estrogen.

She also recommends dark-colored fruit such as pomegranates, which are high in cancer-preventing antioxidants.

“Getting exercise, eating healthy and addressing lifestyle factors doesn’t just help breast health, it helps overall health,” the doctor said.

Gregory is fortunate when it comes to eating right. Her husband, Don, is a chef who does most of the cooking in their home.

And although teaching keeps her extraordinarily busy as she transitions between a virtual classroom to in-school teaching, she is trying to exercise more and get back into running.

“Grand Rapids is a great place to live for so many reasons,” Gregory said. “And having access to Spectrum Health is one of the great perks of living in this area.”

She looks back at her summer with warm memories of everyone she encountered through her breast health journey, from receptionists on the phone to the nurses, radiologist, anesthesiologist and surgeon.

“Under scary situations, it’s surprising that strangers are really the ones to make us feel OK,” she said.