Timing rarely gets more ironic than it did for Belding resident Roberta “Bert” Elliott.
For months, Elliott had held a reservation for a breast cancer awareness luncheon/fundraiser at the VanAndel Institute in Grand Rapids.
Turns out, she attended the day after her breast cancer diagnosis.
“It was a little difficult,” Elliott said. “The women at my table said, ‘You know what, if you want to leave, I’ll go with you.’”
But Elliott chose to stay. Seated at her table. Surrounded by the warmth of friends. This is a cause, she thought, that now mattered more to her heart than ever.
Her story plays out like this…
Elliott always faithfully made her mammogram appointment. But in 2012, the results of the routine scan stoked fear.
Her primary care physician told her the news, calling her from a conference in Las Vegas.
There was no family history. No indication. Just blatant and hollow words streaming to her ear on her office telephone: breast cancer.
The words hauntingly echoed as her mind and soul attempted to comprehend.
“Of course I was shocked,” said Elliott, now 59. “It was kind of one of those things: ‘That can’t be right, how can this be happening?’ Then, of course, I cried. There was one other person in the office when I heard the news. She tried to comfort me. I cried all the way home.”
She called her husband. Then her kids.
“I didn’t know anything else about it other than that I had breast cancer,” she said. “We caught it when it was pretty small, it was stage 1. But we had to work through all the feelings.”
Instead of such a diagnosis cutting dreams short, she became more determined to embrace the joy in life.
She had always wanted to live on a lake. There’s a freedom that comes with lake living—the ability to leave land at any moment, for the sake of living life in a more fluid manner—like floating, or boating, or watching a sunset slowly sink behind rippling waves.
She and her husband bought a Big Pine Island Lake house. Life became fluid, but Elliott felt the stress of her diagnosis.
Revolutionized cancer treatment
She underwent surgery—a bilateral mastectomy as an MRI prior to surgery uncovered cancer in her left breast, as well.
Loril Garrett, a Spectrum Health Cancer Center nurse navigator, helped Elliott plan for her treatment step-by-step.
“Thank God for her,” Elliott said. “She helped me navigate where I had to be. She helped call the plastic surgeon for me.”
She did not require chemotherapy or radiation, but instead takes an anti-hormonal tablet daily.
“That was lucky,” she said. “And now I’m cancer-free.”
Amy VanderWoude, MD, medical oncologist with Cancer & Hematology Centers of Western Michigan in Spectrum Health’s Lemmen-Holton Cancer Pavilion, said Elliott’s prognosis is excellent.
“She was fortunate because she didn’t require chemotherapy,” Dr. Vander Woude said. “We have specialized testing to determine whether a woman needs chemotherapy or would benefit from chemotherapy.”
The Oncotype DX testing is appropriate for some patients who have cancer that does not involve the lymph nodes.
“It has really revolutionized that type of treatment for particular breast cancer patients,” Dr. Vander Woude said. “Bert might have had chemotherapy 10 or 15 years ago. Now, we have the technology to feel comfortable saying she doesn’t really need that.”
And for those patients who do need chemotherapy or radiation, the treatments present fewer nasty side effects than they have in the past.
“The whole field of oncology has significantly advanced in supporting patients,” Dr. Vander Woude said.
That includes supporting patients physically and emotionally.
Dr. Vander Woude said Elliott’s emotional state likely bolstered her outcome.
“One of the things that’s gotten her through is she has a really wonderful outlook on life,” Dr. Vander Woude said. “She’s always optimistic and always wanting to be involved. A positive attitude can really help people.”
Becoming an advocate
In typical positive form, Elliott said the cancer journey has changed her. For the better.
“It changed the way I look at my life-work-home balance and my stress levels,” Elliott said. “I’m more aware of how to handle my stress and think more about it.
“You also think more about when you lose people to cancer, how grateful you are to be here. I don’t think I understand cancer, the technical thing, but you sure understand when someone receives the news and what they have to face.”
Elliott uses her fundraising and public relations background as a pulpit.
“I’m forever telling women that they have to have mammograms,” Elliott said. “I put it on my Facebook page, send out Spectrum stuff… I’ve become very much proactive about breast cancer awareness. If you have it, I’m ready to help you.”
These days, Elliott likes to spend time scooting across the water in the family’s pontoon boat. She delights in entertaining friends. She attends the iconic St. Patrick’s Catholic Church in tiny Parnell, Michigan, a country town with a big heart.
Her heart has grown, too. She now sits on the patient advisory council for the Spectrum Health Cancer Center.
“It was kind of a way for me to give back,” Elliott said. “We help solve issues that the oncology program may have, from a patient’s perspective. Everything we suggest is taken into consideration. It’s very rewarding to me, very good for me, and for my soul.”
Elliott said that by meeting others with cancer, she learned that the journey is unique for everyone.
“Before when I met someone with cancer, I never knew what to say other than ‘I’m sorry,’” she said.
Now, she asks about the journey.
“Everyone is different and every experience is different,” Elliott said. “You can’t find two people having the same experience.”