Archived Story

A port in the storm that is breast cancer

Published 9:44am Thursday, October 8, 2009

Shelley Wilkinson (right) a Breast Health Coordinator with Lakeland HealthCare is pictured here with members of the hospital's library staff, where patients can find a information and literature about different medical conditions and topics.
Shelley Wilkinson (right) a Breast Health Coordinator with Lakeland HealthCare is pictured here with members of the hospital's library staff, where patients can find a information and literature about different medical conditions and topics.

By JESSICA SIEFF
Niles Daily Star

The moment in which a diagnosis is given and the words “breast cancer” are uttered, the emotional roller coaster to follow can be daunting.

There is a slew of new language to learn, rounds of doctors visits and the worry they both bring.

Shelley Wilkinson understands it all. She understands both the worry and the language.

Wilkinson is Lakeland HealthCare’s breast health coordinator.

She spends her days visiting with patients who have been diagnosed with breast cancer, taking them through every step of the process from diagnosis to surgery, recovery and life after breast cancer.
She is each patient’s friend, advocate and champion.

There are more women being diagnosed with breast cancer now than in years past, Wilkinson said. But such news is not necessarily bad news.

“There’s a lot more,” she said. “They’re finding breast cancer a lot sooner now.

“Breast cancer starts as one cell and then it mutates into more and more,” she explained.

She praises the dedication of mammography radiologists who are calling patients themselves, calling them back when seeing even the tiniest of possible signs of breast cancer.

Because more cases are being caught at an earlier stage, the process for patients can be somewhat easier on their bodies and possibly even their souls.

“They’re finding it when it’s not invasive,” Wilkinson said. “It’s becoming possible to opt for a lumpectomy rather than a mastectomy.”

Still, the experience of being diagnosed with breast cancer is a life changing moment for patients – and that is something that Wilkinson helps them navigate.

“Anybody that’s diagnosed with breast cancer, I get in contact with them and walk them through the entire journey,” she said.

She produces a thick and heavy binder filled with information and tailored to each patient’s specific type of cancer. These are binders that she’ll give to each of her patients, go through the literature with them and answer any of their questions.

“You name it, we educate them on it,” she said.

Her pager is carried with her all day, every day and she said she encourages her patients to call her day or night whenever they have a question that needs answering.

“Sometimes the question is something simple,” she said, “that just would make them feel better.”

Breast cancer does not have to result in unyielding fear.
“I think it’s the uncertainty,” Wilkinson said. “Not knowing what to expect next.”

Through the education and support, by the time the diagnosis is over, Wilkinson said she sees so many women who “have this mentality of ‘I’m going to get through this, I’m going to do this.’ It’s amazing to see the transformation.”

What follows that transformation is surgery, radiation, and treatment that can last months – but Wilkinson said that thanks to the early catch, it is treatment that many women feel fine during, unlike the more severe treatment of chemotherapy.

For women going through the experience, Wilkinson can serve as an understanding counterpart for a very intimate and sensitive disease.

Many women, she said, worry about their body image, especially if their diagnosis is more severe and results in the need for a mastectomy.

“The women are worried about their body image,” she said. “And the men don’t want them to feel that way. It’s a very sensitive issue. It’s a concern and it’s one that women don’t vocalize.”

For women who have been diagnosed with breast cancer, Wilkinson is a port in the storm.

But she still stresses the need to be proactive, execute self breast examinations, get mammograms when needed and contact a doctor if anything is found.

“The big thing is to let them know that you’re not in it alone,” she said. “And to put it behind you.”

Meet one of Wilkinson’s former patients and a breast cancer survivor in Part 2 in Friday’s Star.

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