Fighting the good fight
Dr. Craig Wengler performs IORT surgery at Martin Health System. CHRIS ARNOLD
Breast cancer survivors share stories of faith, medical advances and tenacity
BY DONNA CRARY
Look around in your community and you probably know someone who has battled breast cancer. It’s no surprise, as it is the second leading cause of cancer deaths among women. More diagnoses are being reported these days. But, the good news is that deaths from the disease are declining. Experts attribute the decrease to treatment advances, earlier detection through screening and increased awareness.
In honor of Breast Cancer Awareness Month, Indian River Magazine interviewed five people on the Treasure Coast who have fought breast cancer. Each story is different and special. If you are expecting to hear about individuals who have been defeated by unfortunate circumstances, think again. They are not only brave, they are healthy survivors. Their stories are full of hope, courage, perseverance and inspiration.
DIANE FRASER — First patient to have cutting-edge surgery at Martin Health System
Diane Fraser of Port St. Lucie is a healthy 68 year old, who exercises three times a week in water aerobics and enjoys spending time with friends in her community. In early December 2015, she had an annual mammogram and was called back for another one. The second test revealed she had breast cancer.
“When you are told that you have breast cancer, it’s first of all — a shock, then you think, ‘This can’t be happening to me — it happens to everyone else — but not to me,’ ” she said. “Then you go through, ‘Is this a death sentence? Am I going to lose my breasts or my hair?’ ”
Diane Fraser was the first patient to have IORT (intraoperative radiation therapy) surgery at Martin Health System. DIANE FRASER
Fraser had an ultrasound biopsy to determine the type of cancer she had. She then met with a breast cancer surgery specialist, Dr. Craig Wengler of Stuart, who calmed her fears.
“He looked me right in the eye and said, ‘Mrs. Fraser, you have breast cancer,’ ” she recalled. “ ‘It’s very early, it’s very small, and we can take care of it for you.’ ”
Because her tumor was small and no lymph nodes were involved, she was a good candidate for IORT (intraoperative radiation therapy) at Martin Health System. IORT is an advanced alternative for radiation treatment. It offers a single session of high-intensity, highly targeted radiation given at the time of the lumpectomy surgery. The radiation is precisely delivered to the tumor site in as little as eight minutes.
The benefits of IORT are huge, compared to more traditional radiation treatments. Conventional therapies require daily radiation to the whole breast for up to seven weeks, which can cause damage to surrounding tissue.
“Whole breast radiation, from a cosmetic standpoint, can cause more skin damage, fluid retention, and skin discoloration,” said Dr. Denise Sanderson, a general surgeon in Stuart who specializes in diseases of the breast. “So it’s better — you can get the dosage you need to in a shorter amount of time with less damage.”
For early stage breast cancer patients, studies have shown that a single IORT treatment has similar recurrence rates to weeks of traditional therapy. IORT causes fewer side effects and is less disruptive to patients’ daily lives.
Fraser was the first patient to undergo IORT at Martin Health System and it was a grand success. She went in for the surgery at 7 a.m. and was home by 1:30 p.m. the same day. The tumor was completely removed and she resumed her normal lifestyle in a short period of time.
“I only took one pain pill the whole time — it was uncomfortable — any surgery is, but a root canal is much worse,” she said. “I was probably back to normal within a week and I was doing my water aerobic exercises in 2 ½ weeks. I was very, very lucky.”
CONNIE TITUS — Cancer survivor finds healing through writing and Dancing At Daybreak
Connie Titus of Fort Pierce was celebrating the Christmas holidays in 1996 with her husband, Neal, and two children, when out of the blue, she developed shooting pains in her left chest. She didn’t pay attention to the warning signs, thinking that it was heartburn from eating rich foods. But the pains didn’t go away and her breast became hard, swollen and tender. A mammogram and an ultrasound showed no signs of cancer.
“I’m thinking it’s an infection,” she recalled. “Warm compresses and antibiotics did nothing to relieve the symptoms within three days.”
Titus scheduled a biopsy with Dr. Michael Costello at Lawnwood Regional Medical Center. The diagnosis was staggering: invasive breast cancer, an aggressive, metastatic disease. Within two days, she had her left breast removed and 13 out of 20 lymph nodes were found malignant. More than 10 is considered fatal, Titus noted.
“I was wondering, ‘Why is the world still spinning, birds still singing, sun still shining — while my husband weeps?’ ” she said.
In a role reversal, patient Connie Titus plays doctor with Dr. Alan Collin with the assistance of Steve Riley. JERRY BREWER
With little time to process her living nightmare, Titus surrendered her body to multiple chemo cocktails. The cancer marched on. As a scared 42-year-old mother who was desperately searching for answers, she turned to her faith to plant herself on solid ground. She also began writing letters to her oncologist, Dr. Alan Collin, to grapple with her new, unwanted disease. She found comfort and a sense of empowerment in expressing her feelings with the written word.
“It was part of this searching for why is this happening? Why do I have this? Why don’t I know more about it? How do I go about it?” Collin recalled.
