Angela LeBlanc just celebrated her 46th birthday and the one-year anniversary of the day she knew she had breast cancer.
“I knew on my 45th birthday, Oct. 14, 2014, after I had my ultrasound, even through the official diagnosis wasn’t told to me until Oct. 20. That’s when Dr. Nova Foster, my surgeon, sat me down and told me."
Angela had Stage IIA, invasive ductal carcinoma, an aggressive cancer, but it was caught early.
“I found the lump in my breast, but I had been stung by some wasps, so I just watched it,” she said. “It didn’t go away, so the doctor scheduled a diagnostic mammogram and an ultrasound."
There were two tumors in her breast, totaling 2.8 centimeters in diameter. She was referred to an oncologist, and a team at the Breast Cancer Center in Carbondale met to discuss her case, among the other new cases that week. The recommendations were for chemotherapy, surgery and radiation.
“I had a PET scan to see where it was and if it had spread. I had a Breast MRI, more lab work, and a CT scan, all within a month," Angela said. "By Nov. 17, I had my port put in, and by Nov. 20 I had started chemotherapy.”
Angela had 16 treatments over the course of five months, interspersed by lab work and immune booster shots. Her last chemo treatment was April 1. Surgery -- a lumpectomy, also known as breast conservation surgery -- was scheduled for May 5.
“The staff at The Breast Center (in Carbondale) and The Cancer Institute (in Carterville) were with me every step of the way, answering all of my questions and describing every procedure and test,” she said.
Her case was complicated by Crohn’s Disease, something she’s struggled with since she was 15; but, Angela believes having that burden for more than 30 years also helped her.
“It made me tough," she said. "I’d been through so much with the Crohn’s, I knew I could see this through.”
Angela worked two jobs through the whole time she was being treated, through the chemo and the radiation, through second-degree burns and a broken rib from an accident, and through an abscess and physical therapy, which she’s still undergoing but “getting stronger and more limber with each session,” she said.
Her friends call her Xena, the Princess Warrior, after the character on the television show, who’s as tough or tougher than anyone around, man or woman.
“I’ve always had a strong personal drive, a strong work ethic and no small amount of grit,” she said. “But I couldn’t have been as strong if it weren’t for the staff at The Breast Center and The Cancer Institute who supported me through the whole process.
“If I had a question, it was answered. If I had a concern, it was discussed. Everyone is so knowledgeable, so thorough and so professional. You know you’re being taken good care of. I was just so glad I stayed in Carbondale for my treatments. Everyone, all along the way, was so great.”
She’s quick to add that she also had a great support system at home, her daughter and best friend Sabrina, 19, and a sophomore at Millikin University in Decatur, and her "sweetie," John Hays.
“Sabrina is my everything, and John has been my rock. He took care of day-to-day tasks so I could keep working, and I had to keep working to keep focused and moving forward,” she said. “I was afraid that if I stopped, I wouldn’t be able to start again, and I had to keep going for Sabrina."
"This, too, shall pass" was one of Angela’s mantras, along with “Just keep dancing.”
“The beat changes occasionally, but that just means you have to change your step a little,” she said. “There’s nothing like a little cancer to make you appreciate being fully alive.
“I wouldn’t be here if it weren't for SIH and the SIH Cancer Institute.”
That’s Cathy Rezba, 57, a fifth-grade teacher in Pinckneyville Junior High School and cancer survivor.
“I was hit in the breast in the summer of 2013 by a line drive while playing baseball with my grandsons. So, when something odd came up in my mammogram that next January, I told the radiologist about being hit,” she said. “Still, they scheduled me for a 3-D mammogram, which was inconclusive, then a sonogram.
“The technician was talking to me during my sonogram, but then she suddenly got really quiet. I knew that was not a good sign.”
Red flags immediately went up for Cathy, especially since she had some experience with cancer.
"My mother-in-law had a mastectomy more than 30 years ago,” she said. “But everything has changed so much since then.”
The radiologist told Cathy that they needed a biopsy. She had that done on Jan. 27, 2014, and two days later she knew that she had stage one cancer.
“Everything was a whirlwind after that,” she said. “A team of SIH doctors created my action plan, and my surgeon, Dr. Suven Shankar, sat down with me and explained everything. He is so knowledgeable; I have great confidence in him. I liked the straightforward, open, honest nature of our discussions and his advice, and he made me feel so comfortable, so at ease.
“Everyone at SIH, The Breast Center and now, at the institute, has made me feel that way, from the navigator to the surgeon. The process is explained every step of the way,” she said. “I worked with my oncologist closely. He really took his time and answered all of my questions, and I had a whole sheet of questions.”
Cathy had a lumpectomy done by Dr. Shankar, and she went back to work, teaching.
“When I started feeling sick, I just thought I had caught something from one of my students; four had gone home sick that week. But by the next day, I was running a fever of 102 degrees and my breast felt hot.
A sonogram revealed a large pocket of fluid and surgery was required to drain and remove infection.
“Dr. Shankar informed me that I was no longer allowed to work until treatments were over because he didn’t want me to be around children that might be contagious," Cathy said. "I cried when I found out that I had to have chemotherapy. But I got my port in April and started chemotherapy, 20 treatments in all, which were finished on Sept. 10, 2014. Yes, I lost my hair, but it’s back!”
