Melissa “Mel” Doyle has worked at Tidewater Physical Therapy’s Easton Clinic for the past 19 years. During most of her tenure she worked in the billing and payments department. About a year ago, after being diagnosed with lymphedema of her right limb due to the surgical removal of 18 lymph nodes during her double mastectomy, she switched to the role of account manager. This allowed her to type less during the day to help alleviate the symptoms of lymphedema, which in Mel’s case was swelling of her arm.
Mel’s journey with breast cancer started on October 31, 2006 at the age of 37 when her mother, then diagnosed with breast cancer, had her double mastectomy surgery. Since her mother’s diagnosis was so severe, Mel talked with her doctor the following fall about an early-detection mammogram. As she was only 38 years old at that time, her doctor told her she didn’t have to worry about mammograms yet.
A year after that, at the age of 39, Mel was in her bed one night and flipped over to sleep on her stomach when she felt a terrible pain in her right breast. She felt the area with her hand and could feel a golf ball sized mass. The next morning she called her OB/GYN to schedule an appointment but they could not fit her in immediately, so she called her Primary Care Physician (PCP) to be seen; which resulted in her having a mammogram and ultrasound to check the mass.
After her initial mammogram and ultrasound her PCP informed her that it did not look good and referred her to a breast cancer and health surgeon on the Eastern Shore of Maryland. “When my breast cancer surgeon told me I had breast cancer, I had tears streaming down my face.” Mel couldn’t understand how a doctor could know this without even testing the mass. Sadly, her surgeon had seen enough masses in her life to decipher the difference. Mel’s mass was then biopsied by her surgeon and she had an MRI to confirm the diagnosis.
On September 22, 2009 Mel received a phone call with a message she will never forget, “Mrs. Doyle, we are sorry to confirm that the mass in your breast is cancerous,” and from that moment on, Mel’s life was changed. Her breast cancer surgeon initially had Mel scheduled for a lumpectomy (which would surgically remove the cancerous tumor), but Mel wasn’t taking any chances; she requested a double mastectomy. As a result, her breast cancer surgeon referred her to two specialists at the Greater Baltimore Medical Center (GBMC), who had performed many double mastectomy / reconstructive breast surgeries; one of whom is a general surgeon and the other, a plastic surgeon. Trying to approach her surgery on a positive note, Mel looked for the silver lining. She said the highlight of this life altering diagnosis was the fact that she used to be large-breasted and always wanted a breast reduction, so now she would be able to have one. Mel had her double mastectomy surgery on October 30, 2009.
The day Mel came home from the hospital, her Tidewater Physical Therapy family was having a fundraiser in her name. Everyone wore their pink shirts in support of Mel and even had the local news and radio station there. “As my husband was driving me home from the hospital, I listened to the radio, and heard the voices of all my co-workers saying such great and encouraging things about me on air at the fundraiser. It was an amazing experience.”
The lymph nods and masses removed from her body were then tested which yielded damaging results. Five of the 18 lymph nods taken out were infected, so Mel had to start chemotherapy and radiation treatments. Although the infected lymph nods were removed, the chemo and radiation were necessary as preventative measures. Once cancer reaches the lymph nods, it is highly likely that the cancer will travel to other parts of the body. Teaming up with an oncologist at GBMC, Mel started a protocol of six chemotherapy treatments and 37 radiation treatments; everyday, Monday through Friday over the course of seven and a half weeks.
A big hurdle for Mel was on Christmas morning of that same year. After waking up and spending time with her husband Sean and two children Zane and Emily, Mel ran her fingers through her hair. When she pulled her hand back down she had a clump of hair in her palm. She said to herself, “I will make it through this Christmas with all my hair.” A few days later before going to a local beer and burger joint to watch the Steelers game with friends and family, Mel pulled out the clippers and shaved her head. She put on her Steelers Jersey and Bandana, and headed out to relax and watch the game.
Almost two years since her initial cancer diagnosis and treatment, no additional diagnostic work was done to ensure she stayed cancer free. Mel went back to her oncologist at GBMC for a checkup at this point. She asked him if he needed to have blood work or any other type of test to ensure there was no more cancer. Her oncologist said that if she was not in any pain that he assumed she was fine. “I feel like I need to be watched more closely,” Mel told him. Advocating for her own health, Mel stated that she would not leave the office until he ordered blood work and a PET scan. (A PET scan or positron emission tomography scan, is a higher-level imaging scan which allows a medical professional to see disease inside the body and is most commonly used to identify cancer.)
After her PET scan, she was alerted that she had three spots on her liver, which ended up being metastatic cancer otherwise identified as “mets” (which means the liver cancer was actually the breast cancer that had traveled). Mel had learned she had cancer of the liver for the previous two years and never knew it. Her medications were changed and her oncologist and his team kept an extraordinarily close eye on Mel by drawing blood every month and having Mel undergo PET scans every four months. Additionally, it was recommended that she have her ovaries removed as the estrogen made by her ovaries was fueling the cancer. Although this surgery was performed to help Mel, her count continued to rise with a total of eight spots on her liver.
With the spots on Mel’s liver growing, her oncologist referred her to St. Agnes Hospital to see a diagnostic radiologist and radiation oncology specialist, both of whom are well known in the radiology and oncology communities.
The two renowned physicians teamed up so they could treat Mel’s liver with a cutting edge form of radiation. “Everyone walked into the room wearing big radiation suits. I could see the radiation in a big clear box with three tubes of fluid in it. Once the radiation went through the main artery in my leg to my liver, I could see each radiation tube become empty. After it was over, everyone left the room, then came back in with the radiation meter to make sure the radiation had not leaked into the room or anywhere in my body where it was not supposed to be. It was like a movie!” This procedure was done to the right side of Mel’s liver, but not the left due to blood flow issues on that side. But, the doctors also performed a beam radiation technique to rid the left side of the liver of the mets.
After this procedure, Mel’s cancer markers went down from 150 to the 90’s then to the 70’s; indicating the effectiveness of the treatment. In May of 2014 her cancer marker test came back and the numbers dropped even lower, down to 30; which is a normal range. Due to the body’s ability to assimilate to a substance, the numbers will naturally fluctuate. Once numbers start to climb again, the medication is switched, which is a normal practice.
Through Mel’s advocacy for her health, she may have saved her own life. She now has a team of doctors who are on top of every little change with her body. “I have grown to appreciate things a lot more. Even though daily things can make me crazy, my kids get on my nerves, or my husband is a pain, I always try to be positive. I think about dying every day, but I refuse to let cancer get me down. I may have my days, but I pick myself right back up, put a smile on my face, and live my life. I have to be there for my kids; to see them grow up, graduate, get married and have kids of their own. None of us are guaranteed tomorrow. I am not going to sit around and wallow about my cancer. I thank God and my dear, late friend Brenda, that I am alive. She was the one to encourage me to advocate for my health and get the PET scan.”
With advances in medicine, cancer is more and more treated as a chronic disease like diabetes. One can live with it, like Mel had been doing for so long. Mel has an amazing supportive group around her, consisting of family, friends, colleagues and an employer who helps her stay positive and focused.
As of the time this article has been published, we are thrilled to announce that Mel’s last PET scan in November 2014 was negative and she is now living cancer free. She is cautiously optimistic and is excited for continued good news.