Sue Hall, 64, did all the right things. For the past 24 years, she never missed her annual mammogram at the MemorialCare Breast Center at Saddleback. Each month, she performed a breast self-exam.
“I didn’t think I’d find a lump,” Sue says. “But, I also thought, ‘Why not me?’” More than a dozen of her close friends and family members had fought breast cancer, which affects 1 in 7 women in Orange County.
Saddleback Memorial Medical Center (SMMC) has two sites for its MemorialCare® Breast Center – a screening facility in San Clemente at the Talega Health Center and a screening and diagnostic hub at the Laguna Hills campus. Both offer the latest in breast imaging with digital mammography. This technology makes mammograms convenient and faster for patients and limits the need for retakes. It also allows the radiologist to manipulate the image, magnifying details, increasing or decreasing contrast, or reversing black and white values – all of this improving the quality of the exam and the interpretation.
Last February, Sue had her routine mammogram at the Laguna Hills facility and was called back for a recheck. “I didn’t lose sleep over it,” Sue recalls. “I knew it was common.” After several more mammograms and ultrasounds, Dr. Erica Guzalo, one of SMMC's breast-dedicated radiologists, confirmed she saw something she didn’t like.
“It was a very difficult cancer to find,” Dr. Guzalo says. “But once we located it, I took a core biopsy, which involves extracting a piece of the tissue and sending it to the laboratory to test it for cancer that same day.”
The next evening Dr. Guzalo personally called Sue with the results. “While Dr. Guzalo shared the results with great sensitivity and thoroughness, what I remember hearing the most was: ‘a malignant tumor,’ ” Sue recalls. “I was shell-shocked. Of course, I cried and told my husband and family the news. But, the next morning a sense of peace flooded over me, and I knew it was in God’s hands.” Dr. Guzalo told Sue to set up a meeting with Marcie Smith, NP, the nurse practitioner in the breast center who works directly with all patients who receive a breast cancer diagnosis. Fortunately, Sue knew Marcie because Sue also works at Saddleback Memorial Medical Center. An employee since 1990, Sue manages the MemorialCare® Seniorplus program at the hospital, which helps seniors sort through medical paperwork and choose physicians and hospitals of their choice.
“The first thing Marcie said was, ‘You’re not going to die of this.’” Sue says. Sue had been diagnosed with Stage 1 Invasive Carcinoma, a very treatable cancer. “Then, Marcie spent a lot of time explaining where the cancer was, what they would do, that it was treatable, and that I needed to choose a surgeon and oncologist,” Sue recalls. “She also gave me a tremendous amount of reading material, including excellent information from the Lance Armstrong Foundation’s LIVESTRONG® program.”
“You can’t make one of the most important decisions of your life without proper education,” says Marcie, who has worked with breast cancer patients at Saddleback Memorial for the past two decades. Employed by the hospital as a case manager, Marcie helps patients navigate through a breast cancer diagnosis, coordinating treatment from the breast center through surgery and post-operative care.“Many of my patients say they receive a lot of information, but it isn’t until we meet, that they feel they have knowledge.”
Before and after surgery Marcie is available to answer questions and educate about treatment. Marcie also makes sure patients make appropriate appointments and that records are sent to the various physicians and hospital departments. In addition, she participates in a pre-treatment planning Breast Conference at the Tumor Board, where a team of physicians and experts review nearly every breast cancer case.
Sue’s next step was to choose a surgeon, so she made an appointment with Dr. Lisa Curcio, a breast cancer surgeon and breast cancer survivor herself. “I spent an hour and a half with Dr. Curcio, who carefully explained surgery, treatment and reconstruction in an impressive PowerPoint presentation,” Sue says. “She answered every question, and my husband and I both felt a sense of calmness.”
According to Dr. Curcio, because of the tumor’s size and location, Sue was a good candidate for a lumpectomy and accelerated partial breast irradiation. Prior to surgery, Sue underwent a breast MRI to confirm the tumor’s location and if it had spread. Several pre-surgical tests were performed, and Sue took only a three-week leave of absence from her job.
Dr. Curcio successfully removed the tumor and three lymph nodes, and after surgery a catheter was implanted directly into the cancer site. The following week, Sue went to the Meiklejohn Radiation Oncology Center twice a day for five days, where Radiation Oncologist Dr. Steven Damore delivered radiation through that catheter directly to the cancer site.
Afterward, Sue followed up with her oncologist Dr. David Okun who said, “I’ve got good news. We caught the cancer early and most likely got it all.” Sue sees Dr. Okun regularly and he prescribed a medication called Arimidex, which prevents cancer growth. She will take it for five years.
“I used to think I would feel betrayed by my body or horrified that something foreign was growing in me that could consume my life,” Sue says about her cancer. “However, I didn't feel that way at all. I was anxious to get back to living again after it was over – to get back to my job with the seniors and a normal life. I found great comfort in my support system of family and friends at Saddleback Memorial,” Sue says.
“I’ll never forget the day before my surgery, I opened my office door and found over 38 notes of encouragement hanging on a clothesline over my desk – notes that said: ‘We love you, Be Healthy, We’re Pulling for You.’ “All of my doctors say I am cancer free,” says Sue. “My most overwhelming emotion was and still is gratitude. Gratitude for the discovery, wonderful care, excellent prognosis, and tremendous support from family, friends and those who were unexpected.”