When Sandra Miller, a school teacher for 24 years, noticed some random spotting over the course of a few months in the fall of 2013, she didn’t think too much of it. She had been experiencing stomach cramping and thought the cramping must be related to that.
She went to see her family doctor, who ordered a computed tomography (CT) scan of her stomach area. To her surprise, the scan showed a cyst on her ovary, diverticulitis, or infected pouches in the colon, and a large gallstone.
The scan also revealed a fibrous tumor in her uterus. Her Ob/Gyn in Lima, Ohio, where she lives, performed a biopsy on the tumor and told Sandy she was alarmed by the results. She referred Sandy to David Cohn, MD, at the OSUCCC – James, and Sandy made her first of many 90-minute drives to Columbus in December 2013.
First, Dr. Cohn told Sandy what she expected to hear: that she needed surgery to remove the tumor. Then he told her something she wasn’t expecting at all: that her surgery would take place in just six days — on Christmas Day.
“Dr. Cohn watched me go through that mentally in my head,” Sandy said. “Then he said, ‘Stop, don’t go there.’”
Dr. Cohn’s attention to his patient’s state of mind impressed Sandy as much as his clinical skills. He really seemed to read her, assessing her personality, mental state and how she would handle her uterine cancer diagnosis during their first meeting. “I just really appreciated it,” she said.
On Christmas Day, Sandy, the organist for St. Luke’s Lutheran Church in Lima, performed for two church services and then underwent her robotic surgery.
Everything went well, including the news that her lymph nodes were “clean.”
Sandy said she assumed that a successful surgery would mean she was in the clear. “I made the silly assumption that I wouldn’t have to do anything else,” she said.
It turned out that her uterine cancer was a rare type that comes back in three out of four patients. Thus, the next step in her treatment, Dr. Cohn told Sandy, should be chemotherapy.
It was hard to accept, she said, but she appreciated that the OSUCCC – James is a research hospital. “They’ve got the data there and they use it.”
For the next four months, Sandy returned to the OSUCCC – James every three weeks for her chemotherapy. Each time, she met with Dr. Cohn and a nurse on her treatment team, Lynn, to discuss any problems or complications.
Thankfully, there were few of those. Volunteers and Sandy’s own friends kept her company during chemotherapy. What helped get her through, she said, were gifts from friends, the quilt she received from the hospital’s “quilt ladies” — aka The James Stitching Sisters—and regular visits with Debbie, a friend and volunteer.
By June 2014, Sandy had only one more chemotherapy session to complete. Though chemo often made her sick, she’s made a point of keeping her work and personal life on schedule.
“I haven’t missed a day of work for illness since this started,” Sandy said, setting an admirable example for her students. Now in the process of retiring from teaching, Sandy said she plans to stay busy assisting her elderly parents.
As she continues her path toward wellness back in Lima, Sandy said, the OSUCCC – James care team keeps close tabs on her. For example, when her blood test results, which are sent to her OSUCCC – James treatment team from her local doctor’s office, come back abnormal, Sandy gets a call from Lynn, the nurse, and other staff from Dr. Cohn’s office.
“They tell me to be careful,” Sandy said.
It’s these kind of details — like follow-up calls and Dr. Cohn’s attention to not only her physical condition but the emotions that the cancer forces her to deal with — that have made this partnership work, Sandy said.
But she emphasizes that the medical professionals can take care of only those patients who take care of themselves.
“I want a clean bill of health and they want it too,” Sandy said of Dr. Cohn and company. “They are doing everything they can to give it to me.”