In March, Kassie Sheffer was anxiously awaiting the day of her scheduled thyroidectomy. Experiencing difficulty swallowing, Kassie was ready for the relief the removal of her thyroid would bring. Unfortunately, in late March, Kassie received a call that her surgery would be postponed due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“I was frustrated but understood,” Kassie said. Her surgeon, Beth Kimball, MD, kept in touch and assured Kassie that if swallowing became even more difficult, she could go to the Emergency Department and the surgery could take place. Kassie waited, and had a successful thyroidectomy in mid-May when surgeries resumed at St. Joe’s.
“I’m typically a very cautious person,” Kassie said. “Going into a hospital with COVID-19 patients should have been nerve-wracking. But it was the opposite. I was ready to reschedule my surgery.”
Kassie received clear instructions from Dr. Kimball and St. Joe’s on what to expect and how to prepare for surgery. She went two days before surgery for a COVID-19 test, which was negative, and knew that visitor restrictions would mean she’d be alone during surgery and her overnight stay.
“Although I was alone, I never felt alone,” Kassie said. “Everyone went out of their way to make sure I was comfortable and were very helpful. Dr. Kimball called my husband immediately after surgery to let him know everything went well and, later, I was able to speak to him myself.”
Kassie also witnessed St. Joe’s safety processes first hand.
“It’s very clear patient safety is a top priority,” Kassie said. “Everyone is screened before entering; you can tell all of the staff are screened too because they have a sticker with a date on their badge. The clinicians are also always explaining what they are doing and how the surgery area is separate from areas where they care for COVID-19 patients. I would tell everyone 1,000 times over that they don’t have to be nervous to receive care at St. Joe’s – it’s safe.”
Kassie is now home, recovering well and conducting follow-up visits with her physicians virtually. Kassie, her husband and the four children she had at St. Joe’s are healthy and glad Kassie’s difficulties are gone for good.
“Recently I came across the definition of the word
Courage. It is the quality of mind or
spirit that enables a person to face difficulty or pain. You have to have courage just to walk through
these doors and hear your diagnosis,” said Sandra Lymburner, 58-year-old
Ann Arbor resident, of her experience facing breast cancer. “Cancer can
make you feel overwhelmed and alone. But together with your cancer team here at
St. Joe’s you find the courage. There is
strength in knowing you will receive the best cancer care possible.”
While Sandy celebrates
five years cancer-free this past September, her journey of braving a new treatment
path will have an ongoing impact on others.
She’s quick to credit the cancer care and research team at St. Joe’s
Robert H. and Judy Dow Alexander Cancer Center.
Weeks after being diagnosed with invasive ductal carcinoma
in the right breast and lobular cancer in the left, Sandy underwent a double
mastectomy in September 2014. Her chemotherapy port was placed the next month,
fully expecting it was the next course of treatment.
But on the day of Sandy’s first scheduled chemotherapy
session, Dr. Philip Stella, medical director of oncology at Saint Joseph Mercy
Health System, suggested she might be able to bypass chemotherapy altogether.
“He came into the room with a big
smile on his face,” Sandy described. Dr. Stella
had sent in her breast tumor samples for molecular testing. Sandy had some of the lowest cancer
recurrence risk scores he had seen, making her a good candidate for the
groundbreaking Trial Assigning Individualized Options for Treatment (Rx), or
TAILORx trial. Sandy received a score of
10 and 7 (on a scale of 100), and was randomly selected to receive hormone
Rather than receiving infusion chemo treatments, Sandy chose
to participate in the clinical trial, which includes a treatment regimen of
medications to block the production of hormones and reduce her risks of the
breast cancer recurring.
She also followed her cancer team’s recommendations for
radiation therapy – to tackle the microscopic cells. But avoiding chemotherapy and its drastic
side effects was a huge morale booster for Sandy, who began journaling and
running every day.
In 2016, Sandy completed a half-marathon, and, in 2018, to mark
four years of being cancer-free, she ran her third half-marathon in Chicago on
At the Robert H. and Judy Dow Alexander Cancer Center
Dedication and Blessing in December 2018, Sandy shared her experience with our
community and donors as a speaker at the event, “The clinical trial
allowed me to walk out of the cancer center that day without requiring
chemo. Every time I tell the story, I
recall the moment I looked back at the chairs in the infusion clinic. I was on the other side. I got to go home. My good fortune was due to the outstanding
staff in the Oncology and Research Departments at St. Joe’s and Dr.