“I was nervous as I showed up for chemotherapy. The nursing staff was very kind and reassuring,” said Cathy. “They were so caring and nurturing. They put me at ease each time I came to have treatment.”
Cathy had two weeks to rest after her chemo, then she started radiation treatments, 33 in all. She had some swelling after chemo, but the team at the institute ordered tests to make sure she had no blood clots and kept close track of her.
“The staff at the radiation oncology center was very friendly and explained everything they were going to do before they did it,” Cathy said.
Dr. George Kao, radiation oncologist oversaw her care.
“He would discuss my treatments and felt that my opinion valued along the way," she said. "“There were no real side effects from the radiation, just some burning with the last few treatments, but I lathered myself in Aloe Vera cream, so I healed up pretty quickly. Now I’m on a hormone inhibitor because my cancer was hormone driven. I’ll be on that for five to 10 years.”
Cathy also attributes her smooth recovery to her own research. She changed her diet, cutting out dairy, red meat and sugar and started to get more exercise. And her research assured her that she could trust what the doctors and staff were telling her about her cancer and her treatments.
“Ultimately it’s all in God’s hands, but I do what I can.”
Cathy’s been going to the Breast Center since about 1998.
“So they had all of my records. I’m sure that helped with coordinating my care,” she said. “My treatments took place at St. Joseph’s Memorial and Carbondale Memorial, before the institute opened. Now, the institute makes everything you’re going through so much easier because everything’s under one roof.That’s where I’m going now, and have been since it opened.
“I know there’s a reason for all of this, so if it’s just for me to help get the word out about how important having annual mammograms is, then so be it,” she said. “I was having them every year when my cancer was found.
Cathy is cancer free now. She says she’s still healing. She sees her oncologist in January. She still has her port, but she hopes she can get it out next year.
“I’m still on my journey, but I’ve met some wonderful people along the way and I’ve formed a great support group, including my husband of 37 years, my kids, my grandsons and my students in Pinckneyville, who cheered me on, encouraged me to drink more water, helped me when my legs were swollen and I had to stay at my desk during classes, and celebrated with me when my treatments were over and my hair started growing back.
“We even brought my cancer into the classroom during science class when we were studying cells and how they reproduce,” she said. “So, we all learned something from my cancer, through three school years and three groups of kids.”
The Breast Center
and SIH Cancer Institute
On March 2, Southern Illinois Healthcare opened the doors to their new $24.5 million, 43,500-square-foot SIH Cancer Institute in Carterville to cancer patients and their families.
It is a beautiful facility, with gardens and local artwork on the walls, but it’s so much more than that. Equipment is top notch, including a new, $3.2 million linear accelerator that can pinpoint the exact location of a tumor, limiting damage to healthy tissue.
But just as important as the equipment is the newly incorporated team approach to patient care, modeled by the Mayo Clinic: One person’s disease, analyzed and treated by a team of physicians and specialists, putting the greatest minds in the same room to solve the problem. That is the model used by the SIH Cancer Institute Affiliated Physicians.
“Physicians and specialists meet regularly to discuss new cancer patients and to formulate plans. The team model is in part made possible by housing all institute services under one roof, including radiology and chemotherapy, a pharmacy, lab work, physical therapy both prior to and following treatment and more,” said Jennifer Badiu, director of the SIH Cancer Institute.
All of that collaboration leads to better communication between the various disciplines as well as enhanced efficiencies. It also eliminates the need for patients to travel to different locations within the SIH network for their care.
Last year the institute treated 974 cancer patients from diagnosis through treatment and rehabilitation. This year, Badiu projects about 1,200 patients.
“We’re averaging 30 to 40 new cancer diagnoses per week,” she said. “Every one of our 21 infusion chairs are pretty much filled every day. We have more specialists now, including three medical oncologists, and we’ve just added palliative care support to our menu of services.”
The SIH Cancer Institute in planning since 2010, has also enabled the SIH hospital network to recruit more oncologists who have broadened the type of cancer treatment available.
There are more improvements coming. Dr. Nova Foster, medical director at The Breast Center, said that phase-two plans for the institute call for The Breast Center to move in.
“We need a lot of space for our imaging equipment, so the move had to be delayed,” she said. “Still, although the institute and the center are separated by a little bit of geography, we work very closely together. We’re in constant contact by phone, e-mail and in person.”
Until then, all breast imaging, risk assessments and biopsies are being done at The Breast Center. But once a week, staff from The Breast Center joins staff from the SIH Cancer Institute for a team meeting. That’s when all of the new cancer patients are discussed and a multi-disciplinary plan is made for each one on a patient-by-patient basis.
“The institute offers everything and anything you can get at a major academic or metropolitan center,” Foster said. “The care is absolutely excellent. I’m very proud to be a part of it. But the bottom line is our patients and we’re proud to be able to treat each one as an individual, a whole person, with all of the support and care they need for their individual journeys.
The Breast Center has diagnosed and/or treated 513 southern Illinois women with breast cancer over the last three years. Among those cases, cancer registrars discovered 92, or 18 percent, were 49 years old or younger, with the youngest diagnosed at age 29.
For more information, contact The Breast Center at 618-457-2281 or The SIH Cancer Institute at 618-985-3333.