Published: Feb. 10, 2006
Updated: Mar. 21, 2011
I am 52 years old. I am the mother of a beautiful daughter and wife to a loyal husband. I have a job that takes me around the world. Five years ago, breast cancer threatened to change everything. I fought; I battled; I was declared in remission. Three years later, the cancer was back.
Debbie knew something was wrong immediately. The warning signs presented themselves in myriad ways: excruciating side pain after a sneeze, radiating leg pain while driving, relentless thirst, and sudden weight loss. She tried to convince her primary care physician to look beyond her gastrointestinal organs as culprits, but to no avail. Every test came back negative, and she was stranded without answers.
After wasting three months in the dark, it took a Duke radiation oncologist -- Catherine Lee, MD -- to find it. The cancer had returned -- this time in her spine.
“I was mad. Then I was numb. I knew I’d cry on my own time. But I needed to stay strong for my family. I wanted to know what needed to be done. Dr. Lee was the field general, and she was going to lead me into battle against my cancer,” says Debbie.
Dr. Lee encouraged a second opinion, and P. Kelly Marcom, MD, a Duke medical oncologist, confirmed the diagnosis. Within two weeks, Debbie underwent a biopsy, a bone scan, a PET scan, and an endoscopy.
“I felt a compelling sense of urgency at Duke that no other hospital had provided me,” she says.
After chemotherapy treatments, Debbie underwent radiation at Duke Raleigh Hospital in October 2004. Throughout her ordeal, she bonded with her entire oncology team, including Julie McQueen, patient navigator at Duke Cancer Center Raleigh.
“As a two-time cancer survivor, I have a unique perspective,” says Julie. “I can say to patients, ‘I have been in your position; I know exactly what you’re going through.’”
Julie’s sole purpose as patient navigator is to help a cancer patient through their diagnosis and treatment. Whether it’s coordinating appointments and transportation, arranging the communication between primary care physician and specialist, educating the patient about what to expect after chemotherapy, following up after every appointment, or simply providing a shoulder to lean on, the patient navigator is there, available at a moment’s notice.
“Having cancer is like navigating a maze. There are so many doctors, appointments, treatments, decisions. The guidance through the process is essential,” says Debbie.
“It’s not medically necessary, but if you ask the patient, it is absolutely necessary,” says Julie. “I can’t keep anyone from getting cancer, but I can make their experience a better one.”
Debbie experienced that approach firsthand and has been in remission since December 2004. She is still receiving Herceptin every three weeks, and she follows up with Dr. Marcom quarterly.
“The Cancer Center is just a tremendous asset to the community. A cancer patient’s greatest fear is ‘Are they going to miss something?’ But the Duke team of doctors stay connected throughout my treatment,” she says.
“Duke -- it’s just the best. I just have such confidence.”
To make an appointment with a Duke physician, call 888-ASK-DUKE (888-275-3853).
Read the stories of other patients featured in Duke’s “More Precious than Gold” campaign.
The Ability to Walk . . . More Precious than Gold
Emmett Tilley, recipient of a total hip replacement to relieve debilitating joint pain
A Healthy Child . . . More Precious than Gold
Lise Noble, mother of a newborn treated in Durham Regional Hospital’s intensive care nursery
The Ability to See . . . More Precious than Gold
Jean Messer, recipient of a pioneering surgical procedure to treat macular degeneration