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Free in the Wind: Throat Cancer Changed This Survivor’s Outlook

Cancer Care
Author name: Lee Health

“I didn’t think I’d be here for this Christmas,” says Laurie Berger, 52, about enjoying the recent holiday in Fort Myers, where the native Virginian lives.

Laurie didn’t mean “here” as a place you can find on a map, though, but as a living, breathing, and grateful cancer survivor.

Here, as in being alive to see tinsel shining and holiday lights twinkling, to smell scented candles and baked oven goods, to hold the hands of loved ones.

“When you find out your biopsy says you have cancer, your whole life changes in a split second,” Laurie says of her diagnosis on Aug. 14, 2019.

A Life-Changing Diagnosis

What had started as a small lump on the right side of her neck, the symptom that brought Laurie to a doctor when it became painful, was caused by metastatic squamous neck cancer that had spread to her tonsils and lymph nodes.

It was the topper on an avalanche of lousy news that would test Laurie’s resilience. Hardly a week before the diagnosis, her cell phone pinged with a text at 6 a.m. It was her employer, letting her know the diner where she worked had closed, effective immediately.

“Out of the blue,” Laurie recalls. “And I was only a few weeks away from qualifying for my employer’s healthcare plan.”

After losing her job and being diagnosed with cancer, Laurie thought, “I’m going to die because I have no insurance.”

Frightened and overwhelmed, Laurie dialed “2-1-1,” the number of the United Way program that provides free information and referral to human/social service agencies in Lee, Hendry, Glades, and Okeechobee Counties.

RCC Cancer Navigator Program: It’s Personal

Laurie, who enrolled in the WeCare program through United Way, was referred to the Regional Cancer Center and its Cancer Navigator program.

The Center developed its cancer navigator program for patients like Laurie who have no insurance and limited resources, according to Veena Sharma, R.N., a nurse navigator with RCC.

“The program’s expert care starts as soon as a patient receives a diagnosis and continues throughout their cancer journey,” Veena says about the no-cost program.

Nurse navigators like Veena are specially trained in cancer care and coordinating treatment among members of the patient’s cancer care team. At RCC, specialists and support staff are part of a multidisciplinary care team of oncology professionals who specialize in different areas of cancer care. They all collaborate on a patient’s overall treatment plan.

“Having a multidisciplinary care team allows patients to receive care from a team that works together to provide the right treatment, in the right order, in the right setting, at the right time,” Veena says.

The navigation program helps patients make the transition from when they are first diagnosed and walk them through scans, specialties, tests—holding hands with patients, helping them understand and know where to be at any given time, Veena adds.

“Navigation is personal,” Veena says. “We provide one-on-one encouragement and education. We explain treatments, connect patients with services, and address any needs that may come up. There are so many questions, so the navigators manage those frustrations and help patients understand what the expectations are.”

‘Face Your Fears and Fight, Fight, Fight’

When Laurie met Veena, she says, “I was at a total loss at what happens now. What do I do?”

Because of Laurie’s financial circumstances, Veena worked with the Cancer Alliance of Naples and Lee Financial Assistance program to help Laurie meet many of her living and treatment expenses, such as rent, medications, treatment supplies, and doctor’s visits.

“I even received a gas card because I couldn’t afford to put gas in my car,” Laurie says. “During treatment, I could only eat certain nutritional foods, which I was only able to afford because I received a food card.”

The Cancer Society also provided Laurie free transportation to her medical and counseling appointments.

“If you need something and you’re scared, your nurse navigator will direct you,” Laurie says. “It’s all so scary, but with the help of your cancer team, you face your fears and fight, fight, fight.”

Laurie underwent 37 rounds of daily radiation and eight rounds of chemotherapy treatment, both simultaneously, during her treatment—an especially grueling ordeal.

Although she knew her cancer care team was treating other patients, Laurie always felt they were only concerned with her.

“I felt like I was my team’s only priority at that moment. It was like they were saying, ‘this is your time, and we’re taking care of you. We know you’re going through so, so, much.’ They became like my family.”

Last August, Laurie finished her treatment, nearly a year after her cancer journey began. She hadn’t eaten solid food in all that time. She regretted losing her taste buds early on, a common side effect of treatment.

“I also remembered the day I got it back,” she says with a laugh. “Do I ever. It was amazing. When my feeding tube was removed, I could finally eat solid food, like scrambled eggs with lots of cheese. And Cream of Wheat is a favorite, along with steak, which I can eat again, but only if it’s tender and in small pieces.”

A naturally thin person, she’s struggled to replace about half of the 40 pounds she lost during her journey from a woman with cancer to a survivor of cancer.

“Every day I get better,” she says.

‘A Whole Different Feeling About Life’

Today, Laurie is disease free, something she could have never imagined not so long ago.

One thing she does imagine is traveling to Australia soon, because “no one is promised tomorrow. You learn that quickly,” she says. “When you go through something like this, you get a whole different feeling about life. I’ve gone from thinking ‘I’ll get around to that’ to ‘If I can do it, I’m going to do it now.’ I want to be a part of life.”

Indeed, one of the first things Laurie did after treatment was enroll in a motorcycle riding class.

“I’ve always wanted to ride a bike,” she says. “I got my endorsement and bought my first motorcycle, a Honda Shadow. I love it. I’m free in the wind when I’m on it. And I ride it a lot.”

Veena says the most rewarding part of her career happens when a patient like Laurie surprises her with a visit to RCC to stop and tell her, “Thank you for everything you and the team have done for me.”

Laurie, for whom giving back is a two-way street, has offered to be a “cancer buddy” to other people battling the disease.

“I want to tell other people that you can survive,” she says. “I know what it’s like to be scared and not know is this going to work when all doors seem closed. There is hope.”

Laurie’s cancer care team included:

Dr. Venkata Parsa, a board-certified hematologist/oncologist with LPG

Dr. Anthony Anfuso, a board-certified head and neck oncologist who works with 21st Century Oncology alongside Lee Health at the Regional Cancer Center.

Dr. Alan Brown, a board-certified radiation oncologist

Michelle Daddario, APRN, is an Advanced Practice Registered Nurse in Hematology-Oncology

Juliana Odetunde, M.D. is a primary care physician in Family Medicine working with Lee Community Healthcare.

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