Facing cancer together: How a caring provider makes it a little easier
Kathleen “Kitty” Broermann, a 65-year-old retired nurse, knew to request a 3D mammogram in April 2017 when she went to Sentara Princess Anne Comprehensive Breast Center for her annual mammogram. At the age of 40, Kitty was told she had dense breasts, which are more challenging to read with a traditional mammogram. She also knew that she had fibrocystic disease, which means lumps can sometimes show up in her breast scans.
“Many times when I’ve had a mammogram,” says Kitty, “I’ve been asked to stay for a second look. It’s normal for me.”
She’s always received an “all-clear” confirmation after the staff conducted follow-up exams. Unfortunately, that wasn’t the case in April. After having an ultrasound that day, she was asked to come back for a biopsy a few days later.
“It happened fast, within six days,” Kitty remembers, “and two days later, I returned to hear the results.”
Kitty met Lindsay Rushing, a nurse navigator. Lindsay was carrying a white binder and Kitty thought that she might be receiving important news. She entered a conference room where Dr. Keith Newbrough, the radiologist who performed her biopsy, met her.
“He’s such a warm, compassionate man, and was caring as he told me that I had cancer,” Kitty says. “He understood that it was scary. My husband, Greg, and I never expected it.”
Dr. Newbrough knows how Kitty felt that day. He is a cancer survivor himself, and also stood by his mother when she had breast cancer.
“I realize I’m about to give life-changing news to not just the patient, but also to her immediate family,” Dr. Newbrough says. “Initially, my goal isn't to overwhelm anyone with medical facts, but just to be in the moment, not as a doctor, but as a friend, and help get to a point where the patient is comfortable with the process and what we need to do next. Sentara does a good job of getting patients scheduled quickly. That’s the reason I had my mother travel here from Ohio to receive care.”
Kitty learned she had Stage 1, estrogen positive, HER2 (human epidermal growth factor receptor 2) positive breast cancer, which can spread more aggressively. Her first step was to have a lumpectomy in the affected left breast. Dr. Lance Enderson, who had helped Kitty’s mother when she had breast cancer and earlier diagnosed Kitty with dense breast and fibrocystic disease, performed the surgery at Sentara Virginia Beach General Hospital. Dr. Newbrough was there to place a wire by ultrasound beforehand to mark Kitty’s cancerous spot.
“It was amazing to walk in and see him,” she says. “Everyone at Sentara was so friendly and reassuring, it made a difficult experience a little easier.”
After her surgery, Kitty was relieved to learn that her lymph nodes near the cancer were clear. In late June, she began a three-month protocol of chemotherapy. Although she felt sick and lost hair, she kept her sense of humor.
“One night as I kissed my husband good night, a lot of hair fell out onto his face, causing him to cough,” Kitty shares. “He kept coughing, saying it was a hairball. We began to laugh really hard. I realized it was time to shear off my hair.”
She also jokes about being Greg’s “alien wife” because she also lost her eyebrows and eyelashes. A class on applying makeup and looking your best offered at Sentara Norfolk General Hospital made her feel more like herself again.
“We learned about drawing on your eyebrows and applying fake eyelashes and received free makeup and cream samples,” says Kitty. “I like to look as good as possible, so I appreciated the class. I could return Greg’s ‘human wife’ to him.”
"Humor helps, but I have had crying and tough times, too," Kitty points out.
As Kitty finalizes her options for radiation, she is currently taking herceptin and perjeta, drugs designed specifically for HER2 positive cancer, every three weeks and will continue for a year-long course. She will also take fermara, a drug to lower estrogen, for five years. Her nurse navigator, Lindsay, who first talked with Kitty the day of her diagnosis and gave her that white binder to keep track of paperwork, continues to coordinate her care and encourage her, as do her family and friends.