Lynnda Golin was a nursing student in the 1960s when her rotation sent her into the operating room to see an actual surgery for the first time. More than 40 years later, what she saw that day still galls her.
“It was a mastectomy, by a very obnoxious doctor who obviously didn’t take the woman’s feelings into consideration at all,” said Golin, who’s now retired as a registered nurse/case manager and living in Egg Harbor Township. “He cut her breast off, grabbed the nipple with his forceps and just threw it into a bowl.”
Of course, Golin knows the patient was under anesthesia and couldn’t see what the observers did. “But as a 20-year-old woman, it was not only horrifying to see that happen to someone, it was just like (the breast) was nothing to him. ... The fact that there were young women in that operating room didn’t matter. This was just a piece of meat.”
That memory came back to Golin six years ago, when she was the patient, diagnosed with breast cancer as she was about to celebrate her 60th birthday. She is happy today to report that things had improved greatly since her student days — and that she’s healthy again.
“The surgeon was so caring, and the oncologist was also very caring,” Golin said. “So much of the treatment has improved when it comes to the feelings of the patient. I felt I was well taken care of.”
Every patient’s experience is personal and different with every disease, and not all are ideal with any disease. But in recent interviews, survivors of and specialists in breast cancer — a disease that hits one of about eight American women in their lifetimes — had positive reviews on how the disease is dealt with in South Jersey today. They say treatment and detection have improved greatly, and that a strong network of local groups provide vital social and financial support to women when they need it most.
“We have a lot of organizations that will give women with cancer assistance,” said Allean Smartel, 61, of Atlantic City, who survived breast cancer that was diagnosed in 2006.
But she later lost her casino job and the medical benefits that went with it. She has gotten help from the Shirley Mae Breast Cancer Assistance Fund, which paid for more than two years of maintenance drugs at about $200 a month, and emotional support from Gilda’s Club in Linwood, where she’s a weekly regular.
“A lot of places don’t have Gilda’s Clubs. ... South Jersey has a lot of help,” said Smartel, who added she sometimes tells out-of-town friends about the help she has found here — and hears surprise in their responses.
“They say, ‘Really?’ But I tell them about the Shirley Mae Breast Cancer fund ... and other funds that if somebody needs assistance with the rent, they can help you,” she said.
Kim Turner, of Galloway Township, remembers the bad old days of breast cancer in South Jersey. Her mother, Polly Weiss, was diagnosed in the 1970s, when “you got your breast lopped off and you had cobalt” treatments, Turner said. “She found a lump. They scheduled her for a mastectomy, and that was it. ... And there wasn’t reconstruction (surgery) back in Mom’s day. You either didn’t have one (breast), or you got a prosthesis that weighed as much as a child.”
Turner found out firsthand about more modern approaches to breast cancer in 2009, when she was diagnosed herself — just a few months after her mother died, but not of breast cancer.
“I said, ‘I’m going to get second opinions, ask questions, take care of it, and I’m going to be fine,’” she said.
She chose to have both breasts removed — for the “close to 100 percent” effectiveness of that option — and she had chemotherapy. But she knows the choice was hers.
Medical treatment for breast cancer has come a long way in South Jersey, health care professionals say. That means women don’t have to go such a long way to get treated for the disease.
“When I came down here 27 years ago, there was less breast-conserving surgery and more mastectomies,” said Dr. John Lorenzetti, director of AtlantiCare’s Breast Health Center, which opened in 2001. “The benefit, beside conserving the breast, is that the chance for a cure and long-term survival is the same.”
Radiation, a common treatment, has improved greatly. The standard treatment schedule had called for treatments five days a week for anywhere from five to seven weeks. But since 2007, Lorenzetti said, an advance called interstitial radiation, or brachytherapy, has cut that radiation time to a total of five days.
In another improvement, “We used to remove all the lymph nodes when a woman had breast cancer,” added Lorenzetti, a breast-cancer surgeon. “Now, in its early stages ... we only remove the sentinel lymph nodes,” the ones where the cancer is most likely to spread from the primary tumor.
And although statistics say breast cancer has gotten more common — one out of eight women now gets the disease, versus one out of 11 when Lorenzetti was in his residency 30 years ago — he believes that’s “mostly attributable to earlier diagnosis, better ability to diagnose it. ... And when you look at the statistics, women are doing better today than ever before.”
