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‘There’s a mass in your left breast’

When Julie learns she has cancer, St. Mary’s nurse navigators rally to her side

Three years ago, interior designer Julie Austin and her retired husband, Tom, moved to Jackson County from coastal North Carolina to be closer to family. They had no idea she would be faced with breast cancer soon after moving here.

breast health
Breast health nurse navigators Denise Williamson (left) and Ashley Woodall (right) with breast cancer survivor Julie Austin

“St. Mary’s has been wonderful,” Julie says. “To have such a positive experience in such an uncertain time was a blessing.”

Her breast cancer journey began on Feb. 2, 2018. Not familiar with healthcare facilities in the area, she had gone to a freestanding clinic for her annual mammogram. It was completely routine; she had no masses or pain, no reason to suspect anything was wrong.

“Then I got the call. They said ‘There’s a mass in your left breast.’ There was no context, so I’m thinking, ‘mass’ – like Asia or Greenland, something ginormous. I wish I had had St. Mary’s nurse navigators at that point. Ashley and Denise would have been with me from the start to help me understand the result and what it meant.”

Ashley Woodall and Denise Williamson are St. Mary’s breast health nurses. They are dedicated to helping women like Julie understand their breast cancer diagnosis and treatment choices, plan their next steps, and cope with the emotional aspects of a breast cancer journey.

Tiny mass. Big worries.

In reality, the mass in Julie’s breast was extremely small. New 3D mammography technology, the same as used by St. Mary’s, was able to detect it, but older 2D systems might well have missed it.

Julie returned to the center for follow-up testing and was referred to a surgeon for a biopsy. She waited 10 long days for an initial appointment with the surgeon; then, when she arrived for her appointment, learned the surgeon was not in her insurance network.

She had to start over.

Her search led her to Ryan Katz, M.D., a surgeon with Athens General and Colorectal Surgeons and part of St. Mary’s Medical Group. Dr. Katz quickly scheduled her for testing at St. Mary’s, including diagnostic 3D mammography and ultrasound imaging. The new tests indicated she needed a biopsy to determine if the mass was actually cancerous. That’s when Denise and Ashley became involved.

“When a woman has a biopsy, we are there with them,” Denise says. “We often talk about family, kids, grandkids, pets, anything that helps them relax. Sometimes, they just want a hand to hold. They just need to know that someone is there with them.”

Julie’s biopsy was performed by Kelly Overman, M.D., a fellowship-trained breast radiologist with Athens Radiology Associates. Denise was at Julie’s side during the procedure.

The results showed what every woman dreads. “But when Ashley called to tell me my biopsy results showed cancer, she already had the next step taken care of: scheduling another appointment with my surgeon,” Julie says. “That kept me from dwelling on the bad news. It was totally unexpected and a great relief.”

The biopsy results also led Dr. Overman to recommend a follow-up breast MRI, which Dr. Katz ordered at St. Mary’s. This highly sensitive test, which uses powerful magnetic fields to produce images of the inside of the body, found another suspicious mass that was too small even for 3D mammography to detect. Julie needed a second biopsy to find out if it, too, was cancerous. Again, Denise and Ashley rallied to her.

“I first encountered them with my first biopsy,” Julie says. “They sat down with me and told me how the whole process would go, what it would show, what the benefits would be, when it might be painful. They were by me the whole time, literally holding my hand. So when I needed my second biopsy, they were there for me again. That was such a comfort.”

Positive and focused

With confirmation that the second mass was also cancerous, Julie was faced with the possibility that a lumpectomy – a procedure to remove only the mass and surrounding tissue – might not be enough. After reviewing her options with Dr. Katz, and with information and guidance provided by Denise and Ashley, she decided the safest path forward was to have a mastectomy, the removal of her entire breast.

Through that difficult decision-making process, Denise and Ashley helped her stay positive and focused. “They told me, ‘Now we know what this is and we’re going to get it out’,” Julie says.

“It’s very, very personal,” Williamson says. “There are so many decisions that have to be made so that treatment can start soon but also so that treatment can be individualized to the needs of the woman. What is best for one woman may not be right for someone else.”

On the day of her procedure, Julie arrived at St. Mary’s to find support at every level.

“It was a huge comfort to receive such courtesy,” Julie says. “The nurses who took care of me were so attentive and genuine. They wouldn’t walk out the door and say, ‘Let me know if you need anything’ over their shoulder as they left. They would stand at my bedside and ask if I would like some water, if I was comfortable, if there was anything else they could do for me. It wasn’t molly-coddling. They were genuine.”

Fortunately, Julie’s cancer was caught early and her prognosis is excellent. Because the second mass meant her cancer might have spread, she underwent chemotherapy, which she completed in August. She will continue receiving intravenous medication until April of 2019 to reduce her risk of the cancer returning. Julie also chose to undergo reconstructive surgery, performed at St. Mary’s by plastic surgeon Cesar Gumucio, M.D.

“As all-consuming as a cancer diagnosis is, to have these advocates is tremendous,” Julie says. “They are just wonderful for your emotional wellbeing.”

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St. Mary’s offers state-of-the-art 3D mammography screenings in Athens, Lavonia, Greensboro and at our outpatient radiology center near Bogart, as well as advanced diagnostics, compassionate breast health nurse navigators, and high quality surgical care.

To schedule your mammogram online, click here.

You can also schedule your mammogram by calling 706.389.2700.

For more information about St. Mary’s breast health services, click here.

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