Cancer is a word that scares Shirley Booker more than any other.
And Booker recalls March 31 as the most frightening moment in her life when she coughed up blood for the first time.
“I’ll never forget it,” the 57-year-old New Castle resident said. “I was scared to death. It was like a nightmare.”
She still fears the word. That’s after surgery, 31 radiation doses and no guarantee the disease won’t reoccur.
That trepidation was alleviated somewhat, though, after receiving treatments through UPMC/Jameson Cancer Center, Dr. Ramesh Kaul, lung specialist and Dr. Steve Wilson, radiation oncologist.
Booker was diagnosed with socoma or spendella cells cancer, which is considered rare and can grow on any part of the body. In her case, it settled in the lungs. Fortunately, it was in the beginning stage but had grown rapidly, she said.
Surgery was performed at Passavant Hospital in April to remove a tumor the size of a tennis ball, along with three fourths of Booker’s lung.
Radiation began July 10 and the last one was Sept. 2.
“There were no problems with that except burns on my back and my hair got brittle, but I expected the worst.”
While Booker’s operation was done in another city, she opted to have her treatment at the cancer center — a decision she never regretted.
“Dr. Wilson walks you through the fear,” Booker described. “He’s the best doctor I ever saw and he truly cares about his patients.”
There were times when she called Wilson in the middle of the night and he would instantly return her call.
Empathy is paramount, the oncologist said.
“I tell patients that I will be there to guide you and help you,” Wilson said.
Booker also values the center’s staff, who she considers family.
“I actually missed them after the last day.”
Wilson is easy to talk to. His soothing manner makes patients develop immediate confidence.
He knows that hearing the word cancer for the first time can create alarm, confusion and bring on a barrage of questions.
“The uncertainty is agony, and patients can be in turmoil until they receive treatment,” Wilson said.
But he emphasizes to anyone who is diagnosed to remember a most crucial factor — “We’re there to help and provide hope.”
The cancer center offers full-service treatment, although certain complex procedures such as neurosurgeries must still be done in Pittsburgh, he explained.
Detection and 95 percent of most treatments can be done locally, Wilson said. For example, since 2006, tumors on the lung can be removed by surgeons in New Castle.
“It’s a major coup.”
Preventative measures and screening are pivotal, he continued.
In the two-and-a-half years Wilson has been affiliated with Jameson, he has observed that in women, the two leading cancers are of the lung and breast, and in men, it is the prostate.
More than 95 percent of lung cancers in Lawrence County are attributed to smoking, which goes hand in hand with national figures, he pointed out.
“Lawrence County is really big on smoking and it’s a major problem,” he said. “Smoking is accepted here and it’s not ostracized.”
For 20 years, Wilson served as a physician in the Army. While at Fort Lewis in Washington state in 1988, lung cancer was common, he said.
“Every two weeks I saw a new lung cancer patient. Twenty years later, I might have seen three new lung cancers every year. All the retirees quit smoking.”
When he arrived in New Castle, he said it was like going back 20 years regarding the smoking issue.
Besides avoiding tobacco, exercise and a low-fat diet play a role in preventing cancer. Wilson also places a high value on awareness, education, breast self-examinations and testing that is available.
Colorectal cancer is also prevalent in this area and colonoscopy is an effective way of diagnosing it, he said.
“Some people neglect it and some don’t want to bother with health care.”
Anyone experiencing signs such as bleeding from the rectum must not assume it is hemorrhoids and should have it checked by a physician, Wilson said.
A change in attitude must also occur, he added.
“People tell themselves, ‘I’ll never get cancer.’
“The key is for them to keep in contact with their primary care physician who has the authoritative word. The family doctor is the first line of defense.”
AWARENESS IS ALIVE
Other important detection techniques include mammograms, PAP tests, Prostate-Specific Antigen, also known as the PSA test and the Gardasil vaccine.
With various ways of obtaining information and education, people are becoming more aware, Wilson said.
He is pleased that tremendous improvements have been made in treating cancer, which are chemotherapy, radiation and surgery.
New medications used with chemotherapy have lessened nausea and “a reduced chance of having to suffer.”
“The cookbook has been redesigned and the recipes are improving.”
In radiation, new techniques mean less burning of the skin, especially with breast cancer, Wilson stated, noting that computers also play a big role in chemotherapy and radiation treatments as well as surgeries.
“We’ve seen an evolution in treatment and more cures than we anticipated.”
Seeding is a type of surgery often used with lung and prostate cancers. The two urologists in this area who treat prostate cancer are Dr. Suresh Amina and Dr. Anthony Elisco.
With lung cancer, the radioactive seeds the size of a mustard seed or grain of rice are implanted into the lung following the removal of the tumor. It is a permanent fixture and a safeguard, but the seeds lose their radioactivity within a few months.
“We have a good system in being affiliated with UPMC to offer high standards of quality and resources. It’s like bringing Pittsburgh here.”
Once a diagnosis of cancer is made, it is imperative to take a family member along for the initial visit, Wilson said.
Booker said her family’s support from the beginning stages was beyond belief.
Although her treatment has ended, she must follow up with scans every six months and consistent check-ups.
She is hesitant to call herself a cancer survivor and takes each day as it comes.
Fear of reoccurrence is common among cancer patients, Wilson said.
“The cure to anxiety is knowledge. Know as much as you possibly can.”
Wilson assures that optimism must prevail.
“There’s a lot more hope than before. We’ve come so far.”
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