Carolita L A Gift of Comfort

“All of these people had come together to support me, and I felt I needed to give back. I was happy I was able to help other patients.”

One breast cancer survivor was so grateful for the support and expert care she received that she decided to give back to other patients.

When patients walk into the Steeplechase Cancer Center on the campus of Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital (RWJUH) Somerset, one of the first things they notice is the fireplace at the entrance. “We want to evoke that warm feeling associated with a national park lodge,” says Kathleen Toomey, MD, the Center’s medical director. “We want patients to feel welcome.”

That was certainly the feeling Carolita Lewis, 41, of Warren had when she was treated for breast cancer at the Center in 2017. Carolita noticed blood coming from her nipples in April 2017, and her primary care physician referred her to Deborah Lue, MD, a breast surgeon with RWJ Physician Enterprise’s Steeplechase Breast Specialists and medical director of the Center’s Sanofi US Breast Care Program. Mammogram and biopsy results revealed that Carolita had stage I breast cancer, in which the disease is confined to the organ, in her right breast. She also had ductal carcinoma in situ (DCIS), an early-stage cancer, in her left breast. “I felt like my world had come to a screeching halt,” recalls Carolita, a single mother of a 9-year-old daughter. “I wondered what this would mean for my future and my daughter.”

A customized care team

While this was frightening news, Carolita was reassured by the Center’s multidisciplinary approach to her care. Not only did she have a breast surgeon, but she also had a medical oncologist, Dr. Toomey, and a plastic surgeon, Colin Failey, MD, who would perform her breast reconstruction surgery. Also on her care team were a mammography technician, a genetics counselor, a social worker, nurses and even the manager of the Sanofi US Wellness Boutique, who helped her choose wigs and find a well-fitting mastectomy bra. “I felt good about my team,” says Carolita. “They could talk to each other and share information.”

Every Thursday morning, a team of about 30 breast cancer professionals meets to discuss each case. Typically, a surgeon presents a case, a radiologist reviews the imaging report, and a pathologist discusses biopsy results. The research nurses determine whether the patient is a candidate for one of the large national clinical trials conducted at the hospital through the Rutgers Cancer Institute of New Jersey. Also weighing in are nurse navigators, occupational therapists, palliative care specialists and others. “My mantra is always: ‘It takes a village to care for our patients,’” says Dr. Toomey.

Carolita’s care team told her she could have a mastectomy on her right breast and more conservative surgery on the left, but she opted for a double mastectomy instead. “I didn’t want to risk anything,” says Carolita, who had the procedure in June 2017 and breast reconstruction in December of that year. Carolita also underwent 10 rounds of chemotherapy, followed by oral pharmaceutical treatment—which has been shown to improve survival rates among breast cancer patients—every three weeks for a year after the mastectomies. She’s still taking another medication to help safeguard against a recurrence. “I feel great now,” says Carolita, who returns to the hospital every six months for a checkup.

Helping other patients

After Carolita completed her treatments, she was so grateful for the care she received at the Center that she wanted to do a good turn for others. Carolita is a project coordinator for a furniture dealer, and when a coworker asked her what sort of helpful gift she might give an aunt who was battling breast cancer, Carolita suggested a mastectomy pillow. “My security blanket was my mastectomy pillow,” she says. “It goes over your breasts and under your armpit to protect those areas. I was nervous about my daughter bumping me. I also used the pillow to feel more comfortable during car rides and while sleeping.”

Carolita sent her coworker a link to a website that sells the pillows. But the woman’s mother, a seamstress, decided to make one instead. That gave Carolita the idea to create her own mastectomy pillows. “My company donated all the supplies, and a couple of my coworkers and I stayed after work and sewed and stuffed them,” she says. “My goal was to make 50, but we ended up making 63.” Last October, Carolita donated the pillows to the Center and two breast cancer support groups.

Carolita’s kind gesture is just one of the many examples of the generosity of Center patients, says Dr. Toomey. “All of these people had come together to support me, and I felt I needed to give back,” says Carolita. “I was happy I was able to help other patients.”

For more information about breast cancer services at Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital Somerset, click here.

Early detection of breast cancer saves lives. Request a mammography appointment.