In 2018, the National Cancer Institute reported 18.1 million new cancer diagnoses worldwide. Receiving a cancer diagnosis is never easy. But no matter where you are on your cancer journey, there are people, resources and teams of health care professionals ready to help you. Cancer treatment is not just treating the malignant components of your diagnosis, but also tending to your physical and mental health needs.
When Tracy Worrell has an appointment with one of her oncologists, she doesn’t write “cancer center” or “doctor’s appointment” on the calendar hanging in her Mullica Hill home. Instead, she writes, “Mom – Cheers.” It’s a nod to the 80s hit TV show Cheers, a fictional bar where everybody knows your name.
“I don't feel like I'm at a cancer center, I'm going to a place of hope and light,” explains Worrell. "I feel like a queen. I feel special. When you have cancer, it's nice to feel special."
Hope and light were exactly what Tracy needed when she was diagnosed with an aggressive, hard to treat form of breast cancer. Even more so when she learned the cancer had already spread to her liver. Amidst the devastating news, Tracy was buoyed by family, faith, her oncology team, and the extended "family" she gained through Gilda's Club, an international charitable organization that provides robust support services to people with cancer.
Tracy's cancer journey began when she found a lump in her breast on July 30 of 2020. Over the next four weeks, she would have imaging studies, a biopsy, more imaging studies, another biopsy and meetings with several cancer specialists. Fortunately, all her specialists had offices in the Leading-Edge Cancer Center at Inspira Medical Center Mullica Hill. She would come to appreciate this more and more with each visit.
Tracy’s initial diagnosis, stage 3B triple negative breast cancer, came on August 19 of 2020. Her oncology team was hopeful that the cancer had not spread beyond her breast and arm pit. But a scan found a suspicious spot on her liver; a biopsy confirmed it was cancer. The news hit Tracy hard and she began to worry that she didn’t have much time to live. She remembers arriving at her first chemotherapy appointment in tears. But before she reached the infusion suite, she was comforted by nurse navigator Barbie DiMatteo.
“I was sobbing,” recalled Worrell. “I just bumped into Barbie while walking down the hall. She is so good at her job.”
Barbie’s words helped Tracy see her situation through a more positive lens. It was during that chance encounter that Tracy learned about Gilda’s Club, which quickly became an invaluable source of support and information. Gilda’s Club gave Tracy something that even her loving family and friends could not – a group of people who totally understood what she was going through. Inspira’s cancer program partners with Gilda’s Club to provide an additional layer of support. The organization takes its name from Gilda Radner, an original Saturday Night Live cast member who died of ovarian cancer in 1989.
Due to the aggressive nature of Tracy’s cancer, her medical oncologist, Erev Tubb, M.D., had recommended a course of “dose dense” chemotherapy, eight cycles in all. The treatment presented challenges, but Tracy persevered. With the love and encouragement of the growing support system that formed around her, Tracy stayed focused on her goal. She told her care team – “My goal is to live.”
"I have seven kids who need me, my husband is an amazing man – I don't want to leave him," Tracy explained. "Whatever will prolong my life, I want it," she remembers telling her doctors.
That mindset, together with her experienced oncology team and unwavering faith, brought Tracy to a place that was unimaginable only a few months before. After completing eight cycles of chemotherapy, no evidence of cancer was found in her post-treatment CT scan.
After six months passed, with no sign of cancer, Tracy’s oncology team formulated a new aggressive multidisciplinary treatment plan customized just for her. It was not cookie-cutter medicine. They considered the precise nature of Tracy’s cancer, her age, overall health, family situation and her expressed desire to try anything that might extend her life. The team understood what mattered most to her. Although it had not been part of her original treatment plan, her doctors were now recommending a double mastectomy and radiation therapy. They agreed this would further reduce the chance that Tracy would experience a recurrence in the future.
The surgery and pathology provided more evidence that the chemotherapy had been highly effective. No sign of cancer was found. Tracy was in complete remission. When Dr. Tubb shared the good that no cancer was found, Tracy asked, “What do I do now?” She expected he might recommend more treatment. Dr. Tubb replied simply, “You go live your life.”
Follow-up CT scans on June 15 and September 17 confirmed that Tracy is remains in remission, with no sign of cancer.
Looking back, Tracy is grateful that she chose the cancer center at Inspira Medical Center Mullica Hill. Even her mom, who had recommended that she go to a big city cancer center, came to appreciate the value of receiving comprehensive care close to home.
“To be able to get all of my care in one place, it’s the best thing ever,” said Tracy. “I only have to go to one location, and love that I have a team that works together. Dr. Kulkarni (surgical oncologist) talks to Dr. Tubb (medical oncologist), who talks to Dr. Lowther (radiation oncologist), who talked to Dr. Lofton (Ob/Gyn). For me it is so stress free – it is freeing. It is a gift.”
Tracy is now preparing to return to the profession she loves, sign language interpreting. In addition to using American Sign Language on the job, it’s also part of her home life where she uses it to communicate with her husband and four of her children who are deaf.
More than a year has passed since Tracy found that lump, and she is grateful for her recovery and the opportunity to once again live an active life with her family and friends. She also continues to meet, virtually, with her Gilda’s Club friends with whom she has developed a deep and lasting bond.
“I feel like I'm in the best health of my life. Who knows if I am, but I feel like it,” Tracy says with optimism in her voice.
“Mom – Cheers” still occasionally appears on her calendar. And each time she steps through the gleaming glass doors for a follow-up visit, she is reminded of the hope and light the oncology team brought, and continues to bring, into her life.