When Ginny Petty noticed a rash on her breast, she wasn’t too concerned at first. She felt around carefully, and there was no sign of a lump. There was no history of breast cancer in her family. Probably just a heat rash, she thought. But when the rash didn’t go away, she went to her primary care doctor, who knew something was going on and immediately sent her to `Ohana Mammography Center.
The 66-year-old Yakima native remembers the moment she got the diagnosis of Stage 3 invasive ductal carcinoma. Breast cancer. “It was so surreal that it was almost unbelievable. You almost have an out-of-body experience.” She sat there in the doctor’s office for a minute, numb and in denial.
Then she decided to focus on fighting it, she says. “The way I felt about this cancer, I told everybody right from the start, my family, my friends and everybody — My name is Ginny. My name is not cancer. This is a pixel in this big picture of life. This is not the whole picture.” In addition to her positive attitude, she had another powerful force in her corner — Oncology Nurse Navigator Beth Palmer.
You may not have heard of a nurse navigator — unless you or someone you love has fought cancer. They’ve worked in hospitals for years. But they’re now becoming more common in outpatient settings, like Virginia Mason Memorial’s North Star Lodge.
Ginny met Beth when she began chemotherapy. “She came and introduced herself and attached herself to my hip and hasn’t left since,” Ginny says. Instead of wondering if they should call their doctor, patients like Ginny can call their navigator with worries and questions. Each one at North Star is dedicated to taking care of patients with particular kinds of cancers, for example, Beth specializes in patients with breast and gynecological cancers.
She has specialized training in those diseases that gives her more knowledge than a typical nurse, and if she doesn’t have the answers, she has a direct line to the doctors and can get back to patients immediately with the doctor’s advice. Ginny needed all the support she could get, Beth explains. “She’s got a bad cancer. It’s not just a straight out of the book cancer. She had a lot of axillary (lymph) nodes that were affected by the cancer, so her risk would have been higher if she couldn’t have finished the treatment.”
Soon after she began chemo, Ginny started getting numbness and tingling in her hands. That’s pretty common, but then she started losing her fingernails. She holds them out. They’re discolored and pitted. “I had beautiful nails,” she smiles ruefully. Beth says “It was like being in a basketball game when you’re down by so many points. Every time she came in with these side effects the team was right there for her.”
“I scored a three-pointer!” Ginny laughs, then gets serious. “Consider the alternative. You do have choices, but my choice is to live. If I have to live with side effects — Guess what? I’m living.” And Beth has been with her every step of the way, Ginny says. “She has eliminated so much of the stress that I would otherwise have to deal with because she’s like ‘Oh yeah, that’s happened before, this is what I want you to do.’ She’s that wonderful, sweet go-between between me and my doctors. And you don’t find that in many other professions. Where you actually have somebody where you can say ‘I need to talk to somebody right now’ and I don’t want to bother the doctor. She wants me to bother her!” Beth stopped by every one of Ginny’s chemo sessions to check on her.
Patients get a direct number to their navigator’s desk, and Ginny would often call Beth with questions, or sometime just because she felt scared and unsure. Beth says “We’d have great conversations, I’d get her hooked up with a social worker to get some help and support for depression and anxiety. It’s all part of the process.”
Beth has a caseload of around 100 patients she’s actively following, which sounds huge, but she says their treatment schedules end up being staggered just enough for her to visit during chemo and radiation, make regular calls, and be available to all of them as an information conduit between them and their doctors. I ask her if she works more than 40 hours a week and she nods yes, laughs, and says “It really is a calling. You give 100 percent, but you get so much back from people who are struggling with this disease. And that’s what keeps us all going.”
Ginny made it through chemo and radiation. Her hair fell out but it’s growing back, and her head looks like a fuzzy tennis ball, she says. But you wouldn’t know it, thanks to the sassy silver-gray wig her husband picked out for her. She’s wearing a compression sleeve on her left arm to keep fluids from building up, because surgeons removed the lymph nodes that usually pump those fluids out. The sleeve has a lacy pattern. She recently learned they have one with a tattoo pattern, and she says that she might get one to play a joke on her grandkids and pretend she got tattooed. “But I won’t wear it to church!” she laughs.
Her sense of humor is stronger than ever, and these two women on opposite sides of a cancer diagnosis have forged a bond that is stronger than any disease. “We are going to be friends for life,” says Ginny. “This doesn’t end when I walk through those doors the last time.”