At that time I didn’t realize St. Joe’s is recognized as one
of the nation’s best National Cancer Institute funded community research
programs. They have 100 trials open to enrollment at any given time. These studies offer investigational
treatments for a wide variety of cancers, symptom management, and cancer
Sandy went on to explain, “The exceptional care I
received at St. Joe’s has been incredible and is the main reason I decided to
become an Experience Advisor.” As such,
Sandy was closely involved in the Cancer Center redesign and renovation project
and found it enlightening and gratifying to have another unique opportunity to
shape the care of those following a similar path.
Closing her remarks at the Dedication, Sandy shared these
powerful words, “Society has labeled me a cancer survivor. That term doesn’t really resonate with
me. I like to think of myself as a
resilient fighter… Someone that didn’t know how strong she was until being strong
was the only choice she had. Thanks to
my family and the staff at St. Joe’s we embraced the unknown together and I
have celebrated almost five years of being cancer free.”
trial shows no need for chemotherapy for most women with early breast cancer
TAILORx trial, launched in 2006 and supported by the National Cancer Institute,
analyzed breast tumors using the Oncotype DX Breast Recurrence Score and
assigned a cancer recurrence risk score to each individual. Based on those scores, the trial randomly
assigned participants to hormone therapy alone, or a combination of hormone
therapy and chemotherapy.
Forty St. Joe’s patients participated
in the trial.
the National Cancer Institute said new findings from the TAILORx trial show no
benefit from chemotherapy for most women with early breast cancer. Researchers
hope the new data will help inform treatment decisions for many women with
early-stage breast cancer, especially for those deemed to have an intermediate
risk of recurrence.
To learn more about St. Joe’s Cancer Care and National Cancer Institute Community Oncology Research Program, visit: stjoesannarbor.org/cancer
Matthew Robinson was unsuspecting and shocked when he learned that the months of headaches he had been experiencing were likely due to cancer, and not just long work hours.
The 58-year-old triathlete was diagnosed in July 2017 with squamous cell carcinoma, after a PET scan showed a tumor at the base of his tongue.
Even more surprising, Matthew said, was learning that his cancer was probably caused by human papillomavirus, or HPV.
While tobacco and alcohol are two of the most common risk factors of cancers in the back of the throat, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says recent studies show that about 60% to 70% of cancers of the oropharynx may be linked to HPV.
(Pictured left to right) Connie Schuby and Amanda Saracino (Greenbrook Recovery Center behavioral health therapists), Evan Koorhan, and Suzie Antonow (manager of Outpatient Behavioral Services)
completed the intensive outpatient program at Greenbrook Recovery Center and
now volunteers to help others fighting addiction.
Between managing a local eatery and volunteering with substance abuse programs several times a week, Evan Koorhan lives a busy life. He recently bought a house with his girlfriend and values fellowship with his friends – two gifts he says wouldn’t have been imaginable a few years ago, when he was stuck in the cycle of addiction.
For years Evan used drugs and alcohol to cope with stress and anxiety.
“The only joy I was deriving out of life was using drugs and alcohol and partying with my friends,” he said.
While he was able to hold a job as head coach of a varsity water polo team, and even graduate in 2014 from Eastern Michigan University, Evan kept reverting back to alcohol and marijuana, despite how hard he tried to stop. He even dabbled in therapy, to little avail.
“It was the same thing over and over again, and I couldn’t break the cycle. I would try,” he said.
Michael McCarty, this year’s patient speaker at the annual Shine a Light on Lung Cancer event, credits his survival to a single, desperate message he sent from a hospital bed to transfer his cancer care to St. Joe’s.
Over the course of his six-year lung cancer journey, Michael McCarty has been to the brink of death and back. And though he accepts the sober truth that time is limited, he tells people, “it’s never too late.” Michael was diagnosed in September 2012 with non-small cell lung cancer – a type of cancer that occurs mainly in current or former smokers. As Michael would soon learn, it’s also the most common type of lung cancer seen in non-smokers like him.