After reading her third letter, her doctor was stopped in his tracks.
“I thought, ‘Whoa! She can write!’ ” Collin said. “This would be a wonderful way to channel her energy towards healing. I promoted it as a form of therapy.”
From January 1997 to March 1998, Titus’ cancer recurred three times in spite of two chemo drugs and multiple radiation treatments. Her prognosis looked dire. So she traveled back home to Ohio to buy burial plots and to say goodbye to loved ones.
MIND OVER MATTER
In her darkest days, Titus learned about mind-body-spirit connections and how it impacts your health. In one of her doctor visits, Collin pointed to a painting of a beach scene and suggested that she go to some serene place to wake up her immune system.
“Connie, you come to me for advice. I want you to show the debilitating disease and treatment you are boss,” Titus wrote in her book called Dancing at Daybreak. “Seek some enjoyment due you; lace up your dancing shoes. White cells will surely multiply in the process.”
She followed his prescription. Titus started going to the beach most mornings at daybreak to watch the sun rise over the sparkling blue waves. She walked a mile a day. Her newfound therapy included dancing, praying, meeting people and savoring moments of life.
“I was getting in touch with my creator,” Titus said. “Breathing sea mist and salty air is very good for you. There is a profound tie between the health of the soul and the health of the body. At diagnosis , we have a choice: Do we sit it out, grumpy — all consumed with the disease or … dance?”
After seven recurrences, Titus has been cancer free since 2010. Today, she loves spending time with her children and four grandchildren, who live in Central Florida. She also enjoys ministering to cancer patients — “loving the fear out of them” — and sharing the message of her book.
“My message is how to be real, open and honest with zest when someone stamps a stage four on your forehead — you just got to keep going,” she said.
DR. ALAN COLLIN — Retired oncologist takes on role of a cancer survivor
In September 2011, Alan Collin of Tradition retired from Hematology-Oncology Associates of the Treasure Coast and entered a new chapter of his life. He found more time to travel, relax and work out at the gym. One day while he was lifting weights, he felt a pain come across his chest. He moved his hand over the sore area and felt a nodule directly under his left nipple.
“The doctor in me said, ‘Whoa! This is a problem,’ ” Collin recalled. “My first initial thought was, ‘Darn, I’m not making it to 90. Two, I’m putting this on a 24-hour rolodex. I cannot deal with this now.’ ”
Collin, who has defeated male breast cancer, enjoys time with wife, Jeanne, after retiring from Hematology-Oncology Associates of the Treasure Coast. COLLIN FAMILY COLLECTION
Initially, the doctor convinced himself that it wasn’t something to be concerned about, since the nodule was small. But the doctor in him took the upper hand. He consulted Dr. Adam Kurtin, a surgeon in St. Lucie County. He advised Collin to get an ultrasound and possibly a biopsy, if there seemed to be a problem.
An ultrasound showed a nodule with a large fleck of calcium nearby. Collin knew that calcium near the nodule could indicate inflammation and irritation instead of a malignancy. To be sure, Kurtin took a biopsy.
SUDDEN PREMONITION CONFIRMED
Rosh Hashana, the Jewish new year, was the next day, and Collin and his wife, Jeanne, attended a traditional celebration hosted by friends. During dinner, a man the doctor had never met congratulated him on his recent retirement and thanked him for giving good medical care to one of his friends. Then he shared some news with the doctor that seemed foreboding in light of Collin’s existing health situation.
“He said, ‘I want to tell you that next week I’m celebrating my fifth-year anniversary — free of disease from male breast cancer,’ ” Collin recalled.
Although the doctor had yet to learn the results of his biopsy, he inexplicably felt that his fate was sealed.
“We’re still shaking hands, and I said, ‘I have male breast cancer.’ ”
He instructed the man not to share his anticipated condition with anyone. While appetizers were being served, Collin received a phone call from his physician. He learned that his premonition came true.
DOCTOR BECOMES A PATIENT
Collin’s cancerous tumor was successfully removed at St. Lucie Medical Center. Surgery went smoothly, but during follow-up treatment, he learned firsthand what his patients had experienced during his long career.
“Chemo was terrible,” he said. “I walked in thinking, ‘I’ve done this for 30 years; it’s not going to be difficult.’ I didn’t have much in the way of nausea. But I had fatigue to where I couldn’t get my head off of the pillow. And I had significant bone and muscular pain.”
“After chemo treatments, he was in bed for one, two, three straight days,” Jeanne added. “That was the hardest part for him, because he’s always been in control. That kicked his butt.”
Today, Collin is cancer free and no longer has the lingering effects from chemotherapy. The doctor’s journey as a cancer patient has given him greater insight for those suffering with the disease. It has also inspired him to start collaborating on a new writing project with former patient Connie Titus. Now it’s his turn to express what it feels like to experience breast cancer. Not just as a doctor, but as a patient.
DORIS PLYM — Child advocate speaks out for good breast health
Doris Plym of Vero Beach is a healthy 74-year-old woman who plays tennis three times a week. She is also a tireless advocate for neglected and abused children through the Guardian ad litem program. At her annual checkup with her gynecologist last fall, she opted for a 3-D mammogram. It is the latest technology used to screen for breast cancer in women who have dense breast tissue.
