Editor’s note: This article is the third in an exclusive series of Muriel’s inspiring and hopeful message after dealing with breast cancer
It was Dec. 18, a week before Christmas, I learned I had breast cancer. But it was little. The tumor couldn’t be felt by Dr. Mary Martucci, the surgical oncologist at Centra State Medical Center, who examined me. But it could be seen on the ultra sound. And confirmed by the biopsy. And it was located pretty well directly in the middle of my right breast.
On the other hand, I was at the Star & Barry Tobias Women’s Health Center at Freehold’s Centra State Medical Center where radiologist Dr. Kenneth Tomkovich was involved in a nation-wide trial procedure. I fit the criteria to participate in it. Even better, Dr. Martucci, the surgeon who would have done the lumpectomy had I opted for that option, said that whichever I chose…surgery or the trial, cryoablation, would be ok. A surgeon who certainly put her patient first! And I was grateful.
Dr. Tomkovich gave me literature on the trial and explained in detail the freezing. It would be done with a needle filled with liquid nitrogen; the nitrogen simply freezes the needle once it’s inserted into the tumor, and..there you have it…the cancer cells would be frozen to death. It all sounded rather simple, unique, and I was enthusiastic about being only the third woman in New Jersey, the 60th in the nation, to participate. How wonderful is Dr. Tomkovich, Centra State and the Women’s Center in particular, I thought, to offer such a wonderful trial for those women who fit the criteria and wanted to try it. How wonderful that Dr. Martucci not only offered an alternative to her own procedure, but said it would be as effective. Somebody up there was sure looking out for me.
There were many reasons I did not tell anyone about my diagnosis other than my children, not the least of which was I felt it was rather insignificant. How could I allow my friends to sympathize or emote with me over a little less than 2cm in size tumor that could be killed with such a simple procedure?
Three days before my diagnosis, I was aboard Sea Streak in New York Harbor covering a story about the dozens of youngsters and adults who were guests of Dennis and Linda McGinnis of Jason’s Dreams for Kids. The McGinnis’ founded their 501C 3 organization in memory of Dennis’s nephew, Jason Creager, who had lost a battle with cancer in 1992. Dennis wanted to keep his nephew’s bravery alive by granting wishing to others diagnosed, and the boat trip with Santa Claus and cruising past the Manhattan skyline on a boat filled with love, happiness, gifts, food and laughter was part of it. I spent that day talking to brave little kids who knew too many medical terms, underwent too many procedures, and endured too much pain for me to be concerned about the little ‘fixable’ tumor I had. I saw the strength in ten year old Kasy Kennedy of Eatontown, who had a tumor in her heart and up until that day, had only ever traveled by boat to go to the hospital in New York; I met 12 year old Tony Salerno of Holmdel who had undergone everything from chemo and radiation to transplants but survived neoropoastoma when he was three years old. There were so many youngsters out there with such big problems and they were all smiling and happy! How could I be anything less.
By chance…another one of those coincidences… I got a Merry Christmas call from a young Sailor I had known at NWS Earle in Colts Neck. Juan Caro was promoted to Chief while at Earle, well deserving the prestigious rank, and a Sailor certain to go even higher and make more of a name for himself throughout his beloved life long career. He and his wife and daughter were in Norfolk, he explained, and oh, yes, he added, he has brain cancer..the spider type, stage 3. I couldn’t tell him about my little thing.
I attended a competition at Linden High School, in which MAST students from Sandy Hook were involved; by ‘coincidence’ I chatted with the mother of a student who had undergone 18 months of chemo therapy when she was two. She still has to be checked regularly, the mom said of her teenage daughter, “but she doesn’t let this define her.” Even her teachers did not know of this teen’s early life rigors. Another coincidence. The mom brought up her daughter’s disease, not knowing anything about my little problem.
I went out for dinner with six women from Sheer Success Beauty Salon where Debbie does my hair whenever it gets too out of control or I have someplace special to go. Over conversation and wine, I learned that half of them had all already dealt with cancer, one had a lumpectomy, one a partial mastectomy, one a double mastectomy. Wow! This new cyroablation procedure could save a lot of women a lot of pain and grief, I thought. More than ever, I was eager to be part of the trial.
I’m a regular at the 6:30 A.M. daily mass at St. Rose of Lima Church, along with two dozen others or so. We all know each other by first name and by where we sit, and we all notice if one is missing a day or two. On the first Monday after New Year’s, Nick, one of the ‘regulars,’ none of whom knew of my diagnosis, gave me a 2016 calendar with a brief prayer on each page. I had a dream I should give this to you, he explained, but I don’t know why. A coincidence, I smiled. That day, I began keeping a diary of my cancer and its cure.
At church, we had all been praying and supporting Judy, a young grandmother and vibrant lady who had recently had a double mastectomy, chemo, radiation, and some side effects and unique reactions. She was strong, confident, accepting of her painful and less than perfect situation. One more reminder successful cyroablation could help other women in the future.
January 4, Dr. Martucci called to let me know the plan for me was being submitted at the physicians’ regular weekly meeting the following day when they discuss all upcoming procedures; she assured me she would call me after the 12:30 meeting to let me know if the procedure was approved. She called at 1:45 Jan. 5, the meeting was over, all had agreed, the procedure could go on. Dr. Tomkovich also called with the same news, and to tell me he was as anxious as I…anxious for me was excited and happy, not frightened or apprehensive……to work with me.
The rest of the month was filled with visits to a variety of physicians and tests to be taken, all to fulfill the protocol Centra State and the company conducting the trial, Ice-Cure Medical, set up to ensure the health of the patient and the success of the trial. There was the appointment with a radiologist should I need radiation afterwards; a medical oncologist should I need chemotherapy or medicinal prescriptions, Melissa Olsen, the “cancer navigator” at the hospital called to get my schedule so she could set up all the appointments for me. Jayne Craig, another super professional in Dr. Tomkovich’s office who holds a doctorate of her own, called to say Tomkovich wanted to have another meeting just to be sure I understood everything and to answer any questions. Dr. Craig explained there would be papers to sign, verifying my agreement and knowledge of the trial and both wanted to be sure I understood it all. Jayne also said the radiologist wanted to do another ultra sound, this time in his office, also at Centra State, to be sure the tumor was still perfect for the cryoablation.
Over the two hour meeting, Dr. Tomkovich once again explained the procedure, did an ultrasound, answered my questions, and noted, with my permission, there would be six people in the room: himself, Dr. Craig, the ultra sound technician, a floating nurse, Sue Jepsen, the nurse from Ice Cure Medical who was coming from Ohio and who observes every one of the cryoablations in the trial, and myself.
The personal care and concern I had been getting since Dec. 17 was humbling and staggering. I couldn’t wait for Feb. 2 to come. It was all very exciting!
Muriel J. Smith is a 55 year Monmouth County resident. A Freehold resident for the pasted 10 years, Muriel lived in Highlands for 40 years and spent 10 years traveling the country in a RV with her beloved husband Jimmy. She is an award winning reporter and was an editor of Forbes Magazine and The Courier. Widowed for the last 10 years, Muriel is the mother of four (one daughter deceased) a grandmother of 9 and great-grandmother of 6.