Stories of Hope
Oncology Counselor Takes Her Own Good Advice
Article date: October 29, 2001
My patients have been so wonderful — they worry about me as much as I worry about them. This is what puts the humanity into the disease.
As an oncology counselor and a hospice social worker, Patty Stutts was no stranger to the frontlines of her patients' battles with cancer, or to the realities of mortality. But still, it was pretty frightening when she learned she had breast cancer.
On a Sunday in 1998 she discovered an indentation on her left breast when she looked in the mirror. Her annual mammography appointment a month away was rescheduled for that Thursday. By Friday she had a biopsy, and by Monday, she learned the results: she had invasive ductal carcinoma — just before Thanksgiving.
Still, Stutts felt grateful to be working at the Comprehensive Cancer Institute at Huntsville Hospital in Alabama. And unlike most newly diagnosed breast cancer patients, she was very familiar with resources, treatment options, and survival rates. She was surrounded and supported by doctors and nurses, family, and friends.
It's her job to help her patients explore their treatment options in order to make informed decisions, and so she listened to her own good advice. She talked with medical oncologists and radiation oncologists to have more information before deciding to have any surgery.
On Dec. 2, she had a lumpectomy and axillary node dissection. Her cancer was at Stage I, an early stage, and had not progressed to the lymph nodes. However, there was still evidence of ductal carcinoma in situ (DCIS), that hadn't been removed, so she opted to get a mastectomy in order to get the best chance of survival — 90% in her case, her doctors informed her. Just after Christmas, she had the mastectomy and reconstructive surgery — a TRAM flap reconstruction, in which a muscle from her abdominal area was moved up to her breast.
She also took four rounds of chemotherapy, Adriamycin and Cytoxan. In all, she took five weeks off from work, and then went back to counseling her patients, even while taking her chemotherapy treatment. She is now taking tamoxifen daily and will do so for the next five years.
"The cancer made a lot of difference in my relationship with my patients," Stutts says. "It means more when I tell them what worked for me."
Stutts Teaches Patients How to Cope
But it goes beyond the medical treatment; she shares with her patients how one can live with uncertainty and still be happy. She tells them how support groups help her keep going through it all. And in turn she helps to support others.
Stutts was already involved with the American Cancer Society (ACS) to get trained as an I Can Cope facilitator when she first took her job as an oncology counselor four years ago.
As an I Can Cope volunteer, she learned that many people won’t come to a support group, but will come to an educational, topic-related program.
"Initially, people don't want to talk about their feelings," she explains. "But, once they come to an educational presentation, they are more likely to come to a support group."
Stutt's local I Can Cope group has about 20 in attendance. And a few times per year an open invitation is offered to the community for everyone to attend, not just patients.
"I Can Cope program gives lots of information; gives people an opportunity to ask questions of professionals — doctors, nurses, pharmacists, and nutritionists," Stutts notes. "It's a wonderful resource."
Radiation oncologists, medical oncologists, and surgeons are invited to talk about treatment options; pharmacists discuss side effects; nutritionists talk about keeping healthy; local ministers or chaplains from hospitals or hospices speak on spirituality.
Stutts relates that survivors and patients early in their treatment really enjoy the programs, and they benefit from the helpful advice they receive and the exchange of information and support from other people who attend.
Patients Must Learn to be Advocates
Stutts says patients learn that, "cancer is not always a death sentence. As bad as they feel now, they can feel better."
As a counselor, Stutts hears all kinds of misconceptions.
"There are good treatments available," she says. "It's important to educate yourself, using legitimate sources like the ACS, and to be your own best advocate — get accurate information."
She reminds her patients, "You make the decision. And the decision is one you should feel most comfortable with."
Stutts never just attends, she volunteers and helps others. She also serves on the Huntsville Relay For Life planning committee, and her husband always participates with her.
Reach to Recovery sent a letter to her 13-year-old daughter, Tish, to read. The well-written letter made her daughter feel good. Tish had been concerned about her mother, and didn't want her mother's hair to fall out.
Stutts describes life with cancer: "Everything in your life is now different. People all live in a kind of denial. We don’t think about dying, and now when you are diagnosed with cancer, you have to accept that you may. I tend to appreciate more each day, and not worry about the little things. My family, too, can’t live in denial. Because of my experience, my family and friends have begun to face their own mortality, also."
Stutts speaks warmly of her patients. "My patients have been so wonderful — they worry about me as much as I worry about them," she says. "This is what puts the humanity into the disease."