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Sandra Mascari-Devitt

Sandra Devitt

Beyond the Call of Duty - Breast cancer patient receives overwhelming support from caregivers at Mercy

After enduring a difficult divorce and a devastating job loss , Sandra Mascari-Devitt has learned firsthand that she cannot go through life's challenges alone.

She needs God, her family and her friends to carry her forward when she doesn't have the strength to do it herself. So when Sandra received a stage III breast cancer diagnosis in November 2010, she found herself relying on her support network once again. But this time, there was another link in the network-her caregivers at Mercy Health System. "There isn't another place in the world where I can get the personal treatment I'm getting," says Sandra, 54, who lives in Edgerton.

Diagnosis and decisions

That personalized care started soon after Sandra first felt a painful lump in her breast when she rolled over in bed one morning. She saw her obstetrician/ gynecologist and came in for an ultrasound and six needle biopsies, and within a few days, she had her diagnosis. It was the Tuesday before Thanksgiving.

As Sandra prepared to travel to her son's house in Michigan for the holiday, she found herself pulled in many different directions. Her son wanted her to come to Michigan for her treatment. Her brother in California and sister in Florida were convinced she should seek care close to where they lived. And friends had their own opinions about how she should proceed. "I spent most of my time at my son's house bombarded by phone calls and doing a lot of crying," Sandra says.

But it was her conversations with her doctors at Mercy that calmed her. Both her primary care physician and her gynecologist, Meridyth Munns, MD, spent more than an hour talking to her over the phone in the middle of their holiday week.

Munns, who is a breast cancer survivor herself, says she has made it her personal mission to provide this kind of support for her patients. "When you get the diagnosis, you think you're going to die," she says. "The thing that helped me the most was talking to people who had been through what I had been through, and that's what I can offer to my patients."

Those talks were just what Sandra needed. "All of a sudden, I just took a deep sigh of relief and knew everything was going to be OK," she says. "I also knew that Mercy was the best place for me to seek treatment."

Over the next couple of weeks, Sandra met with her surgeon, Patricia Garner, MD, and her medical oncologist, Shahid Shekhani, MD, both part of Mercy Regional Cancer Center. Because the cancer was resting on her chest muscle and had invaded the lymph nodes under her left arm, she needed to undergo chemotherapy to shrink the tumor before Dr. Garner could surgically remove it.

"When you're removing a tumor, you have to ask yourself if you're going to be able to remove everything, or is there a chance something will be left behind?" says Dr. Shekhani. "Dr. Garner could not remove the whole tumor without risking cutting the muscle and hampering arm movement, so we needed to try chemotherapy first."

Moving forward

Over the course of the next year, Sandra underwent chemotherapy, a double mastectomy, more chemotherapy and then six weeks of radiation treatment. But her life did not brake to a halt.

After Sandra had lost her job in finance earlier in 2010, she found she was undereducated for the jobs she was seeking (she had only had two years of college), so she went back to school at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater to be a social worker. But when she received her cancer diagnosis, she wondered how she could possibly still attend classes while undergoing treatment. "I talked to my advisor, who told me I shouldn't make cancer define who I am," Sandra says.

So she didn't. Instead, she continued going to school full time (she was able to successfully maintain a 4.0 grade point average) and used her experiences in her classes. For one class, she wrote an essay about her battle against cancer. For another, called "Story and Identity," she brought a camera to her appointments and chemotherapy infusion sessions and made a YouTube video called "The Ink Splotch Never Realized.".

She also found she is gifted at providing comfort for others-an especially useful skill for a social worker. When one of her classmates-who also had cancer-was absent from class one day, his girlfriend broke down and ran out of the classroom in tears. Sandra ran after her and hugged and talked to her. Later in the semester, both the boy with cancer and his girlfriend thanked her for all her support.

Sandra, however, feels she would never be able to encourage others without all the support she receives herself. "I've found you have to have those unbelievable nurses and those unbelievable doctors who help you fight," she says. "You have to surround yourself with people who have a positive attitude."

Every single staff member in her doctors' offices, she says, was kind, patient and compassionate. That is simply the standard of care at Mercy, says Dr. Shekhani. "We don't see our patients as our patients," he says. "We put ourselves in their shoes and ask how we would feel. It's very simple to know what to do after that."

Sandra has completed her treatments now and is continuing to take classes at UWWhitewater. When she is not busy with homework, she loves to Skype with her 2-year-old granddaughter in Michigan.

And on the 2nd and 4th Fridays of each month, she is now co-facilitator of a new breast cancer support group with Michelle Leverence, patient care coordinator for cancer services at Mercy.

"When you are going through breast cancer treatments, it would be very easy to slide down a black hole and never climb out of it," Sandra says. "If I could help someone from sliding down that hole, it would be well worth the journey I have walked."