At age 55, Nichelle was stunned when she was diagnosed with endometrial cancer just a few days before Christmas. Nichelle was a healthy, active adult and struggled with the idea of treatment at first.
“I was against chemotherapy and radiation,” says Nichelle. “I didn’t want to do any of it, but my back was against the wall. I had to make a decision.”
Nichelle was referred to Kristine Penner, M.D., medical director, Gynecologic Oncology Program, MemorialCare Todd Cancer Institute, who specializes in the diagnosis and comprehensive treatment of cancers of the female pelvic organs.
In Feb. 2017, Nichelle put her trust in Dr. Penner and the MemorialCare Todd Cancer Institute, and started chemotherapy treatments. She would continue treatments for three months before undergoing a full radical hysterectomy in May 2017. In June, she began her final three rounds of chemotherapy treatments. This time at a lower dosage, since all tests revealed no signs of cancer, and she had minimal side effects.
After completing her chemotherapy, in Sept 2017, Nichelle began 28 days of external beam radiation therapy (EBRT). The mass was so close to the wall of her uterus, her care team wanted to ensure it didn’t spread to other surrounding tissue and also recommended a unique radiation treatment called brachytherapy, an internal radiation therapy.
During brachytherapy, radioactive “seeds” are carefully placed inside of the cancerous tissue and positioned to attack the cancer while minimizing radiation exposure to surrounding tissues.
Under the careful planning of Alam Nisar M. Syed, M.D., medical director, radiation oncology, MemorialCare Todd Cancer Institute, Nichelle underwent three brachytherapy treatments within two weeks to prevent any chance of possible reoccurrence.
Shortly after her surgery, Nichelle noticed numbing of her left thigh and later after radiation treatments, she began experiencing swelling in her left leg and feet, which was diagnosed with lymphedema.
“A common side effect of cancer treatments is lymphedema, which happens when protein-rich lymphatic fluid is unable to circulate normally in the body,” says Jennifer Sibley, MPT, CLT-LANA, physical therapist, MemorialCare Todd Cancer Institute. “It builds up, resulting in swelling. When lymphatic fluid is stagnant, it can eventually harden and damage healthy tissue.”
Lymphedema treatment is one of the elements of cancer rehabilitation in the Integrated Cancer Medicine Program at the MemorialCare Todd Cancer Institute. Cancer rehabilitation can help improve daily function and the quality of life for cancer patients, like Nichelle.
Lymphedema certified physical therapists work with individuals to address a variety of conditions and symptoms related to cancer, including pain, fatigue, limited mobility, weakness and swelling, before, during and after treatment.
“In November 2017, I started rehabilitation treatments with Jennifer and her assistant Gaye, who used lymphedema therapies to help reduce my swelling and pain,” says Nichelle. “I have been going consistently ever since and I can’t thank them enough for their professional help and treatment. My symptoms are in control and I’m celebrating nine months of being cancer free!”
Nichelle stays healthy and manages her lymphedema symptoms by maintaining a healthy diet and exercise habits, as well as practicing the at-home care and techniques she learned from Gaye and Jennifer.
She even takes advantage of the weekly yoga and Pilates classes offered at the Todd Cancer Pavilion. Designed for cancer patients and survivors, the classes help heal the mind, body and spirit by relieving stress and relaxing muscles in the body.
The mind, body, spirit approach is a cornerstone of care at the MemorialCare Todd Cancer Institute and is achieved by practicing integrative cancer medicine alongside standard care, such as surgery, chemotherapy and radiation. The Integrated Cancer Medicine Program offers cancer services that are evidence-based, proven medical practices, such as cancer rehabilitation, nutrition support and psychosocial oncology.
“A lot of the healing process is about being in a caring, positive place,” says Sibley. “We get to know our patients, so we can really understand their goals and provide the support they need to have a better quality of life.”
“By the grace of god, Dr. Penner saved my life, and I am forever grateful and thankful to her and the awesome team at the MemorialCare Todd Cancer Institute that played a role in my healing and survival. Also, the ultimate support of my daughter, Zakiyyah “ZAZA” Sullivan, sons Zachary and Zaire, great nieces and nephews, Sanaa, Bilal, Ameer, Khalil and Jasmine, family, friends and my prayer warriors who were key in god blessing my healing journey,” says Nichelle.