“I don’t like doctors; I didn’t want to go,” says Michelle Rheams, a 45-year-old mother of three from Aspen Hill, explaining why she waited nearly six months after discovering a lump on her breast to see a doctor. “I should have gone the moment I thought something was wrong, but I was scared. I knew it wouldn’t be good.”
On Nov. 10, 2010, Cynthia Plate, M.D., a breast surgeon at Washington Adventist Hospital, diagnosed Rheams with breast cancer. Further tests confirmed it was Stage IV.
“Stage IV is advanced, invasive cancer that has spread beyond the breast to other areas of the body,” Dr. Plate says. “Surgery is usually the first line of attack against breast cancer, but because Michelle was already in this late stage, she needed chemotherapy first to destroy the cancer that had spread.”.
Upon hearing her diagnosis, the first thought that raced through Rheams’ mind was of her children. “I thought of Meshach, Alexis and Annie, and how no one can raise them or be there for them like I can. I’m their mother,” she says.
The oncology team at Washington Adventist Hospital addresses every aspect of cancer treatment from prevention, early detection, pretreatment evaluation, treatment, rehabilitation and post-treatment monitoring. Both inpatient and outpatient services are available to accommodate a range of unique patient needs and preferences.
Care Beyond the Illness
In addition to helping Rheams tackle the physiological side of her illness, the cancer team also provided a range of resources to support the other areas of her life affected by cancer, including her children. Traudi Rose, R.N., OCN, MBA, cancer care navigator at Washington Adventist Hospital, was there the day Rheams was diagnosed.
“I’m there to answer patients’ questions about their diagnosis, and help ease their fears,” Rose says. “Michelle was worried about telling her kids, so I gave her educational material on understanding cancer, and talking to kids about cancer.”
Rheams says she realized she had an important decision to make: “It was to live or die,” she says. “I chose to live.”
Following her diagnosis, Rheams was referred to Alida Espinoza, M.D., medical oncologist at Washington Adventist Hospital, for chemotherapy.
“We started chemo soon after her diagnosis, and knew we had to be aggressive since we were catching her cancer at such a late stage,” Dr. Espinoza says. “Her treatment lasted nearly five months, and Michelle responded very well. She had great resolve to beat her cancer and get her health back on track.”
Support Makes All the Difference
Rheams credits the support from her friends and family, and her caregivers at Washington Adventist Hospital, for helping her stay positive.
“Traudi was more than my cancer nurse; she was my go-to person,” Rheams says. “Whenever I had a question, she was there to help. If I needed someone to talk to, she was there to listen. She made my life easier during difficult times.”e.
Rose helped Rheams with transportation to and from her appointments, gave her support information, and even arranged to have Rheams’ house cleaned when she was going through chemo.
“I talked with Michelle throughout her treatment, and made sure she knew that no question was too great, too personal or too difficult,” Rose says.
Rheams says she could feel her faith getting stronger throughout her course of treatment. “My children were my daily reminder of why I was doing this,” she says. “We’ve always had a special bond, but this made it stronger.”
Continuing the Journey
On May 9, 2011, Dr. Plate performed a modified radical mastectomy on Rheams, a surgery that involves removing the entire breast. This didn’t mark the end of her cancer journey, though, and Rheams continues to meet with Dr. Espinoza to monitor her health and decide if or when more treatment may be needed.
“Michelle’s case helps stress the importance of early detection and early treatment,” Dr. Plate says. “When breast cancer is caught in the early stages, treatment is much faster and simpler. I’m glad Michelle can help spread that message.”
As she continues to battle her illness, Rheams is the first to admit she wasn’t smart to initially ignore her lump. “A lot of people make the same mistake I did,” she says. “I’ve come a long way, and couldn’t have done it without the support of my kids and my wonderful doctors and nurses who I truly consider part of my family.”