Gwinnett Medical Center’s Breast Health Navigator Donna Stoudenmire poses for a portrait with Karen Grant, right, at the Breast Health Imaging Center in Lawrenceville. Stoudenmire assisted Grant of Lawrenceville during her treatment process after being diagnosed with breast cancer last year. (Staff Photo: Brendan Sullivan)
Karen Grant’s life turned on a dime last year, when she felt a lump in her left breast as she showered one morning. From that moment on, her life was forever changed.
“I didn’t think it was cancer,” Grant said, adding that her annual physical was scheduled for just a short two weeks away. Following a discussion with her husband, however, she changed her appointment to the following day. The lump was in fact identified as being cancerous, and while other areas of concern were examined more closely, testing showed the cancer to be contained to that one mass.
Grant was then swept up into that all-too-familiar tunnel of fear, disbelief and confusion that thousands of woman every day reluctantly enter when they hear those dreaded words, “It’s cancer.”
“You don’t know what to do. It’s all so new, and you are so scared. It’s very traumatic,” Grant said. “The first thing you think is, ‘I’m going to die.’” It’s the same for any woman who gets the dreaded diagnosis, and Gwinnett Medical Center has responded with an innovative approach to breast cancer treatment: treating the whole woman and her family, with a positive, proactive approach and a state-of-the-art Breast Center that opened in Lawrenceville in October 2011.
One facet of this new approach includes assigning every newly-diagnosed patient a Breast Health Navigator, an accredited nursing professional that comes alongside the patient and guides her through the confusing and often terrifying maze of breast cancer diagnostics and treatment. Grant’s Navigator was Donna Stoudenmire, a 28-year faith-based veteran of surgery, health care and even hospice care.
“Donna was made for this job,” Grant said. “She called me right away, before I even called her, to help me make sense of all that was happening. She said to me, ‘You’re not alone in this.’”
Stoudenmire understands what a woman needs once she is told that a mammogram has revealed an abnormality. “Often, when a patient hears a diagnosis, they don’t hear anything beyond that,” she said, asserting the notion that another pair of eyes and ears with experience in breast cancer treatment is invaluable to patients. “We (at GMC) were doing Navigation before anybody even knew what Navigation was.” Grant was fortunate in that her husband was an active participant in her care, from choice of physician to plan of action. Not every woman has that support, which is critical to both physical and emotional well-being. To many women, the Navigator is her support.
For instance, if the patient does not already have a recommended surgeon, the navigator helps them find one. The Navigator talks to the patient about what’s coming next and what to expect with each new experience. “There was even a one-on-one class that helped me understand what to expect when I began my chemotherapy” Grant said, explaining that her treatment included a lumpectomy, chemotherapy and radiation. “My case was presented to a group of thirty doctors for consideration. It was a group effort. It made me feel good, like I would receive the absolute best of care.”
Jennifer Beck-Griffin, a nurse at GMC and a Resource Navigator for the American Cancer Society, was an active participant in Grant’s support system, also. “Believe it or not, Jennifer is also a licensed cosmetologist,” said Grant, whose doctor had advised cutting her long locks to make the dreaded hair loss caused by chemotherapy less traumatic. “She brought me in and gave me the cutest hair cut. I actually got a lot of compliments on it.” When the time came, Grant participated in a class about wig selection and care. “They actually made it fun,” Grant said.
The support of the navigator is critical, but the alliance with the patient doesn’t stop there. Cindy Snyder, GMC’s Manager of Oncology Services and a Cancer Risk Counselor, recently achieved the credential of Advanced Practice Nurse in Genetics. One of only two people in Georgia at the time to earn this distinction, Snyder is responsible for managing clinical and educational support for breast cancer patients, as well as providing hereditary risk assessments. Assessing and understanding a patient’s genetic risk is a service now offered at GMC as part of the hospital system’s evolving proactive approach to breast cancer treatment.
Treating the whole woman whose life now includes breast cancer involves everything from nutrition to finances, prosthesis to wig selection, from family counseling to physician selection. The attention to the details that matter to women are reflected in the design of the Breast Health Center itself. The colors are calming and feminine, the music is soothing, and even the images on the television screens placed throughout the waiting area are cheerful and relaxing.
At the Center, mammography and ultrasound patients are offered a gourmet selection of teas, coffees and light snacks. The robes provided to women to wear during the mammogram, formerly a chilly and predictably bland hospital-grey or -blue faded print, are now more akin to spa wear than hospital garb, plush and heated for patient comfort. Attention to detail is obvious throughout the center, right down to the drapes in the changing area, which are now made of pretty, reversible, high-quality fabrics instead of sterile rubber or plastic.
“We hired an interior designer when we built this center, because we know that these details matter to women. It’s not very calming to be watching and listening to news or a sports channel while you’re waiting to get your mammogram,” said Michelle Salvanini-Proby, Manager of the Breast Center in Lawrenceville. “Every mammographer we have here is trained extensively, and everyone on staff is trained to be very tuned-in to how patients need to be treated. Every person who comes in here is an individual person, like a family member.”
A major source of stress and worry for a woman who has been told that her mammogram shows abnormalities is the waiting - whether she is waiting to schedule the next appointment or waiting for test results, a hour can seem like a lifetime. “When an abnormality is spotted, a report is faxed to the prescribing physician within 24 hours. If a woman is called back for further tests, a radiologist will talk with her about additional imaging and review the results while she is there,” said Salvanini-Proby.
The Breast Health Center’s professionals understand and follow the philosophy that treating breast cancer is not strictly a clinical process. It’s a highly emotional one that involves not just the woman but her husband and children, as well. “We have three boys, and my husband and I were very concerned about how all of this would affect them. We received counseling for that, as well,” said Grant.
In April of this year, Grant received her last treatment for breast cancer, and the relief in her voice is evident. “I always took care of myself before, but now I take even better care of me, first” she said. “I eat a lot of fruits and vegetables, I drink a lot of water, and I exercise. These changes are critical in decreasing the risk of getting cancer again.”
With all the changes and advances GMC has made in delivering breast cancer treatment to patients, one philosophy still holds true: regular screening and preventive measures such as proper diet and exercise are critical to prevention and successful treatment. Even putting off a mammogram for just a few months can cost a woman critical time should treatment be necessary. According to the American Cancer Society, annual screening mammograms are recommended for women age 40 and over.
The Gwinnett Breast Center is located at the Gwinnett Physicians’ Center, 631 Professional Drive in Lawrenceville. To schedule appointments, call 678-312-3444. For more information on the Center, visit www.gwinnettmedicalcenter.org.