Wanda Newman was just starting to get back in the routine of work as a house cleaner and bus driver in March 2021. Newman, 59, was fully recovered from open heart surgery and, later, a COVID infection. She was feeling like herself again.
Then, one morning, she said, “I was taking a shower. When I came up my side with a washcloth, I felt a lump.” It was on the side of her left breast.
She had missed her mammogram appointment four months prior due to COVID. Women 40 and older are advised to get them annually. But when she found the lump, she already happened to have an appointment lined up the following week with her gynecologist. That’s when she learned she needed a mammogram – and a biopsy.
But she didn’t want to get treated in her hometown. Newman, who lives in Galax, Virginia, had had a positive experience with Novant Health when she had heart surgery, so that’s where she wanted to go for her biopsy.
Using MyChart, she found Dr. Judy Tjoe, a breast surgeon at Novant Health Breast Surgery - Greensboro, about 100 miles away, and made an appointment. She was able to get a mammogram, ultrasound and biopsy all in one trip.
"She's the best doctor I believe I have ever met in my life. She is just so compassionate and so understanding and so calming. You can be sitting there freaking out and she can just calm you right down,"
Breast cancer outcomes are better when it’s detected and treated early.
Finding compassionate care at the onset
This “is going to sound silly, but I introduce myself,” Tjoe said. She’s been to plenty of appointments herself where the doctor doesn’t take that step. “And I’m like, ‘I don’t even know you,’” she said.
She makes sure her patients know who she is. And that they know she’s reviewed their record, read their notes and looked at any diagnostic photos.
“I’m not coming in here blindly,” Tjoe said. “But I tell every single one of them, ‘Can you give me a couple of minutes and share with me everything from your perspective? How did this all show up? Or what did you first notice? And what was being done? And what questions were in your mind?’ Because that gives the woman time to tell her story.”
From there, she and the patient start tackling the next steps. “How do we fit that treatment plan and her treatment goals around all of the other psychosocial stressors” like work and family, she said. “Because that’s not going to stop for cancer treatment. That part of life keeps going.”
Making the most out of medical travel
One of Newman’s main concerns was actually travel – being able to see her Novant Health doctors without sacrificing too much time away from her mountain town home. She lives with her husband, Billy, of 40 years.
“He really has been my rock through all this,” said Newman, whose sisters also pitched in by buying her wigs and taking her to appointments.
Newman also lives within 30 minutes of her two children and three grandchildren. She likes to stay close to them.
“She set it up so that I could have a mammogram and an ultrasound the same day that I saw her so that I didn’t have to make all those trips down there,” Newman said of Tjoe.
Supporting patients with strong communication
Tjoe also told Newman she can call Tjoe whenever she needs to, with any question. “I’m just still amazed that she will just call people back,” Newman said. “That’s just not how it works up here.”
When you “have the right team that works alongside you here in the office, it makes it possible,” Tjoe said.
That starts with the nurse for the breast surgery clinic. She can quickly take patient phone calls while Tjoe is in other appointments and can listen to concerns, address routine questions and track down additional answers.
“We also have our cancer nurse navigator next door, our clinical research coordinator within our office and then our scheduler and our clinic administrator,” Tjoe said. “And we all work together to make sure that the patient’s experience is first and foremost. It’s communication that every patient wants, to understand: What’s going on in my treatment, and what’s next? That availability is most important when it helps decrease anxiety.”
And Newman said she wants her doctors to always give it to her straight. She told Tjoe through her patient form: “I want you to be honest with me. If you think that it’s cancer, I want you to tell me that it’s cancer.”
During that first appointment, Tjoe was almost positive that was the case. So that’s what she told Newman.
“If we can help minimize some of the unknown, I think that helps a lot,” Tjoe said. She then followed up about Newman’s biopsy results by phone: The lump was cancerous.
Moving forward with treatment
Tjoe’s team helped Newman schedule further appointments, still trying to make her trips doubly productive to make the most out of her travel, from getting a port for chemotherapy to getting prepped for surgery.
Newman actually laughed when she recalled learning she needed chemo: “I guess I was more devastated over that than I was the breast cancer, because I always had nice hair,” she said. “And I did not want to lose my hair.”
Her hair started falling out after her second chemo treatment, just like her nurses – honestly – said it might.
Newman went through weeks of chemotherapy plus a partial mastectomy by Tjoe in October 2021. She still has more to come. Newman is finishing radiation therapy treatments and plans to start taking a chemotherapy pill for six months after. For now, she’s happy to watch her hair slowly grow back. She’s also ready to support any other woman who finds out she has breast cancer. First, she’ll refer them to Tjoe.
Second, Newman said: “If I could say one thing: It’s all about your attitude. Go into it with the attitude of, this is going to be OK.”
Top photo is courtesy of Wanda Newman.