Life Beyond Cancer
A positive breast cancer diagnosis can be a thunderbolt in the personal lives of women and their families.
Stress multiplies stress, be it clinical, emotional or financial.
So when women come into Jacinta Ramos’ office for financial guidance, the Parkview Medical Center financial counselor can relate. She’s been through it all.
“I think my experience has made me more aware of anyone going through some kind of long-term health issue or diagnosis,” Ramos said. “You just have a different passion.”
Ramos’ story didn’t start with her. Cancer runs in her family and she was the fifth woman under age 40 to be diagnosed with breast cancer.
Because of that history, she knew getting a mammogram was important and chose Parkview’s Greenwood Imaging Suite to do the procedure. The results of her first exam were good and after a couple of good years with normal results, Ramos would wait until 2014.
“I was doing my self-exam and I felt a good sized lump, but it didn’t hurt,” she said. “I managed to see my primary care physician fairly quickly and she ordered a diagnostic mammogram and ultrasound. After she read the results she said they appeared to be water cysts.”
The plan was to monitor them and Ramos said she did her own research and felt like it wasn’t a big deal.
But shortly after, she met with her doctor again and was referred to a surgeon. A guided extraction and biopsy were ordered.
The whole process made her nervous. More so when Donna Hill, Parkview breast health navigator, walked into the room.
Hill accompanies patients to their breast biopsies – regardless of results.
Ramos knew Hill from her work, but Hill’s kindness and her gentle and calm demeanor was comforting.
“She held my hand while they biopsied the cysts,” Ramos said. “The radiologist told me that there was an abnormal lymph node. My inner voice started to make predictions. The underarm biopsy was so painful I wanted to scream but Donna was there by my side to comfort me.”
When Ramos felt that the cysts hadn’t changed, she felt her heart fall to her knees and she was short of breath, but Hill was there to comfort her.
The next day the surgeon called to confirm that all three biospies were cancerous.
“My life caved in as I knew it,” she said. “I cried all the way home. I had to put some thought into how I would explain this to my 13-year-old daughter who has autism and sensory integration processing disorder.”
Her faith and her dedication to her children helped her commit to seeing the process through.
And it was a tough process.
Ramos was diagnosed with invasive ductal carcinoma and positive for her2nu, a protein that causes cancer cells to multiply quickly and aggressively.
She endured a double-mastectomy and the removal of 15 lymph nodes and two tumors.
“They had to cut into my pectoral muscle and scrape my chest cavity wall,” Ramos said.
An expander was left in her breast and a year of chemotherapy followed, along with daily radiation for six weeks.
Hill helped Ramos apply for scholarships and grants to remain financially stable.
Hill has been at Parkview more than a year, but before that worked for a plastic surgeon who did many breast biopsies.
“I would counsel patients and go through everything I do now,” she said.
She spent 35 years working for the surgeon and also had personal friends who’ve battled breast cancer.
“I do worry about my patients and care for all of them,” she said, adding she’ll get calls from women who are crying or anxious and need her support from “someone who knows what they’re going through.”
For Ramos, the side effects of the treatment were difficult, from radiation burns to esophagitis.
“The biggest one was dealing with my body image,” she said. “Swollen and weight gain from the steroids, pale as a ghost. Severe scars and flat chest.”
But Ramos said the assistance provided by Hill and Parkview helped temper a difficult time.
The treatment and recovery also taught her to see the good in even the worst situations. Despite the pain and exhaustion, she was able to greet her daughter every day when she came home from school.
And by August 2015 her doctor told her she was cured.
Ramos likes the word. It’s more hopeful and less clinical than remission.
“My life changed,” she said. “It will never be the same.”