Support Helps Mom Cope with Breast Cancer
When Lisa Ober and her twin sister, Holly, turned 40, they gave themselves the gift of a mammogram.
For Holly, in Tennessee, the results were normal and life remained the same.
For Lisa, in Belmont, the results prompted more tests and life turned upside down.
Lisa had breast cancer.
In a year that became a blur to her, Payson Center for Cancer Care embraced Lisa and her young family, providing an array of medical and support services that removed her cancer, soothed her anxiety and helped her husband and young sons cope with the illness and the treatment.
The first thing I said was ‘What about my boys? What do I do for them?” Lisa said of her sons, Zakkary, who was nine, and Zander, who was four. “Then, we hit the floor running
Lisa’s care resembles a directory of Payson Center services: mammogram, ultrasound, biopsy, surgery, chemotherapy, radiation therapy, breast reconstruction, the Anticancer Lifestyle Program, financial counseling and assistance, genetic testing, physical therapy, nutritional counseling, support services for her sons and husband, a clinical trial to help test new therapies, continuing hormone therapy and specialized care to counter the removal of lymph nodes.
The treatment was difficult, make no mistake, but Lisa and her husband, Chad, were optimistic and focused. They also were supported by family, Payson Center professionals and a caring network of new friends – fellow cancer patients.
It started with Lisa’s mammogram, in September of 2014, shortly after she turned 40. The image showed something suspicious, which led to an ultrasound, a biopsy, then, a diagnosis of cancer – all within eight days.
Lisa doesn’t remember much about the day she and Chad learned she had breast cancer.
“I didn’t hear a thing that day,” Lisa said. “I just sat there and Chad listened. I was in shock.”
Soft-spoken Lisa Delahanty, nurse navigator and manager at Concord Hospital Breast Care Center, explained the diagnosis and offered initial information – knowing that going into depth was not appropriate at that first session because after hearing the word “cancer,” patients typically hear little else. But she gave Lisa and Chad information to refer to on their own and explained that everyone at Payson Center was there to help.
“From day one, there wasn’t anything that made me feel nervous,” Chad said. “I wasn’t worried.”
He and Lisa felt like Kellie Booth, office coordinator at the Breast Care Center, was on call, for them. “It was like she was your own personal assistant,” he said. “Whenever anything came up – call Kellie.”
For some breast cancer patients, chemotherapy before surgery may shrink a tumor so a patient can have a lumpectomy. Lisa’s images and biopsies showed multifocal breast cancer, so shrinking multiple tumors before surgery with chemotherapy or having a lumpectomy were not options.
Less than two months after the diagnosis, Dr. Sharon Gunsher from Concord Hospital Medical Group Concord Surgical Associates performed a mastectomy of Lisa’s left breast.
“I said, ‘Just get rid of it’ and we got rid of it,” Lisa said. The tumors were not detectable in physical exams, but they were large and connected across the breast. And the cancer had spread into and around lymph nodes.
"So that’s when they said we have to do hardcore chemotherapy, then radiation therapy,” Lisa said. “I said.
‘I’ve got to live. Do what you have to do.’”
On Christmas Eve 2014, Lisa began 12 weeks of chemotherapy, one session every other week.
When she began treatments, Lisa’s hair was down to the middle of her back. She cut it short, but when she began losing it during treatment, she shaved her head – and cried.
“Losing my hair was the hardest thing,” Lisa said. “But I knew it would grow back and I embraced it.”
So did her husband and sons. They shaved their heads to support her.
“It felt good because it was supporting my mother,” said Zakkary, who went even further on his tenth birthday. Instead of asking for gifts, he asked his friends to donate to the American Cancer Society.
Lisa’s chemotherapy, or medical oncology treatments, were scheduled for 16 weeks, but after the first eight, she was given the option of taking a higher dose and cutting the remaining number of treatments in half. It was tough, but she said the nurses and other providers at New Hampshire Oncology-Hematology at Payson Center helped her with encouragement and medication.
With laughter, Lisa recalled when Dr. Gina Divenuti told her they had medication to counter her nausea and muscle pain. “I said ‘You do??? Thank God!’”
“She gave me some medicine and I felt fine, but each treatment was hard,” she said.
After eight weeks of recovery, and cancer free, Lisa was elated to be able to pick up her boys again and hold them close.
To fight any recurrence, Lisa will take medication for ten years and have mammograms every six months.
And because doctors removed lymph nodes during treatment, she wears a fabric sleeve at times, or gloves while gardening, because her blood flow doesn’t handle toxins from bug bites, sunburn or cuts as efficiently. She uses another body wrap device called a compression garment that massages her arm and body with pulsating air.
Though her active treatment has concluded, Lisa still sees the chemotherapy professionals regularly. She is taking part in a five-year clinical trial to test whether the medication she is taking is more effective when combined with another drug.
“It could help my kids’ kids,” she said. “And if someone else hadn’t done a trial, I might not be here today.”
It’s not the only way she is trying to give back for the care, and caring, that saved her life.
“On my first day of chemotherapy, they brought me a bag of things a cancer survivor had put together to help others cope with chemo: toothpaste, mouthwash, some other things,” she said. “On my last day of chemo, I brought a bag to give to the next person.”
On that last day of chemo, she also signaled the milestone with a tradition at Payson Center, ringing a bell that’s mounted in the waiting area.
“Oh Lord, I rang that bell,” she said. “I had a big poster and hats. We shouted for joy and rang that bell and danced around.”