A Mammogram Saved Cathy’s Life

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Upon a diagnosis of breast cancer, junior-high school teacher, Cathy Rezba of Pinckneyville, did her homework and decided to stay.

Following a series of diagnostic tests including mammography, ultrasound and biopsy, on January 30, she received the call from oncology surgeon, Dr. Suven Shankar with SIH Medical Group. Cathy had Stage 1 breast cancer. She was scheduled to him in his office the very next day to discuss treatment planning.

Should I get a Second Opinion?

Cathy and her husband, Keith, found Dr. Shankar to be a very calming force. “When we met with him, he explained the process and that there would be a team of doctors discussing my situation. He said things would move quickly once they had a plan of action.

“At SIH Cancer Institute, all breast cancer cases are brought to a multi-disciplinary team of doctors, determining the best plan of care for the patient,” said Dr. Suven Shankar.

Like many southern Illinoisans, the idea of going to Siteman Center in St. Louis for a second opinion crossed her mind. Shankar encouraged her to do so if she that felt strongly about it. “That impressed me so much. It let me know that he valued me as a person as well as a patient,” recalls Cathy. Ultimately, she decided to stay in southern Illinois. “I wanted to stay closer to home instead of driving nearly two hours one way to get treatment.”

Her older sister was not happy with her decision to stay in the area. “I understand why she felt that way. My other sister happened to be battling cancer, too,” said Cathy. “I told her that I understood her fears but the decision was mine and that I wanted to stay here.”

And so it was time to begin. Ultimately, Cathy faced a nine-month care journey and upwards of 75 medical visits, all in southern Illinois.

Cancer Treatment Phase I: Surgery

After some genetic testing, Cathy’s treatment began with surgery.

“I had a lumpectomy on February 18 and approximately 21 days later I returned to work at school. I planned to work until I started radiation,” she said.
That week Cathy had come into contact with school children who were ill. By the end of the week she was not feeling well herself and began to run a fever. At first she thought she had the flu – until her breast began to feel hot.

A sonogram revealed a large pocket of fluid and surgery was required to drain and remove infection. “Dr. Shankar informed me that I was no longer allowed to work until treatments were over because he didn’t want me to be around children that might be contagious.”

Cancer Treatment Phase II: Chemo

With Stage 1 breast cancer, Cathy was really hoping to only need radiation following surgery, but her genetic testing revealed that her tumor cells were aggressive. “I was told that reoccurrence rates were 29%.” Chemo would be a part of her care plan. Her radiation would be postponed until chemotherapy was completed.

“When I first was told that I’d need to have 20 chemotherapy treatments, I went home and cried,” said Cathy. “I watched my older sister go through it.”

Cathy had a port-a-cath put in on April 8 and chemotherapy started on April 16. “I was nervous as I showed up for chemotherapy. The nursing staff was very kind and reassuring,” said Cathy. “They were so caring and nurturing. They put me at ease each time I came to have treatment.”

A teacher at heart, Cathy was open and honest about her cancer journey with her students. “Each time I had a chemotherapy treatment, I would send the picture to my substitute teacher so the students could see that I was doing well,” said Cathy. She also took time to talk to them via speaker phone. “I believe it helped them understand that cancer is not a death sentence. They also seemed fascinated as to what I might look like without hair.”

Cancer Treatment Phase III: Radiation

Radiation therapy began on September 30. Like many patients, Cathy made the daily trip Monday through Friday from Pinckneyville for a total of 33 treatments. Once there, the process took less than five minutes.

“The staff at the radiation oncology center was very friendly and explained everything they were going to do before they did it,” said Cathy. Dr. George Kao, radiation oncologist oversaw her care. “He would discuss my treatments and felt that my opinion valued along the way.”

“The day of my last radiation treatment, I was presented with a t-shirt and a card signed by all the staff that had taken care of me.”

Cathy, a Shining Example of a Survivor

The road was long, but Cathy now joins the ranks of a survivor. “I truly believe that the SIH Cancer Institute is helping and will continue to help individuals who choose to stay closer to home. I’m honored to share and be part of something bigger than myself!”

If you have been diagnosed with cancer and want to know about your treatment options, please call the SIH Cancer Institute at 618.985.3333.