Rose Mary Oeste was treated at UMGCC for breast cancer in 2001. She recalled her experience -- and reflected on how the new Roslyn and Leonard Stoler Pavilion for outpatient treatment will improve the patient experience and benefit patients -- at the facility's opening celebration on June 29, 2005.
There are very few phrases used in the lexicon that are powerful enough to generate a universal response regardless of your age, gender or socio-economic status. Every time you hear a particular phrase, you experience instant recall. You remember where you were, who you were with, and how you were feeling as if it were happening all over again. Phrases such as "I do" "We're expecting!" or "Do you believe in miracles?"
There is one phrase, however, that overpowers all the rest…..IT’S MALIGNANT. Those two words shake you to the core of your being. Those two words start you on a journey unlike any you have ever been on before, and one you had hoped never to take. My journey began at 6:31 p.m. on Friday, June 8, 2001.
I lost my mother to breast cancer in 1988 and for whatever reason, I knew that I would battle the same disease in my lifetime too. I just didn’t expect the battle to begin quite so soon.
I relocated to Baltimore County in September 2000 to accept a position with Visa International. On the average of once a month I would travel to Europe or Asia or Canada, Miami or San Francisco. I've always had a bit of wanderlust; how much better could it get! I had just taken possession of my dream home in May 2001. For the first time in 20 years, I was living within 125 miles of my immediate family. Finally, I was mastering the art of balancing my career goals and my personal life. Life was great!
Because of my family history, I’d kept up with the latest research. I knew that early detection was critical and I had formulated a treatment strategy should I ever be diagnosed. If, and when, I was diagnosed, I would approach this as I did the typical challenges in my professional life: understand the problem and develop a plan that would achieve the desired results.
First and foremost, I would seek out an institution that valued its patients and looked upon them as partners in their care. It was important that the competence of the staff at all levels be balanced by their compassion. I thought it important that the institution offer a multi-disciplined approach with emphasis on the current treatment options as well as clinical trials that were offering promising results. If need be, I was willing to be inconvenienced and travel great distances in rush hour traffic. All I hoped is that such a place existed.
When I discovered the lump, I wasted no time in trying to locate a surgeon to perform the much needed biopsy. The best place to start, or so I thought, was with a primary care physician. The earliest I could get an appointment with my new primary care physician was July. I attempted to impress upon the scheduler the need for something sooner, but you know how it is. . . "He only sees new patients on Wednesdays. . .the next available opening is in July. . . I'd be happy to add you to waiting list in the event of a cancellation."
Using my limited contacts, I managed to get an appointment with a surgeon at a suburban hospital the following week. No need to pull out all the stops until the biopsy results were in. A few days later, he confirmed my worst fears. It was time to execute my treatment strategy!
By coincidence, one of my staff was a personal friend of Dick Adams who, as many of you know, has a very strong affiliation with the University of Maryland Marlene and Stewart Greenebaum Cancer Center. Within the hour, I had a call from Dr. Barry Meisenberg, professor of Medicine and head of the Division of Hematology/Oncology at UMGCC. “We can see you tomorrow,” he said, “Will that work for you? I’ll have someone from the Breast Clinic call you to work out the details. You should be prepared to spend the entire day.”
At that time, the Breast Clinic was located in 419 Redwood Building. As I approached the door, I must admit, I was not impressed with the poster board sign, or the fact that everything seemed "temporary." Well, it didn’t take long for my concern to evaporate. Starting with the calming influence of Karen Ulick at the reception desk, Rose Muffoletto's personable approach, and the efficiency that allowed me to be seen by a surgeon, an oncologist, a radiation oncologist, a Plastics and Reconstructive surgeon and, when I mentioned I was experiencing some mid-cycle discomfort, I was off to the 5th floor to be seen by a gynecologist. The best part of that entire day was that I only had to dress and undress twice! More importantly, the gowns were generous enough to protect my dignity too!