One year after sharing his hopeful story, Kenn Sheats opens up about facing cancer recurrence
Sitting in a corner of Joe’s Java, Kenn Sheats sips on a latte. Sporting a baseball cap and button-down shirt, he’s trimmer than a year ago – a sign that his body has endured much change over the last 12 months, since the first time he publicly shared his cancer journey.
“I want today to be the best. Maybe tomorrow will be better, maybe it’ll be worse. We’ll deal with it tomorrow, you know?” he said. Something in his smile suggests this pearl of wisdom was learned the hard way.
Today, Kenn is on the other side of his battle with mantle cell lymphoma, which took him on many twists and turns. His calendar is now full of follow-up visits, regular lab work, meticulous medication tracking and a much-anticipated return to his job as a patient access training coordinator for Saint Joseph Mercy Health System. And, for all of it, he says, he is grateful. Continue reading “Be Present”
John Huling returned to his favorite fishing hole after beating throat cancer
John Huling loves nature. When he’s not fixing cars at the auto repair shop, he’s either casting a line at the lake or tending to the vegetable garden at his Milan home.
In 2016, John began experiencing severe ear pain and trouble swallowing. At first, John’s doctors didn’t find anything wrong. Seeking answers, he ended up at St. Joseph Mercy Ann Arbor. A CAT-scan revealed a tumor pushing on a nerve on the inside of John’s throat leading to the constant pain he was feeling.
The cancer diagnosis hit him like a sudden tug on his fishing pole and cast his future in doubt. Within hours, however, the cancer team at St. Joe’s Cancer Center had mobilized and developed a treatment plan for John.
“They told me about the tumor around midnight on a Thursday. By Friday afternoon, I already had a biopsy and was preparing for a trach,” John said. “I was overwhelmed. I wasn’t expecting this and it all happened so fast”
“There were times I felt stressed. There were times I was afraid. I am very thankful to you for helping me through all of it. You listened. You cared. You all became like family to me.”
The trach, a surgically created hole in the front of the neck, provided relief from the mass impacting his airway. John met radiation oncologist Eva Bieniek, MD, and the rest of the St. Joe’s cancer team. He underwent weeks of chemotherapy and radiation treatment, while relying on a feeding tube for nourishment.
Throughout his treatment, John took time off work as a mechanic but found solace tending to his vegetable garden. At first, John couldn’t speak and communicated through notes to his family and health care team.
“You and the entire team met with me to talk through my treatment plan, which addressed many of my questions and eased my fears,” John wrote in a letter to Dr. Bieniek. “There were times I felt stressed. There were times I was afraid. I am very thankful to you for helping me through all of it. You listened. You cared. You all became like family to me.”
This past summer, John returned to his favorite fishing hole and reflected on his cancer journey. The mist was thick in the cold morning air but the lake was pristine and calm. The sun was slowly starting to rise, like the new hope John had.
“I love to fish and that day was extra special. When I was diagnosed, I didn’t know if I’d have another summer to fish. But now, I’m cancer free. It’s been a life changing year but I have a new lease on life.”
For more information about cancer prevention and treatment programs at Saint Joseph Mercy Health System, visit www.stjoeshealth.org/cancercare. To speak with a representative, please call 1-877-712-HOPE.
A routine self-exam leads to life-saving treatment for mother of two
Michelle Docherty found a lump in her breast during a self-exam. How could this be? Almost a year ago, Michelle’s mammogram was clear.
Things progressed quickly for the 47-year-old mother of two from Lake Orion.
Michelle called her OB/GYN on a Friday and saw her physician on Monday morning. A mammogram and biopsy occurred within days. On her kids’ first day of school, she got the call – breast cancer.
“My doctor told me it was curable,” Michelle recalled. “She said to remember that, even though I would be going through a lot of scary things. It was jarring to say the least. Right away I thought of both of my kids. I didn’t want to do anything that would distract them from school. I was also thinking of my husband. My life. I wanted to be here.”
“I just had an overall feeling that I was in fantastic hands.”
The day after her diagnosis, Michelle and her husband met with Amy Kirby, MD, surgeon. Michelle was diagnosed with invasive ductal carcinoma, stage 2.
“As we were going over my plan, it felt like an out-of-body experience,” recalled Michelle. “I remember thinking I know that she’s talking to me, it just didn’t feel like I was there. I remember at one point in the conversation she told me that the plan was to get me to 95 years old. Something else will take me, not this cancer. I said, ‘I like that. I’ll do whatever I have to do.’”
