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Rose of Hope Patient Speaker Karen O’Neil’s Breast Cancer Journey

The patient speaker at the 2014 Rose of Hope Luncheon was Karen O’Neil of Milford. Here’s her breast care journey:

My breast cancer journey began on November 26, 2012 when I found a lump in my breast. I was a 38-year-old school teacher at the time with two young daughters and an amazing husband. From that moment on, my life became a whirlwind of emotions, phone calls and appointments. It went something like this.

Two days after finding the lump, I went to my Ob/Gyn for a breast exam. Six very long days later I had my very first mammogram and an ultrasound. The radiologist explained that I needed to see a breast surgeon. One of the names she gave me was Dr. Mary Pronovost at the Norma Pfriem Breast Care Center.

I was so scared at the time that I just went with the recommendation and called the Breast Care Center. I couldn’t think; I had to trust and hope. From the very first time I spoke with Dr. Pronovost’s assistant Dawn Goodrich, who helped me make my appointment, I felt taken care. She fit me in for an appointment the very next day … amazing. Anyone who has gone through something like this knows that one day can feel like an eternity. I was so thankful.

My husband and I walked into the Norma Pfriem Breast Care Center knowing life as we knew it was about to drastically change, but we were welcomed by friendly faces, a comfortable setting and tea—they had tea!!! These little details made the experience a little more palatable.

We met Dr. Mary Pronovost whose professionalism, patience, compassion and intelligence shone through. Then nurse practitioner Alivia Aron walked in with her huge smile, warm heart and quick wit and we felt comfortable surrounded by these people. I got the sense that we had stumbled upon a very special place. There was no question in my mind; we didn’t need to consult with anyone else. We chose Dr. Mary Pronovost, who, just a short while ago, had been just a name. Now she was so much more than that, and with her came hope.

Two days later, I had my biopsy and Pat Poniros, the nurse that works with Dr. Pronovost, was so sweet and caring and comforting. I walked out of that procedure into what felt like the longest wait of my life. While waiting, my beautiful twin daughters turned 10. I was so thankful that I had not yet been diagnosed so they could enjoy their birthday with no extra burden.

Then on December 13th, two days before my 39th birthday, I got the call at work I had been waiting for. I had HER 2 positive, ER positive cancer. Dr. Pronovost recommended a unilateral mastectomy. I thought long and hard and advocated for myself. You see, I couldn’t wait for the other shoe to drop, as they say. No doubt about it, my surgery needed to be a bilateral mastectomy.

Again, I was given another name, Dr. Anke Ott Young, an oncoplastic surgeon who works with Dr. Pronovost, and an MD/PhD or doctor-doctor as my husband liked to call her. When we met her, we quickly realized she was the epitome of beauty inside and out through her calm and peaceful manner We knew she was so much more than just a name, and I was so thankful for that. I got that feeling again: maybe everything will be okay.

Over the next couple of weeks Rachel Abraham, a licensed clinical social worker at the center, helped us coordinate appointments and arranged for a craft project I could complete with my girls. This was not only a tool to help in the conversations about my diagnosis but a source of comfort for all of us, a way to connect around the cancer and come to terms with what lay ahead, what we as a family dubbed our “new normal.”

My surgery took place on December 21, the winter solstice and my wonderful father- in-law’s birthday, both signs to me that things would go well. It was a long day in the hospital, but those hours in pre-op were the most down time and quiet time my husband and I had had in a long time, and we savored them in a way I’d never forget.

Surgery was a success. No spreading to my lymph nodes and I had clear margins … we finally exhaled.

About a week later I had my first meeting with the oncologist who was recommended to me, Dr. Neal Fischbach of the Norma Pfriem Breast Care Center. He explained my options in his pleasant, straight-forward, intelligent way, with a side of humor which we loved. He was very clear: my treatment plan was ultimately my choice. I thought, “Really? You are giving me choices?” But I couldn’t make a decision. He explained that it wasn’t about a right choice; it was about making a choice that I could feel good about because that would help in the healing process. Again, I thought, “Did he really just say that? Is he really looking at me as a whole person telling me I have choices? Is he really giving me his cell phone number to text him if I need to?” It was hard to believe, but I was lucking out again in the doctor department in this whole cancer thing. Dr. Fischbach was no longer a name. He was my oncologist and I felt lucky for that.

Because I take a holistic approach to health, I was afraid of chemo, not the side effects but the idea of the chemo itself, putting so many chemicals into my body. However, I focused on the fact that it would help to increase my chances of living to be an old woman who would see her children grow into their meaningful lives and hold her grandchildren. Rachel Abraham heard my concerns. She arranged for me to be in touch with the center’s naturopathic physician, Dr. Veronica Waks. Again, just a name, but Dr. Fischbach seemed to trust her approach with cancer patients and I was relieved, energized and empowered by this. Because Dr. Waks was out of the state on holiday we arranged to Skype. I thought, “Really, this doctor is going to Skype with me? How do I keep hitting the doctor jackpot?!?!” I felt like my caregivers were really listening to me and hearing what my needs were which, again, was simply amazing.

A few months out from surgery in the midst of chemo we attended a family night at the Breast Care Center. We wanted our daughters to see they were not alone in having a mom diagnosed with breast cancer. From the moment we walked in I realized just how lucky I was … my kind, supportive, compassionate, husband was the only man in the room. We started to work on a family book recognizing our individual strengths, and reflecting upon things we liked to do together. By the end of the night we got to hear what everyone was thankful for and realized that the goodness of family and love outweighed this all-consuming diagnosis. This night was just another gift from this amazing Norma Pfriem Breast Care Center.

There were other gifts. The genetic testing session with the wonderful Sally Casella, the visits by Alivia Aron and Rachel Abraham during early chemo days, their welcoming ways and conversations with my daughters, the comfort offered by Renee Moye, fellow two-time survivor Faye Willett, and Kim Downey, all the nurses at Dr. Fischbach’s office. Each of these caring, compassionate people quickly became so much more than a name. Their ability to care for patients with such grace, compassion and sympathy hour after hour and day after day spoke to how special these people were. I was lucky they were in my life.

I know now that my hitting the caregiver jackpot was not a coincidence. I hit the jackpot the day I became part of the Norma Pfriem Breast Care Center family. Every person affiliated with the Center made me and my family feel comfortable, hopeful and cared for just by simply being themselves and truly dedicating themselves to their profession—that was unparalleled and priceless.

Since my diagnosis, two other people in my life have been diagnosed with breast cancer. Listening to their stories, I know I am not just lucky for my diagnosis, as it could have been a lot worse, but for the approach the Norma Pfriem Center takes in treating the whole person. You see, these two women lived too far from the Center to take advantage of its services, and their journey had not been as fluid and stress free as mine. Of course I had my amazing family and friends to thank for that, but a huge part of the peace I felt throughout my journey was because of who cared for me at the Norma Pfriem Center and because of all the generous donors that fund its existence.

The Breast Care Center’s donors are making a difference. They have given countless women hope by ensuring that such a wonderful center exists where the doctors, nurses and staff are so much more than names; they are compassionate, talented, dedicated professionals who give women like me and families like mine the feeling that maybe everything will be okay. Hope lives at the Norma Pfriem Breast Care Center because of their generous support.

Before today I was just a name to you, just like all of my caregivers were to me at one time, simply a name. Now I hope I am more than just a name to you. I hope I am tangible proof that The Norma Pfriem Breast Care Center is truly one of a kind. My world, our world, is a little better because of its existence. Thanks for sharing in this vision, giving hope, saving lives and making our world a better place through your support of this one-of-a-kind place!