A Tale of T-Shirts and Angels: My Breast Cancer Story

Extraordinary Healer®, Extraordinary Healers Vol. 9, Volume 9, Issue 1

An Extraordinary Healers essay honoring Patty Madsen, RN [Blake Medical Center in Bradenton, Florida].

Julianne Ashley (left) with Patty Madsen, RN -- PHOTO BY STEVEN NESIUS

I HAVE HEARD it said that there are angels on the earth masquerading as people. I suspect I have met several of them among the nurses, doctors and medical staff who have helped me on this journey, and I am absolutely certain I know at least one.

I have had too many family members and friends who have battled breast cancer. Some have beaten it, and some have not. In the past, I had walked in four 60-mile, three-day walks to support the fight against breast cancer. At the end of each event, participants are awarded a t-shirt commemorating the walk. Most walkers receive a white t-shirt; breast cancer survivors receive a pink t-shirt. I had four white t-shirts. I never wanted a pink t-shirt.

I always dreaded my annual mammogram. After witnessing so much breast cancer, somewhere in the back of my mind it wasn’t a question of “if” but “when.” So in October 2012, when my mammogram result was “normal,” as in previous years, I felt as though I had “bought another year.”

Then came June 2013 and my annual checkup with my OB/GYN. While conducting the routine breast exam, she found lumps in both of my breasts. And that’s how it began. The month of tests that followed seemed endless. First a mammogram and ultrasound, then a visit with a surgeon for a referral to the surgery center to get biopsies. Then, that biopsy was “aborted” when the doctor felt that I should have the procedure done at a hospital because of a potential bleeding risk. The wait for the next biopsy was two more weeks. My husband Chuck and I were troubled that I may have gone from “no cancer” to “cancer in both breasts” in just eight months. Each wait between tests weighed heavy on our minds.

Then, in the midst of all of the bad, something very good happened. When I arrived at Blake Medical Center for my second biopsy attempt, I met Patty Madsen, the oncology nurse navigator. She was a godsend — warm, kind and comforting. I felt as if I had found a trusted friend when and where I needed one most. She was ready to help me in any way she could. After the biopsies, she was able to schedule a follow-up appointment with my surgeon to get my results in just two days. It was a huge relief to not have another long delay. As I left, she gave me a smile and a hug, and told me she hoped I wouldn’t need her, but that she was there for me if I did.

Two days later, on Friday afternoon, August 2, 2013, Chuck and I fought back tears as the surgeon told us I had breast cancer in both breasts. He explained my surgical options, wrote his cell phone number on a card for us, and told us we could call him anytime, even on the weekend.I knew what I wanted to do, and tried calling him the next morning. He had mistakenly scribbled down the wrong number, and I became more and more anxious each time I tried calling and couldn’t reach him. Then I was unable to get through to anyone in his office on Monday morning. So I called Patty and asked for her help. Within minutes after I spoke with her, I received a call from my surgeon’s office.

I wanted to get a double mastectomy that week. I spoke with Patty again and asked if she could help me get it scheduled that quickly. She went to work on it, and I was scheduled for presurgery tests on Wednesday, with my surgery on Thursday.

Patty was there for both, always helpful, kind and reassuring. She was with us before the surgery, and she was there for my husband and friends during the surgery, checking on them and giving them updates. First, lymph nodes from one side were evaluated and then the other. Great news, no cancer was found. I was stage I.

After surgery, I vaguely recall seeing my husband and friends, and of course, Patty. I spent only one night in the hospital. Patty stopped in to see me before I went home to provide me with the information I would need for the days that followed. She checked up on me regularly, and was always her sweet and supportive self.

When I received my pathology report, Patty was there for me when I learned that my cancer was HER2-positive. So, in spite of being stage I, chemotherapy was most likely in my future. With Patty’s help, I received information on oncologists and selected a wonderful doctor. She continued to be there throughout my journey, helping with everything from where I could look for wigs when my hair fell out, to extra nutritional tips when chemo made it difficult to find food that was appetizing.

Patty stayed in touch through my last chemo treatment, and now as I am going through reconstructive surgeries, she continues to be a dear and supportive friend. In the midst of my journey, I got a call from a girlfriend who had been diagnosed with breast cancer and needed help and advice. Patty was there for her too, as she had been for me.

I have since learned that my family and I are just one of an endless list of patients and their families who were blessed to find themselves in Patty’s care. This year I plan to complete my fifth 60-mile, three-day walk. I never wanted a pink t-shirt, but now I feel I have to go get one — and I know who one of my greatest cheerleaders will be.