Anne Marie Taggart, manager of the Cancer Center at Shore Medical Center in Somers Point, frames the numbers this way: “More than 90 percent of patients now who are diagnosed at an early stage are living beyond five years, where years ago, that wasn’t the case.”
Less than one year ago, Shore started weekly meetings for everyone involved in breast-cancer treatment — “oncologists, pathologists, surgeons, plastic surgeons, social workers, patient navigators ... close to 20 people,” said Taggart, who is also a nurse. “Doctors even come in on their days off” for the conferences.
“Right now, we’re discussing 15 to 20 patients a week ... and they will be discussed until their treatment is complete,” Taggart said, adding that these multidisciplinary meetings started after “we saw an influx of women diagnosed with breast cancer in a period of one week. ... This is something the physicians really wanted.”
Patients also are getting what they want, including far fewer side-effects from chemotherapy, she added.
“I know that over the last 10 years, the pre-treatment before women get chemotherapy has aided so much with nausea and vomiting,” Taggart said. “That’s all you would hear about before, but the women don’t get sick like they used to.”
Cape Regional Medical Center in Cape May Court House touts its advances in treating breast cancer, including digital mammography and TrueBeam radiation, which a spokeswoman called “the most advanced radiation therapy technology in the region.”
‘So much support’
Along with the actual medical handling of the disease, social agencies say they have helped improve life for local breast-cancer patients.
Erin McAllister, program director at Gilda’s Club — which came to South Jersey 10 years ago — cites medical studies emphasizing the importance of social support to physical health for cancer patients.
“Now doctors are really referring patients to Gilda’s Club,” she said. “There’s not a stereotype anymore about what a support group means. Now it’s just normal.”
Speaking of stereotypes, McAllister said Gilda’s is not just for breast-cancer patients — in fact, its namesake, comic Gilda Radner, died of ovarian cancer. But, McAllister said, “the majority of our members have been touched by breast cancer, more than any other type of cancer.”
A much more recent, and novel, local effort to help breast-cancer patients is a project by Donna Andrews, a professional photographer from Absecon.
Andrews has photographed and interviewed 38 breast-cancer patients in the past few years, most of them from South Jersey, “women from 33 to 95,” for a pictorial book she plans to call “Pink, Unmasked.” (Her original working title was “Hope Chest.”)
The project started when a client asked to be photographed nude, after a double mastectomy and breast reconstruction. Many of the women in her book posed nude.
“Some of them had bad stories. Some had good stories. I wanted all different types of women in all types of work,” Andrews said.
“I knew several of the women had mastectomies, and I cried when I saw them (topless), because I didn’t know you could look so good. I told them, ‘I get to relax now because of you — because now I know,’” said Andrews, whose parents both died of cancer. “And I talked to three women who said, ‘I wish there was something like this (book) out there for me when I had breast cancer.’ ... I thought, ‘I know too much to not do this book.’”
But several local groups offer more traditional help to breast-cancer patients, including money for basic family needs while they’re being treated. And financial help can translate into physical help, said Linnea Brown, AtlantiCare’s breast-health coordinator and a board member of the Shirley Mae Breast Cancer Assistance Fund.
Money problems are “such a stress — at a time when you’re trying to minimize that stress,” Brown said. “Here you are trying to get through the maze of a cancer diagnosis and treatment, and you realize you have so many bills. You may have to go on disability. ... It’s a tremendous burden, and the stress can be unbearable.
“I’ve had patients say, ‘I can’t get this (maintenance drug). I can’t afford it. I just have to take my chances.’ But the drug is to help prevent reoccurrence.”
So she’s happy to tell people about financial help for medical needs from Shirley Mae, the foundation named in honor of Shirley Mae Goldberg, a breast-cancer survivor from Margate. She also tells people about the Love of Linda Cancer Fund in Cape May County, the South Jersey Cancer Fund, based in Brigantine, and other local groups whose mission involves direct help to patients — often for utility bills and other nonmedical needs.
“I think it speaks well of our community, the support they’ve given these organizations,” Brown said.
Turner, the survivor from Galloway, likes to go to Gilda’s not to find help for herself in a support group but because she find it helps her to help other people.
“There is absolutely so much support out there,” she said, “for people with breast cancer, with any cancer — if you connect with the right person, if you’re willing to talk, if you just step forward a little bit.”
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