Young Retiree from New Milford Shares Breast Cancer Experience
After retiring in 2011 to help her husband, Michael, after he was injured at work, Sharon Kuczenski's new priority project this year has been taking care of herself. Once putting in 60-70 hours a week at her fitness center and tanning salons, the former business owner finally had the time to go to the doctor in March 2012 to catch up on screenings such as her gynecologic exam, mammogram and bone density.
"If I hadn't retired, I might not have found out that I had breast cancer in time to do something about it. So, I can look at this as a horrible way to start retirement, or a blessing that I slowed down enough to get to my doctor's office for a long-overdue checkup," said Sharon.
After her screening mammogram revealed suspicious findings, a subsequent mammogram, ultrasound and breast biopsy confirmed two masses in one breast. "Originally, we thought there was cancer in two quadrants of the breast, so I was fully expecting to need a mastectomy," she explained, embarking on a self-guided internet tour to educate herself about the disease and consulting with Courtney Chambers, MD, a general surgeon, and Joseph Bargellini, MD, a radiation oncologist, at New Milford Hospital.
With the benefit of New Milford Hospital's affiliation with Danbury Hospital in Western Connecticut Health Network, the 58-year-old New Milford resident sought additional support in Danbury from fellowship-trained breast surgeon Valerie Staradub, MD. After learning that one of the masses was benign, Sharon opted to keep her breast, undergoing two surgeries in May 2012 to remove the cancer and the benign tumor (her lymph nodes were clear) that threatened her plans to retire in South Carolina next year.
"Dr. Staradub was very thorough and supportive. She was knowledgeable and gave me a good feeling, and I was relieved to learn that the mastectomy and potential breast reconstruction that I expected would be avoided. Before I left her office, I had made up my mind to have the lumpectomy along with the removal of the benign tumor. It was reassuring to have a breast cancer specialist whose entire career is devoted to breast surgery," Sharon said.
Patients with breast disease have the benefit of multiple experts providing a consensus of opinion on treatment options, and the latest technology and dedicated teams to diagnose, treat and support them close to home. Care is coordinated or "navigated" by nursing and other experts to help women understand their options and work through the extensive resources available, including testing, education, nutrition services, rehabilitation and lymphedema care, research trials, and long-term support to address the many issues of cancer survivorship.
After further testing to assess her treatment needs, Sharon consulted New Milford Hospital Medical Oncologist/Hematologist Sandra Lombardo, MD, and made the calculated decision to forego chemotherapy. She completed a full-course of radiation treatment in late-summer of this year, and is also taking a recommended medication to reduce the likelihood that breast cancer will return.
"My doctors were very helpful in guiding me with my decisions, and I felt reassured that I was making the right choices. If I had to have a cancer, I am glad it was this one. I was able to keep my breast, and get the necessary testing and support to make informed choices about my care."
Dr. Staradub underscored the importance of helping women facilitate their own care. "Sharon had the benefit of specialists and services close to home, and really explored her options with several physicians. She followed her instincts, and that ultimately helped her to maintain a sense of control and confidence in her decisions," explained Dr. Staradub.
Sharon agrees. She is now on a regimen to lose weight, knowing that excess pounds can feed the common estrogen-sensitive cancer that grew slowly following menopause. "I am taking better care of myself than I did before. I expect to fully enjoy my retirement and my family in this next chapter of my life. I am grateful to the staff at Danbury Hospital and New Milford Hospital. They really worked together for my benefit," she said.
Sharon&'s advice to others is simple and straightforward. "I pushed myself hard for a long time. I've learned the importance of taking better care of myself. Get to a doctor regularly and keep asking questions until you feel confident that you are doing the right thing."
About Western Connecticut Health Network
Western Connecticut Health Network is the region's premiere, patient-centered health care organization serving residents of Western Connecticut and adjacent New York. The organization is anchored by two nationally recognized hospitals, Danbury Hospital and New Milford Hospital, as well as their affiliated organizations. In addition to the two hospitals, the continuum of care offered includes the following affiliates:
Western Connecticut Health Network has centers of excellence in women's health, cardiovascular and cancer services; minimally invasive and joint and spine surgery; digestive disorders and radiology and diagnostic imaging. It also offers specialized programs for neonatology with a Level IIIb neonatal intensive care unit and accredited sleep disorder centers. Both hospitals also maintain active clinical research programs, offering clinical trials for patients with cancer and other health concerns.