College professor learns the power of knowledge when facing a cancer diagnosis
Time stood still for Rachael Hoffert when she heard she had breast cancer. In her mind, she was too young, at age 42, to think much about cancer. She thought she had found a cyst during a self-exam, not something serious.
But a breast exam by her OB/GYN, followed by a diagnostic mammogram, ultrasound and biopsy, all pointed to one conclusion – early-stage breast cancer.
“I just froze at that moment,” Rachael said. “I remember looking at my husband thinking, what do we do now?”
Questions whirled constantly in Rachael’s mind. What about her three sons? Should she schedule meetings at work? How would her life change?
No one in Rachael’s family had a history of the disease. She was healthy and kept up with routine screenings and wellness visits. A few girlfriends were breast cancer survivors, and she had given them encouragement and support along their journey.
How could this be happening to her?
Teaching the teacher about cancer care one step at a time
“I recommend that you go to Goshen to meet with Dr. Morris, a breast oncologist there,” said Rachael’s OB/GYN when he gave her the diagnosis. “She is going to have a good plan for you and be able to ease some of your fears.”
That’s exactly what Rachael needed to hear. Life felt out of control at the moment, but she trusted her doctor to steer her in the right direction.
Rachael set up an appointment with Dr. Laura Morris, Breast Surgical Oncologist at Goshen Center for Cancer Care. In the initial consultation, Dr. Morris set aside lab reports and medical histories to first learn about Rachael and her husband, Dave.
Cancer had interrupted life in full stride. Rachael and Dave are parents of three boys, two adopted from Ethiopia; they are both education junkies with careers as a college professor and school superintendent; and they are actively involved in their community of Warsaw, about a 30-minute drive from the cancer center.
The couple looked to Dr. Morris for a way to move forward with a diagnosis they did not fully grasp. That’s when Dr. Morris became the Hofferts’ teacher.
The fellowship trained breast surgical oncologist explained Rachael’s biopsy results in simple terms the Hofferts could understand. She showed them images from the mammogram and pointed out indicators about the stage, type and aggressiveness of the cancer.
The lesson in breast cancer ended with thoughtful discussion about possible ways to treat Rachael’s breast cancer.
A caring team of cancer experts all in one place
Rachael leaned on the teachings of Dr. Morris to make tough decisions, including to have a double mastectomy. This approach gave her the best chance to get rid of the cancer and abnormal cells that could develop into cancer later on.
“It became clear in how she described my situation what treatment was best for me,” Rachael said. “It was very difficult to think about having a big surgery, but I also knew that the recommendation was lifesaving.”
Part of Rachael’s treatment plan included starting breast reconstruction at the same time as her mastectomy. Dr. Ronald Downs, who provides plastic surgery services at the cancer center, walked her through the process, answered all her questions, and gave her the reassurance she needed that she was in good hands.
Rachael’s circle of care broadened to include endocrine therapy by medical oncologists at Goshen. She learned that the hormone estrogen fed the cancer cells in her body. That meant she needed oral medication for five years after surgery to reduce risk of the cancer coming back.
Naturopathic Doctor Emily Moore, ND, from the cancer center’s Integrative Care Team, introduced Rachael to eating habits and supplements that could make a difference in how she felt before, during and after surgery. They talked about Pilates, Rachael’s joy in running and walking the dog – all good therapies for cancer survivors.
A mind-body counselor encouraged Rachael to continue doing the things she loved and to live her life. The counselor also offered to talk with the Hofferts’ sons about some of the changes that would affect the family in coming months.
“The collaboration and team approach meant a lot to me,” Rachael said. “I am amazed at the knowledge that's in one place.”
Breast cancer brought a lot of ugliness into Rachael’s life. But the way she was treated with dignity and respect by every doctor, nurse, scheduler and patient care coordinator made all the difference for her.
“Everyone had my best interest in mind,” she said. “I felt like they cared about me, and they were there for me every step of the way to help me through this journey.”
I have my joy back!
As Rachael approaches her one-year milestone as a survivor, she sees life through a different lens. Family matters more than ever to her. Familiar places fill her with an unexpected sense of gratitude and peace. Her spirit as an educator has returned.
Rachael also is finding her voice again as she shares her story of struggle, learning, relationships and kindness.
“This journey makes you think about what matters in life,” she said. “I hope I can give back to others as much as so many people poured into me.”