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Hope & Healing

Four inspiring survivors share life lessons from their breast cancer journey.

About one in eight women will develop breast cancer in her lifetime. Behind each of those numbers is a face and a family and a story about how the journey shaped them in so many unique ways – from reflecting on their experience to realizing what really matters.

Because breast cancer runs in Sherron Jernigan’s family, she had always been vigilant about getting her mammogram every year.

But it was the changes she noticed in her left breast that would ultimately lead to a biopsy and a diagnosis of stage 3 breast cancer in Jan. 2020.

“I was really impressed with how seriously the breast team at CalvertHealth took my concerns,” said the 58-year-old Huntingtown resident. “You know when something is wrong with your body,” even though a second mammogram and ultrasound did not detect a mass.

Based on her consult with breast imager Dr. Chandra Baker and breast surgical oncologist Dr. Theodore Tsangaris, an MRI was ordered that revealed something suspicious, which was enough to raise a flag. A biopsy was performed and it confirmed she had breast cancer.

“When Dr. Baker told me, it was almost somewhat of a relief,” said the mother of four. “I thought: OK, now I know what this is.” Her persistence in pursuing answers is what medical oncologist Dr. Arati Patel says all women need to do. “Changes like lumps, bumps, skin thickening, redness, swelling, pain, nipple discharges, etc. should be reported to your healthcare provider immediately,” said Dr. Patel.

Jernigan, who was treated during the height of the pandemic, said she was especially grateful for the personalized care she received at the breast center. “They were so caring and willing to take the time to treat me as an individual and to understand and address my individual needs,” she said.

When asked to describe her experience at the Sheldon E. Goldberg Center for Breast Care at CalvertHealth, Jernigan used three words – supportive, blessing and informative. “They would tell me certain things to watch for. So, when they happened, it didn’t catch me off guard,” she said. “For me, the more informed I am, the more I feel I can deal with this.”

Early in her treatment, Jernigan said she remembers thinking, “I can do this and still remain at work. But Dr. Patel was very honest to say with your high stress job, if you can take off, you may need to consider taking some leave. That was some really good advice.

“This experience has taught me it’s okay to be selfish,” she said. “And it’s okay for me to do self-love and self-care. As women, we forget to take care of us. It’s okay to say: I need to do this for me.”

It’s been two years. That’s how long Gail Gross has been on her breast cancer journey.

It has taught her a lot about her own strength and the power of staying positive. Most importantly, it’s taught her how important a good support team can be. “I never gave up. I kept fighting and smiling and saying: I’m going to get through this. The Lord is with me. I’m not going to let this get me down,” said the 58-year-old Owings resident, who was diagnosed in September 2019.

She said CalvertHealth’s breast center team was a great source of encouragement. “I can truly say I don’t think I would have been as strong and as faithful as I was without them,” she said. “They were always calling and checking on me… explaining everything and asking me if I had any questions.”

She remembers the night before her double mastectomy vividly. “I was sitting on the couch and saying my prayers. I just broke down and cried. My daughter said: ‘Mom, you’ve been so strong … just let it go. Get it all out. I’m here with you.’ Once I got it all out, I felt like it was a lot of pressure off of me.”

As a home health aide, Gross was the one who always took care of others. During her breast cancer treatment, she learned to lean on her family. “I have one sister and two brothers. Whenever something goes down for one of us, we all come together for each other.”

They were by her side every step of the way. When her hair fell out from chemotherapy, her brother shaved her head. They sat with her during infusion therapy, made sure she had her medication and gas to go back and forth to the doctor. They bought her protein shakes and special cream for her skin when she started radiation therapy.

“After surgery, it took me a long time to look in the mirror,” said Gross. “I didn’t want to see both of my breasts gone. One day I said: It is what is. I’m still here. So, not having breasts doesn’t matter to me because I still have breath in my body.

“I lie to nobody. That was a long journey and it was tough,” said Gross. “But I’m glad I came here (to CalvertHealth). I would give them five stars. They make you feel so welcome and so special.”

A cancer diagnosis can transform how you see yourself.

Quiet and shy, Tonya Calacino was always a private person. Then the 50-year-old hair stylist from Chesapeake Beach decided to put her journey on Facebook to raise awareness about the importance of monthly breast self-exams.

After her mother’s breast cancer diagnosis in 2017, Calacino started doing monthly breast self-exams. Three years later, she found a lump on her left side. “My cancer was aggressive,” she explained. “When I found it on Nov. 6, 2020, it was the size of the tip of my pinky. By Jan. 6, when I had my first chemotherapy treatment, it had grown to the size of the middle of my thumb.”

She went on to add, “If I had waited for the letter to get my annual mammogram in February, I would have been at least stage 3 or 4.” Calacino had chemotherapy to shrink her tumor, followed by a lumpectomy and then radiation therapy, which lowers the risk of the breast cancer coming back.

Every two weeks, she would post a photo and add to her story. “I’ve learned to open up more,” said the Calvert native, who has a 9-year-old daughter. “You never know how what you’re saying could help somebody else.”

When she reflects on her experience at CalvertHealth, Calacino said the quality of care and physician expertise were amazing but it was the “caring” that left the deepest impression. “When you talk to Dr. Patel, it’s like she is your best friend or your sister or your mom,” she recalls. “Dr. Tsangaris would always put his hand on my shoulder and ask: How are you today? Are you doing OK?

“They were both so concerned about my life,” she said, “and making sure they were going to do the best they could do to get me back to my lifestyle and be with my family.” Although neuropathy in her fingers and feet has prevented her from returning to work so far, Calacino enjoys planting in the yard, playing with her daughter outdoors or just listening to the wind in the trees while sitting on her deck.

A common side effect of chemotherapy, neuropathy can cause pain, weakness and balance issues. While Calacino has gradually improved, Dr. Patel said up to 50 percent of people can still have symptoms up to a year later.

Lisa Simmons had just moved into a new house, adopted two puppies and gotten a promotion at work, when a breast cancer diagnosis last year turned her world upside down.

“I was in shock,” said the 42-year-old mother of two who lives in King George, VA with her husband.

“I had missed my routine screening mammogram the previous October,” said Simmons. “But when my older sister found out she had a precancerous tumor in April 2020… that made me wake up and think I better go get checked out.”

Initially, she came to Prince Frederick to have a biopsy with Dr. Baker. But her first impression of CalvertHealth’s breast center was so positive, she opted to have all of her treatment there even though the drive is more than an hour each way. “I always felt like I was their only patient.”

“Everything is so well coordinated,” she said.“The Breast Nurse Navigator, Megan Hance, helped organize everything for me. It made the whole process 1,000 percent easier.” Simmons said she was also influenced by the qualifications of the breast center team. “Dr. Tsangaris has the best bedside manner of any doctor I have ever met,” she said. “Even though I was panicking inside, his way of explaining things calmed me and reassured me.”

She went on to add, “I trust Dr. Patel is going to help me make the right decisions for me. Between them, there is this world of experience and knowledge.”

Simmons said she felt surrounded by support. “The infusion nurses were so comforting during what was a very scary time for me,” she said. “The dietitian gave me some good advice and recipes for smoothies and fruit drinks that helped a lot. The physical therapist taught me massage techniques and stretching exercises that really made a difference.” For her, the biggest lesson is to be self-aware. “Even though technology is amazing and mammograms are beneficial, I learned that self-exams are the most important thing … to pay attention to changes in your breasts.”

Dr. Patel agrees. “In general, mammogram screening guidelines are in place to identify early breast cancers that are not yet symptomatic… we rely on our patients to tell us when they notice any type of change in their breasts or armpits.”

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