Her first bout with cancer – papillary thyroid cancer – was a wholehearted success. But 22 years later, in December of 2019, Carla was diagnosed with an advanced and aggressive form of breast cancer, which had spread to her lymph nodes. She was 57.
Her prognosis was daunting. The unfavorable metastasis and survival rates stunned Carla and her family. Additionally, the recurrence rates of Carla’s particular cancer were statistically high. “The stats were not in my favor,” Carla says.
Then, a member of her cancer care team told her, “Ignore those stats. If recurrence happens to you, the stats are 100%… And if it doesn’t occur, your stats are 0%.”
This insight, Carla says, “helped ignite optimism, reduce my anguish, and inspired me to fight.”
After four cycles of chemotherapy in her breast cancer treatment, Carla’s tests showed that cancer growth had slowed, but the tumors weren’t shrinking. She underwent a double mastectomy and removal of the lymph nodes on the right side. Once she healed from surgery, Carla began a different 14-cycle chemotherapy infusion and six weeks of daily radiation.
Given the aggressiveness of her cancer, Carla and her treatment team determined that breast reconstruction was not a viable option. They agreed to continue their focus on her priority – survival. Carla lost her hair. “I tried on wigs but they weren’t for me,” Carla says. “I was bald and my breasts were gone, but I realized the importance of being me and learned to love myself just as I am.”
Carla was living in Dalhart, Texas when she started treatment for breast cancer at Texas Oncology in Amarillo, 88 miles away. While she was very satisfied with the care she was receiving, the already-intense process was further complicated when COVID upended daily life for everyone. The combination of the diagnosis, COVID-related restrictions and the daily, 176-mile round trip for radiation, were taking a toll on Carla and her husband, Noel.
In what would be a difficult decision for anyone, Carla and Noel resigned from their jobs and sold their home to relocate to Colorado to be close to their son and his family – which was also five minutes from Rocky Mountain Cancer Centers’ Littleton clinic.
Yet, it’s a decision Carla says they’ve never regretted. Shortly after their move, the couple’s other son, a physical therapist, relocated from New Mexico to provide support.
He claims that his ‘Momma’ is the most compliant patient he’s had. Their daughter and her family in California are now just a two-hour flight away and always provide support and expertise from a distance.
But, how do you relocate cancer treatment? Carla’s clinic in Texas is part of The US Oncology Network, which is a collaboration between 1,700 independent cancer care providers across the country united by a common treatment philosophy. So, after researching her options, she transferred her care to another network provider – in Colorado.
“That’s how I landed here,” she says. “And I couldn’t have landed better.” The benefits of finding a cancer treatment provider within The US Oncology Network can’t be overstated, according to Carla. The transition was seamless. “I was so impressed with how they ‘passed the baton.’”
When she met Dr. Sami Diab, her new oncologist at RMCC for the first time, “he already knew my case. He had obviously talked with Dr. Reddy, my oncologist at Texas Oncology, in great detail,” Carla says. Carla felt confident about her breast cancer care in Colorado near her new home.
While one of the benefits of the US Oncology Network is the coordinated resources and infrastructure Carla referred to, another is that it offers treatment that focuses on lowering healthcare costs while improving outcomes. She received personalized, community-based cancer treatment with the geographic reach of a national network.
John Novak, Dr. Diab’s Physician’s Assistant, quickly earned her trust, and she sings his praises to anyone who will listen. “The first time my husband met John, he said to me, ‘No wonder you love that guy!’” Carla says. “I feel like I’m in great hands with John. He is always so patient and always gives me a hug after every appointment. And he never, ever drops a ball. Every single time, everything he says he’s going to do, he always shows up. And I always have a long list!”
Carla recounts that she had a PET scan after her last chemotherapy infusion. The scan was completed on Thursday and results were not expected until the following week. Twenty-four hours later, that Friday at 6:30 p.m., John called to tell her the scan showed no evidence of disease.
It wasn’t only John who earned her admiration and appreciation at RMCC, though. She’s also enthusiastic about the RMCC infusion team.
“When you get chemo, they rotate who takes care of you, and they are all great,” Carla explains. “They pay attention to every detail. And they don’t just treat me like that, I’m not an outlier. Every person in the infusion room is treated with professionalism and compassion. There’s lots of positivity and good humor there. You go into the chemo room and there’s always someone worse than you, somebody who needs your support. It’s instant friendship. We help each other.”
Carla’s family celebrated her final chemotherapy treatment with signs and cheering outside the infusion center windows.
If you talk to Carla, even for a short time, certain things will stand out. Bravery, gratitude, enthusiasm. With the help of her family, she’s braved decisions that would be unnerving even in the best of circumstances – like relocating during cancer treatment. The fact that she undertook them while dealing with a cancer diagnosis and an all-consuming treatment plan, not to mention COVID, is even more impressive. Yet, she speaks with enthusiasm and gratitude about every aspect of the journey.
“I got to keep my new grandbaby overnight for Valentine’s Day,” she recounts. “And the new rocking chair we had ordered in December was delivered a few minutes before she arrived. I got to rock her to sleep, and it was priceless. I thought, ‘Another beautiful memory in Colorado!’”
If you’re looking for breast cancer care in Colorado, schedule an appointment at Rocky Mountain Cancer Centers.
If you need to relocate during cancer treatment, learn more about the US Oncology Network.