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More than a building

Last Modified: 10/12/2020

Cancer Survivor

Carla Meyer has been at the Parkview Cancer Institute since the very beginning. “June 5, 2018,” she recalled. “My heart just belongs to that building.”

When the facility opened, Carla was in charge of the gift shop. But to her, it wasn’t just a place to pick up keepsakes. “I’m a people person, anyone will tell you. I can sense when someone needs to talk or when they just need a hug. They don’t have to say a word. When the patients came into the gift shop, it gave them a little bit of zen, and that made me feel so good.”

Unexpected news

When she was 52, in the same month PCI opened its doors, Carla noticed something in the shower. It was a lump in her right breast. “I hadn’t had a mammogram in four or five years,” she admitted. “And honestly, I’m so blessed, because if I hadn’t worked in this building, I might have just ignored it or written it off. But I knew people. So I walked over to imaging and asked if they did mammograms and if I could schedule an appointment. I mean, I didn’t even know everything we had here! I mostly stayed in the gift shop.”

Within days, Carla had her mammogram. When they called her for follow-up, she couldn’t believe what they were saying. “They wanted to do a biopsy on the other side! The tumor wasn’t on the right, where I’d felt something. It was on the left. I thought they were misdiagnosing me or something.”

Carla was diagnosed with breast cancer in August 2018. Initially, her care team, which included Linda Han, MD,  and Melanie Clark, MD, Parkview Cancer Institute, Breast Care Team, thought she would have surgery and radiation, possibly chemotherapy after. But after ordering an MRI, Dr. Han discovered that the tumor was the size of her fist and changed the plan.

Cancer Survivor

Carla had stage 2 ER-positive breast cancer, meaning it was growing in response to the hormone estrogen. She would have four rounds of chemotherapy, every three weeks, which she began in October, followed by surgery and radiation.

After her fourth round of chemo, Carla hit an unexpected bump in a road she’d never planned to be on in the first place. On December 13, 2018, she developed a fever. “They always tell you to watch for a fever during chemo,” she said. “Now I know why.” Carla had developed pneumonitis and had to stay in the hospital for more than two weeks. “I really didn’t realize just how sick I was. My body was still fighting chemo and then the infection on top of that. I went in during one year and came out during another.” On January 1, 2019, she was admitted into a nursing home to continue rehabilitation, followed by six weeks of outpatient physical therapy. “The whole thing just really turned my world upside down.”

On February 25, her care team decided Carla was strong enough for surgery. They took the cancer out, did a reconstruction on her left breast and a reduction on her right side. In June of that year, she also had a procedure to remove her ovaries to reduce her risk of recurrence.

Losing herself

Through all of the challenges Carla experienced during her cancer battle, some of the most difficult had nothing to do with her body.

“I can remember being at that first chemo session and feeling like it was an out of body experience. I was going through the motions, but I never felt grounded. Even now, sometimes I get such terrible chemo brain, I just can’t find what I want to say,” Carla shared.

“And I lost a lot. I lost who I was. I was in a relationship for 18 years that ended during that time. The rug was ripped out from under me and it took a long time to get back on my feet. In March 2019, I moved in with my son, which was such a hard choice, but necessary for financial reasons. You know, when you’re diagnosed with cancer, you never expect it to be you. I was 52 and I had insurance through the gift shop, but I didn’t have any short- or long-term disability. Suddenly, I wasn’t sure how I was going to do it. There were three months at least where I couldn’t come to work. As a mother, to have to move in with my son and have him help financially … it’s very difficult psychologically.”

When Carla was finally able to return to work fulltime, she felt another unexpected shift. “I’d just come back to work and I got a call to go upstairs. They were closing the gift shop. It completely devastated me. To have the thing I loved taken away, after everything I’d gone through, it was terrible. But my friend Terri, a concierge, reminded me that everything happens for a reason and God would take care of it. ‘Maybe,’ she said, ‘it’s a sign that you need to step away from this building for a while because it’s such a reminder of what you went through.’ I decided she might be right and I went home.”

Cancer Survivor

Carla took a retail position at the mall. “After two weeks at that job someone from Imaging at PCI called and said they had a job and asked if I wanted it. I had no experience, but I said yes immediately. I would learn whatever I had to learn. And I have to tell you, the morning I drove back onto that campus this complete calm came over me. This is where I was supposed to be.”

Sharing her story

Carla has been in her position as a receptionist on the fourth floor, just steps away from where her own cancer journey began, for approximately one year now. “I can sense when people need to hear my story, but I don’t share it all the time.

Cancer Survivor

A while back, I heard a patient crying down the hall, so I went and took her some tissue and showed her a private space. I asked her if she was OK, and she wasn’t. She’d just found out she had breast cancer. So I sat with her and I told her about my battle. Over the weeks that followed, I was with her through her entire journey. A month ago she came over and told me she’d had her final treatment and thanked me for what I told her that day and how much it meant to her. That’s so rewarding. But that’s what it’s about. Helping in any tiny way I can.”

Her desire to give back comes from the generosity she experienced when she needed it most. “Before I knew I had cancer, a couple gals who worked at PCI came in trying to figure out what to do for Christmas. I recommended this book I’d read, ‘Christmas Jar.’ It’s all about paying it forward. I won’t spoil the book, but I will say, when I was going through treatment, I would go to lunch and come back and there would be Christmas Jars that people had dropped off for me because they knew what I was going through. They knew I didn’t know how I was going to pay my rent. It was the most amazing generosity. I had the Cancer Coalition help with my car insurance and others from my community help in other ways. I’ll never be able to pay it all back, but I try to volunteer and do whatever I can to help others.”  

Reflection

Things are slowly getting back on track for Carla. In March, she moved into her own place and she continues to thrive with her PCI family. That doesn’t mean Carla doesn’t still feel pain or lingering effects of her own fight. “My joints hurt and I don’t want to take medication to manage the pain. But you know, this is just what I have to deal with, and that’s OK.”

Now, as she looks back, Carla says a good care team makes all the difference. “At PCI, they truly treat you like family. From the minute you walk in the door and the concierge team greets you, right down to lab. You get tender care from every aspect. It wasn’t just one person who made the difference for me. It was everyone, the whole experience.”

While she was impacted by many along the way, perhaps the most pivotal exchange is the one that stands out the most. “I remember Dr. Han came down to the gift shop. She was standing out in the hall and asked, ‘Can I talk to you?’ She grabbed my hand and she said, ‘This is what’s going on and I want you to know that you are going to be OK.’ That kind of care gives you a sense of ease and calms your mind. I’ll never forget that.”

For those just beginning their cancer battle, Carla says it’s important to have confidence in the people caring for you. “Trust them wholeheartedly,” she said. “And ask questions. You need to bring someone with you because your mind is going 100 mph when you hear the word ‘cancer.’ You don’t know what to ask and it’s good to have another set of ears and eyes. Use your navigator, because they are wonderful in every aspect. And know that everyone’s cancer is different. Everyone’s body is different. No one can tell you exactly what’s going to happen.”

While the disease is filled with uncertainties, for Carla, it feels good to know that one thing is consistent, “There is so much love in this building. I plan to be here for the rest of my life.”

 

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