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Oncology nurse chooses Silver Cross

Oncology nurse chooses Silver Cross

Reprinted from the Joliet Herald-News


Kathleen Wilk is no stranger to cancer.

She is an oncology nurse at Christ Outpatient Infusion in Oak Lawn. Wilk’s sister, Melissa Geible of Tinley Park, was diagnosed with breast cancer 12 years ago at the age of 38. Wilk always is “on top of” receiving those annual mammograms, she said. And then at the end of January, Wilk felt a lump in her right breast.

She immediately thought to herself, “This is probably cancer.” And she was right. Wilk, 48, of Tinley Park, received all of her treatment at Silver Cross Hospital in New Lenox.

“I couldn’t say enough wonderful things about it,” Wilk said. “My care from every department I walked into was wonderful. I was treated kindly and with compassion, as if I was their priority in the moment. I never felt rushed. I never felt like my feelings or anything I said was pushed aside.”

Wilk mentioned the lump at her yearly physical scheduled with Dr. Marie Veldman, who is affiliated with Silver Cross Hospital.

“One comforting thing was I was able to feel the lump in the shower, but when I was lying down, I could not feel the lump. In my mind I thought, ‘This could be nothing. If I can’t feel it lying down, it might not be cancer. I tried to mentally trick myself.”

At the physical, Wilk said Veldman ordered a diagnostic mammogram instead of the screening mammogram, Wilk said. Wilk’s unease flared again during the procedure, which she had done at Silver Cross. The mammogram took longer than it should, she said. Wilk said she even asked the person performing the mammogram, “It’s cancer, isn’t it?”

After the mammogram, Wilk had an ultrasound. Shortly afterward, Wilk met with the radiologist.

“He showed me right away where the area of concern was,” Wilk said. “And I said to him, ‘I’m a nurse. Just be honest with me. Is this cancer?’ and he said, ‘I think it is.’ ”

Wilk had a biopsy the next day at Silver Cross.

“I wanted things to move quickly,” Wilk said. “I didn’t want to sit around and think.”

So Neda Zelehovitis, the nurse navigator at Silver Cross, scheduled appointments with Dr. Jennifer Tseng, a surgeon, and Dr. Andrea Amico, an oncologist, for the next week. Wilk also had genetic testing on Amico’s recommendation.

“My dad’s mother was diagnosed with breast cancer when my dad was a child and then she passed away in surgery,” said Wilk, who tested negative for the BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes. “That probably is also a big indicator there’s a genetic link. They’ve just not discovered it yet.”

The genetic component is important to Wilk and her family. She has a biological daughter and three nieces, and Geible has a daughter, too. Wilk said she never considered a second opinion.

“Honestly, the care was phenomenal the moment I walked through the door,” Wilk said. “Without a doubt, I knew I wanted my care to continue at Silver Cross.”

After meeting with the surgeon and hearing her options, Wilk decided to have a lumpectomy. She felt removing only one breast might make her feel lopsided. But if the surgeon removed two, she risked lymphodema as well, since Wilk had a couple of suspicious lymph nodes, too.

Mostly, Wilk didn’t want to rely on her own palpation to determine if the cancer had returned.

“Once you have a double mastectomy, there’s nothing to ‘mammogram’ anymore,” Wilk said. “So it scared me to have to rely completely on palpating myself. If it came back, I didn’t want to have to rely completely on my skills.”

The initial plan was surgery, followed by radiation. Wilk said she was scheduled for surgery after Easter. But shortly before surgery, she received a call from a radiologist reviewing her case. The radiologist wanted to repeat the biopsy.

“So I had the second biopsy on Good Friday and then that Saturday morning, Dr. Sing called me and said the lymph nodes were positive,” Wilk said. “That changed my treatment plan.”

Wilk now needed eight cycles of outpatient chemotherapy to shrink the cancer. Her first round was April 1. She went on disability May 1. She completed chemotherapy July 17. She had surgery Sept. 10.

“I had crazy side effects,” Wilk said of the chemotherapy. “I thought being an oncology nurse, I’d come through this with flying colors, but the chemotherapy had another mind. I was very sick.”

Symptoms included nausea, hair loss and neuropathy. Losing her eyelashes and eyebrows was the most traumatic symptom, she said.

“I don’t know why that upset me so, except when I looked in the mirror I thought, ‘I look sick,’ ” Wilk said.

Wilk also had some pain and swelling after the surgery, but ice helped, she said.

“I had very, very good results with the chemotherapy,” Wilk said. “I had five lymph nodes removed and three had cancer in them.  But the chemo actually shrank the cancer cells.”

Next up starting Oct. 8 is radiation to kill any remaining cancer cells. Then she will take an aromatase inhibitor for five years because her cancer was positive for estrogen, Wilk said. She also enrolled in a breast cancer clinical trial at the University of Chicago Comprehensive Cancer Center at Silver Cross. A recent pathology report showed the margins of the mass are clear.

“So the hope is that we got all the cancer,” Wilk said.

Except for some neuropathy, Wilk said she feels well, although she may experience side effects with the radiation – fatigue and breakdown of her skin. But Wilk has her own remedy for challenging days.

“I try to be kind to myself, to know I just have to work through the side effects,” Wilk said. “I try to focus on, ‘This too will pass. This is going to be better tomorrow if I can somehow get through today.’ ”

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