If first impressions were any indication of what was to come, I knew I was in the best place possible to confront my disease. I didn’t need to worry about the paperwork, or the process or any of the other distractions that can add unnecessary stress. I found the team that was willing to be my partner! My focus was to stay strong physically and mentally. The UMGCC team’s focus was to formulate the treatment plan that would offer me the greatest chance of survival.
During the first year of my diagnosis, I visited the infusion unit 36 times, 32 of which were weekly visits, for a total of 160 hours of chemotherapy. I was a Friday morning regular! As debilitating as the chemotherapy was at times, the staff made it tolerable. Nancy Tate and her sidekick Kathy would conveniently appear to keep me company. The Infusion Unit team was incredible. They were never too busy to smile. They seemed to remember the little things about their patients.
They would warm my epogen vial in their pockets so the injection wouldn’t sting as much. They remembered that I would chew a starburst candy to mask the taste of the heparin when they were flushing my port. They mourned with me the loss of my chemo buddies Theresa and Monica. And, when I had a panic attack the morning of my first Taxol treatment, the nurses calmed me down, the infusion took place and I went home to await the 6 p.m. bout of nausea that was typical of my treatment to date.
A funny thing happened: the nausea never came! When I woke up on Saturday morning, I couldn’t believe my good fortune. I showered, dressed and was out the door by 9:30 a.m. I needed to treat myself! But more about that shortly.
Dr. Meisenberg and his team willingly worked around my travel schedule. I accumulated 100,000 frequent flyer miles that year! When I had my setbacks, and there were several, I never doubted that an alternate option would be available. About the only thing that I have yet to experience is the “Don’t worry, the weight gain is temporary! Once you stop taking the steroids, the weight will come right off!”
Quite frankly, the most difficult part of the treatment was getting to the Infusion Unit. The trek from the parking garage to the hospital lobby, waiting for the elevators to take you to the 9th floor, walking from the waiting room to the registration area, to the “lab” for vital signs and blood work, to the examine rooms, then off to the elevators again for the ride to the 13th floor was exhausting. If you have never experienced this ordeal, I encourage you to do so. I know that the Stolers (Roslyn and Leonard Stoler) have. It will reinforce why the Stoler Pavilion (the Roslyn and Leonard Stoler Pavilion) is so critically important to the overall treatment approach.
I tell everyone I meet: The University of Maryland Marlene and Stewart Greenebaum Cancer Center saved my life! It is truly “Where Hope Begins.” It did for me! I know first hand that it’s not an empty promise. It is an unwavering commitment. Patients are treated with respect and made to believe that they are the only one that’s important!
To the Greenebaums, please accept my personal thanks for your generosity. Without your support and vision, I doubt I would be here today to share my story.
To the entire UMGCC team, thank you for your unwavering commitment to seek and retain the most competent staff at every level, and to be on the leading edge of research, offering all who seek your care the most comprehensive treatment options available. Please continue to balance your competence with your compassion! When you are fighting for your life, it is critically important to know that you matter!
And to the Stolers, to know that all who will come here, and all the physicians, nurses, technicians and staff who will treat them, will benefit from the patient-friendly environment must be very satisfying. Personally, it is gratifying to know that the FAIRWAY TO LIFE Breast Center will be an integral part of this facility. No more temporary space with the cardboard sign!
Just one more thing. Remember that beautiful Saturday morning, when I was out and about by 9:30 a.m. determined to treat myself? Guess what I did? I walked into Len Stoler Lexus on Reisterstown Road at 10 am, and by noon I had inked the deal! I recall that at the time there was a moment, as I was signing the 48-month lease agreement, when I wondered if I would live long enough to make the final payment. The lease is about to expire! Little did I know at the time that I would have the opportunity to let Mr. and Mrs. Stoler know how that Lexus is a testament to my survival!
On behalf of all who have come before, all who are in treatment currently, those newly diagnosed or those who will come at a future date, thank you all, from the bottom of our hearts!