From Patient to Superhero

Patricia Lundstrom fought cancer and found the care and compassion she needed for the fight close to home at South Suburban Hospital.

Friday, March 9, 2012, started like any other day for 47-year-old Patricia Lundstrom, but now it stands out vividly as a day she will never forget. After seeing her husband off to work and sending her two young children to school, she made the quick five-minute drive from Homewood to Advocate South Suburban Hospital to get a routine mammogram.

Patricia had no fears going in for the procedure. She wasn’t concerned when the technician asked if her skin always felt “this way” when positioning her and noted it in her chart; however, she knew something was wrong three hours later when she received a call from her doctor. She still remembers how devastated he sounded when he told her there was a mass in her left breast and that she needed to get a biopsy on Monday.

“When I went in for my biopsy, I just knew I was going to die,” Patricia says. “There, being poked and prodded and expecting God knows what, I felt a nurse’s hand gently on my ankle, letting me know she was there and that I was a person, not a patient. Just the smallest of gestures meant so much; it still brings me to tears to think about it.” Four days later, Patricia was informed that she had stage II invasive ductal breast cancer.

“A breast biopsy, whether the outcome is benign or malignant, is an overwhelming and frightening experience. We want our patients to feel cared for, informed and empowered,” explains Jenise Diemer, oncology patient navigator. “If a woman (or man) has a new breast cancer diagnosis, we ensure that the radiologist and care team have unlimited time to not only give the results, but to explain the results in multiple ways. Patient care does not have an end point. We are available and maintain contact with the patient as much as needed.” Jenise and her oncology health care team provide patients with information and secure any appointments necessary for their next steps, such as breast MRI, surgical, oncology, radiation oncology and genetics. Additionally, patients are provided with supportive resources through Oncology Navigation Services.

Two weeks after learning her initial diagnosis, Patricia had a PET scan, which revealed the cancer had metastasized; it was in her left hip, right femur and spine. The diagnosis then changed to stage IV. “People hear stage IV and think—oh my God, you’re dead,” explains Patricia. But she wasn’t going to succumb to those thoughts. “My husband and kids are my life. My life cannot be defined by cancer or by being sick. I resent any time that a disease would take away from my family, so I tried hard to minimize the interruption. You take control where you can, because so many things are out of your control when you're sick.”

Since Patricia’s tumor was estrogen receptive, she had surgery to remove her ovaries in June 2012. That July, she started undergoing chemotherapy every three weeks. Aside from making her extremely tired, the chemo treatments were going smoothly until the second month, when she started having difficulty breathing. “It was the first time I thought I was losing,” says Patricia. “I felt like I’d been ahead of the battle the whole time until that point. It was so scary.”

Patricia’s oncologist told her to go straight to South Suburban Hospital’s emergency department. He’d called ahead, so a team was waiting for her to arrive. It took less than five minutes from the time she walked in the door until she was in a bed being examined. A blood clot in each lung was found, and though the condition was extremely dangerous, the diagnosis thrilled Patricia because she knew it was something that could be treated.

Her chemo regimen ended in September 2012; two months later she underwent a lumpectomy. “The most difficult part of treatment was when it stopped,” explains Patricia. “It’s like being fired from a job you didn’t ask for in the first place. You have lost your focus.”

Today, Patricia has a new focus. She is writing a book to address the many things that she wishes someone had told her during the cancer journey. Health-wise, she had a good mammogram and blood tests this past summer, and just received clean PET scan results for what she says is the “trifecta of thumbs up.”

Patricia is quick to point out that although South Suburban Hospital is extremely convenient—located right in her community—there are many more reasons that she considers it her first and only option for health care. “It’s the right people, the right doctors, the right treatment, the right supports,” she says. “There is a culture here that I really appreciate. If I or my family ever needs anything, I know where to go and that’s right here to South Sub!”

Ongoing treatment for Patricia entails a visit to South Suburban Hospital every other month for an infusion of medication to strengthen her bones. Although she says that she knows the cancer will come back one day, that knowledge doesn’t hold her back. She’s bold, she’s confident, she’s a fighter, and it shows. When asked if she is a survivor, her thoughtful response is, “Survivor? I’m a superhero! Survival barely scratches the surface of what cancer patients do every day.”

First published: Fall 2013