“The 3-D machine picked up a spot, so they called me back for a biopsy,” she said. “After the biopsy, I was diagnosed with invasive ductal carcinoma in my right breast.”
Doris Plym received excellent and comprehensive cancer treatment at the Scully-Welsh Cancer Center at Indian River Medical Center. GREG HUNTER
Plym consulted Dr. Theodore Perry, a surgeon in Vero Beach, who advised her to have more tests to determine exactly where the cancer was. The MRI and biopsies showed it was also in her left breast, which the doctor described as a game changer.
Because Indian River Medical Center is affiliated with Duke University, her doctor was able to offer her a second opinion from its specialists.
“What we find when we have a multidisciplinary approach, the moment a patient is diagnosed, we can discuss it and decide what’s the best way to move forward and there are no delays,” said Dr. Stephen Patterson, an oncologist at the hospital. “It’s never where the treatment is changed 180 degrees — but it’s tweaked, enhanced in what we’re doing. It ends up being a very good academic discussion about what’s the right thing to do for the patient.”
After consultation with her medical team, Plym chose to have a bilateral mastectomy. Since no lymph nodes were found to be malignant, she did not require radiation. Within a month of her operation, she was having dinner with friends and attending social events.
“I felt fine — I felt good,” she said. “I had the surgery on Dec. 29 and attended an event in Port St. Lucie on Jan. 22. The event was a virtual tour of Sanctuary4kids, a safe house for children who have been removed from their homes due to neglect and abuse.”
Plym also started playing tennis again in March and took a trip with her husband, Eric, to England and Scotland, later that month. She credits the support of her family and friends for her speedy recovery. Her decision to speak out and be open with her diagnosis has also contributed to her healing.
“My husband has been wonderful — he was very encouraging,” Plym said. “I asked him, ‘Do you think I am different in any way as a result of this? He said, ‘Yes, you’re eating more chocolate and drinking more wine!’ So, just enjoy yourself’ ” she said with a laugh.
JODI DETERLIZZI — Fitness trainer fights cancer with her faith
As a certified personal trainer and fitness instructor, Jodi DiTerlizzi of Palm City has led a healthy and active lifestyle. Back in 2010, her typical workday began with a 5-mile run before training clients and teaching exercise classes at Martin Health and Fitness Center. So, it was shocking to this health-conscious 53 year old, when her gynecologist discovered a lump in her left breast during a routine exam. She had a mammogram and then consulted Dr. James Vopal, a surgeon in Stuart who specializes in breast cancer treatments, who took a biopsy.
Jodi Deterlizzi of Palm City, pictured with husband, Mike, relies on her faith to remain strong and cancer free. DETERLIZZI FAMILY COLLECTION
“With tears in his eyes, Dr.Vopal pulls his stool up to me, and he spoke that dreaded word ‘cancer — ductal carcinoma in-situ,’ ” she recalled. “It meant that it was enclosed in the milk ducts and had not metastasized. He explained that if they caught it quickly, there would be no spreading.”
DeTerlizzi elected to have a double mastectomy, since there could be a malignancy in both breasts. Realizing that she was in a tough fight with a deadly opponent, she turned to her faith as a first weapon of defense. For 12 days leading up to the surgery, she completely immersed herself with healing scriptures and music.
“I would tape the earbuds to my ears and listen even through the night,” she said. “In the morning, I would wake up and felt no anxiety or fear.”
Surgery was scheduled at Martin Health System on St. Patrick’s Day. As it was about to begin, she asked to pray with the doctors.
“I could swear that I could hear a pin drop,” she recalled. “Everything stopped for that moment. I wasn’t just praying for my surgery, but everyone else’s. The prayer seemed to circle around the room.”
Surgery was a success and she woke to Vopal whispering in her ear, “It’s not in your lymph nodes.” She didn’t require radiation and chose not to have chemotherapy. She was on the road to recovery.
TURNING A TEST INTO A TESTIMONY
DiTerlizzi soon returned to her job as a trainer and fitness instructor. Martin Health System also asked her to participate in its nutrition and movement for breast cancer survivors program, where she gave other survivors practical tips on staying healthy.
“I was able to show them range of motion,” she said. “The nutritionist would cook a little something, and then we’d exercise with bands. I would show them to not be afraid — to open their chest cavity. Just walking them through that was so therapeutic for me. They gave me more than I could have ever given them.”
DiTerlizzi remains healthy and cancer free. She rides her bicycle 10 miles a day. One of her real passions is ministering to those who have cancer. She shares a message of healing and hope and reminds others that their needs can be met, too.
“To anyone facing a cancer diagnosis, please do not become your diagnosis,” she said. “The Bible verse that kept me going through the hardest part is James 1: 2-4. In my journey to health, it’s been me and God. And we had some really tough talks. But through it all, he said, ‘I’ll never leave you, nor forsake you.’ ”