After that day, Michelle felt like she was living in the “land of appointments.” Thankfully, her husband was able to manage them for her. Her care was guided by Sarah Riaz, MD, an oncologist at St. Joseph Mercy Oakland. Michelle had 16 treatments of chemotherapy over a 20-week period, surgery, and finally six weeks of radiation treatments to burn out any remaining cancer cells.
Her new diagnosis: no remaining cancer.
“I just had an overall feeling that I was in fantastic hands,” Michelle said.
“My physicians, Dr. Riaz and Dr. Kirby, were warm and caring. These are very knowledgeable women and I knew I was in capable hands. I knew if I did everything they told me to do, I would be okay. They were very patient with me and answered all of my questions.
“They played such a crucial role in giving me my life back. I could tell I mattered to them.”
On Michelle’s last day of radiation treatment, her radiation therapist gave her a blue rubber bracelet with the encryption, strength. Her son wears it every day. He says it’s his most prized possession.
“Thank you doesn’t seem like enough,” Michelle said. “I almost see my breast cancer as an unexpected blessing. So many amazing people became a part of my life. My gratefulness far outweighs the bad experiences. Sometimes the road to getting better isn’t very pretty, but I’m going to be okay. It was important for my kids to see that sometimes life is really hard but you can always face it and get through it.”
Since Michelle’s treatments ended, she has started making more time for herself. She pays closer attention to her health and she believes she has a better outlook on life.
Tanya McLeod credits God, family and St. Mary Mercy Livonia for courageous fight against colorectal cancer
Listen to your body. If something feels wrong, go to the doctor. These are the words 61-year-old Inkster resident Tanya McLeod lives by.
Tanya was feeling constipated, bloated and had stomach cramps. She felt pain near her tailbone when she walked. It wasn’t until she found blood in her stool that she knew this wasn’t merely the realities of getting older. She knew her body was telling her something so she made an appointment with her primary care physician.
During her exam, Tanya’s physician felt something abnormal and referred her for a colonoscopy. She received her diagnosis on June 24, 2015 – stage two colorectal cancer.
Accompanied by her husband, two children, mother, sister, and sister-in-law, Tanya met with radiation oncologist Samir Narayan, MD and his team at St. Mary Mercy Livonia. At this first meeting, they gained an honorary family member, she said.
“That day, we gained a family friend; more like I gained a brother. The whole staff is like my extended family.”
“I was scared and feared the worst,” recalled Tanya. “All of that fear and uncertainty melted away when I met Dr. Narayan. I felt an immediate connection with him. With a smile that is so genuine it reaches his eyes, it’s hard not to feel comfortable with him.”
“That day, we gained a family friend; more like I gained a brother. The whole staff is like my extended family,” she continued.
Tanya underwent six weeks of radiation and chemotherapy treatments. It wasn’t easy. On the sixth week, she felt something was off but was so close to being done that she pushed it aside. But she couldn’t fool the radiation oncology staff.
“They knew when I came in that something wasn’t right just by how I was walking,” she said. “The office staff put me in a wheel chair and took me up to the Cancer Center. I was admitted and spent nine days in the hospital. I’m so thankful they were all so in tune with me and cared about my well-being.”
This minor setback didn’t get her down. After being released from the hospital, Tanya finished her treatments.
While in recovery, she faced a few more setbacks. Part of her colon and intestine were removed due to the side effects of the chemo and radiation. Through it all, she stayed positive and credits God, her family and the St. Mary Mercy staff for providing the help and support needed to overcome her diagnosis and become a survivor.
“As of Nov. 30, 2017, I am two years cancer free!” Tanya exclaimed. “I am so thankful I am still here. The Lord gave me a second chance at life.”
In a letter Tanya wrote to Dr. Narayan, she expressed her gratitude for him and his staff. She wrote:
“I continue to thank God for each and every one of you. I am a new creature in Christ! I am courage! I am fearless! I am a survivor! I am remarkable!”
For more information about colorectal cancer prevention and treatment programs at Saint Joseph Mercy Health System, visit stjoeshealth.org/cancercare-colon-rectal. To speak with a representative, please call 1-877-712-HOPE.