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Holli Head of Rockford, Illinois had no reason to worry about her annual screening mammogram in late 2021.
She was asked to return a little more than two weeks later for a second, more detailed mammogram that showed calcifications in her right breast. Calcifications are often not cancerous, but the only way Holli would know for sure was to have a biopsy, a procedure that removes a small sample of breast tissue for close examination.
Understandably nervous, Holli, then 67, remembers being comforted the moment she arrived at the Breast Imaging Clinic at UW Health in northern Illinois.
“The nurse was so friendly and put me at ease,” recalls Holli, retired nurse herself. “It also comforted me that the nurse was named Teresa, and she spelled it the same way as my mother, who died a few months earlier.”
Two days after the biopsy, Holli learned she had early-stage breast cancer. Fortunately, however, her disease was confined to the inside of the milk ducts and did not spread to the surrounding breast tissue. Best of all, stage-zero breast cancer is almost always curable.
“I was not happy that it was cancer, but I was reassured because it was caught so early,” Holli says. “I was also impressed that the nurse navigator had already set up several appointments for me. Within two weeks of my biopsy, I would be seeing a genetic counselor, getting an MRI, and meeting with a breast surgeon and medical oncologist.”
Dr. Lacey Stelle, the UW Health breast cancer surgeon who saw Holli, says patients have enough to worry about without having to navigate the health system by themselves.
UW Health arranged appointments, easing Holli’s stress
“Patients should not have to figure out who to call for each appointment and spend time sitting on hold,” she says. “Jennie Ortgiesen and Kathi Bouland, our breast cancer nurse navigators, coordinate all of this for them and are readily available to answer any questions.”
Moreover, says Dr. Stelle, patients should not feel rushed during their first appointment with a breast cancer surgeon.
“Taking enough time to thoroughly go over each woman’s options gives them more ownership of the treatment plan,” Dr. Stelle says. “We believe that women who actively participate in their care do better than patients who are told, ‘This is what you need to do.’”
Holli had two major decisions to make with respect to her treatment.
First, would she have a lumpectomy to remove only the cancerous area, or a mastectomy to remove her entire right breast?
“By slowly walking me through the pros and cons of both options,” Holli says, “Dr. Stelle helped me decide that I wanted a mastectomy. I could have had one or two lumpectomies, but that would have left me with a misshapen breast and more worry that the cancer might come back. Dr. Stelle’s patience and thorough approach made me feel good about my choice.”
Holli chose reconstructive breast surgery using her own tissue
Because Holli opted for reconstruction surgery to build a new breast, her second big decision was whether to have breast implants or flap surgery, which uses tissue from other parts of the body to build a new breast.
At her consultation with UW Health plastic and reconstructive surgeon Dr. Katherine Shaum, Holli learned the advantages and disadvantages of both approaches.
Even though flap surgery leaves a longer scar and requires more recovery time, Holli chose this approach instead of implants, which come with a greater risk for infection and the need for future maintenance surgery.
“Our goal is to help each patient choose the right reconstructive option for them,” says Dr. Shaum. “In Holli’s case, we took tissue from Holli’s abdomen to build her a new breast. Her surgery went well and she has had a smooth course of recovery.”
One year out from surgery, Holli, now 69, feels great and remains cancer-free.
“I was expecting more pain after the reconstruction surgery,” Holli says. “I only had to take Tylenol and Advil for pain relief.”
Regarding her overall UW Health experience, Holli has no complaints.
“Everyone was so good to me and the staff is always available if I ever have a question,” Holli says. “With their skill, knowledge and compassion, I’d recommend them to anybody.”