Newswise — Linda Sprick of New Milford, Connecticut, isn’t one to let life pass her by. World travelers, Linda and her husband Tomm of 29 years have visited six different continents. The couple had to put their travel plans on hold when Linda was diagnosed with breast cancer earlier this year.

Breast Cancer Diagnosis Rocks World

Linda, 71, has always been faithful about getting an annual mammography. After her last routine screening, she started to worry when her doctor noticed an abnormality in her left breast and recommended an ultrasound to further investigate it.

After the ultrasound, Linda had an MRI followed by a biopsy. Those results came back quickly; Linda had Stage IIA breast cancer.

“Hearing ‘you have breast cancer’ rocks your world,” said Linda.

As Linda was processing her diagnosis, New Milford Hospital Breast Care Navigator Cindy Tyler, RN, OCN, CBCN, CN-BN, stepped in.

Cindy gently answered Linda’s questions, guided her through the scheduling of all her appointments, and helped her to understand the treatment plan. Cindy also provided comprehensive resources to both Linda and Tomm so they felt well-informed and fully supported.

“Cindy and the entire cancer program at New Milford Hospital — from the doctors and nurses, to the receptionists, secretaries, and technicians — are truly godsends for patients like me during a time of very high stress,” said Linda. “Cindy took me under her wing.”

A Positive Attitude

After Linda accepted the reality of her diagnosis, she decided to face the breast cancer head-on and do whatever was necessary to get well.

“This is your only life, so it’s important to do everything you can to get yourself healthy,” said Linda. “You need to find the people who can make you better and be open to tests and treatment options.”

In addition to Tomm, Linda’s son Ed and daughter-in-law Karen were extremely supportive.

“Tomm is a wonderful husband,” said Linda. “He’s my soul mate. He was with me every step of the way. And when I told my son Ed that I had breast cancer, he said, ‘Mom, you’re going to be okay.’ Sometimes, that’s all you need.”

Breast Cancer Treatment at Danbury Hospital and New Milford Hospital

Linda’s breast cancer care team included specialists from the New Milford Hospital Diebold Family Cancer Center, which, together with the Danbury Hospital Praxair Cancer Center, is part of Nuvance Health.

In February 2019, Danbury Hospital breast surgeon Dr. Zandra Cheng performed a lumpectomy to remove the cancer from Linda’s left breast. Dr. Cheng also removed three lymph nodes, all of which were cancer-free, indicating the breast cancer cells had, thankfully, not spread. After the pathology report was received, Dr. Cheng performed a second lumpectomy in March 2019 to ensure clean margins.

After the surgeries, Linda’s breast cancer care team began developing her follow-up treatment plan. They used Linda’s Oncotype DX breast cancer recurrence score to help determine the best treatment specifically for her. Oncotype DX is a genomic test utilized in early stage, hormone receptor positive breast cancer. The test analyzes risk of cancer recurrence, which helps the doctors determine whether or not chemotherapy will be beneficial.

“With Oncotype DX, instead of recommending chemotherapy based on the size of the cancerous tumor, we base it on the recurrence score, among other factors specific to each patient. Chemotherapy is necessary sometimes, but if it can be avoided, that’s great for the patient because of the side effects of this treatment,” explained Cindy.

“I was prepared to do whatever necessary to treat the cancer, even if that meant chemotherapy,” said Linda. “I had confidence in my care team when they recommended radiation therapy only, because I knew they used the latest tests and information to develop the most effective treatment plan for me.”

Under the care of Dr. Joseph Bargellini, radiation oncologist at New Milford Hospital, Linda began the first of 18 radiation treatments in April 2019. Taking advantage of one of New Milford Hospital’s latest advancements in care, Linda laid face down to receive her radiation therapy. Called “prone positioning”, this treatment method isolates the breast area to reduce the amount of radiation that could reach healthy organs, such as the heart and lungs.

Linda didn’t let the treatments get her down, especially since they were very quick — the average radiation treatment only lasted 7-to-11 minutes.

“I had a corporate job for many years, and that routine of getting up and prepared for the day carried over into my retirement,” said Linda. “So even though it was a difficult time, sticking to my routine made me feel so much better.”

The staff at New Milford Hospital took note. When Linda walked through the door, it brightened their day.

“Linda would come in for treatment nicely dressed — beautiful clothes and makeup, and most importantly, a huge smile,” said Cindy. “Her appearance helped her feel better, and it even made the staff feel great, too.” 

Healthy Meals Helped Ease Stress of Treatment

In addition to the outstanding  staff and leading-edge treatment, Linda said there was another advantage to having cancer care at New Milford Hospital — the Eating Well program, which is part of the Plow to Plate initiative. The program offers meals freshly prepared onsite using healthier cooking techniques, such as grilling instead of frying, and organic ingredients sourced from local farms and antibiotic-free meats, while eliminating high fructose corn syrup.

Through the Eating Well program, patients at the Diebold Family Cancer Center and their caregivers receive vouchers for a free, Plow to Plate meal after each chemotherapy or radiation therapy session. Patients and caregivers have the option to dine-in or carry-out from the New Milford Hospital café. The Eating Well program is fully funded by generous donors.

“The Eating Well program took such a load off of my mind,” said Linda. “I cook the majority of the meals for Tomm and me. But when I got home from treatment, I was mentally exhausted, especially at the beginning when I was meeting so many new people and learning so much about my care plan. Most of the time after my treatments, I wanted to go home, lie down and read my book. 

“I was astounded at what they do,” continued Linda. “It’s delicious, healthy food and there are so many choices. Every time we ate something, we knew we were getting good, nutritious meals."

Even though Linda has always followed a healthy diet, she also enrolled in a Let’s Get Cooking class at New Milford Hospital. There, Linda learned even more about healthy eating and the role nutrition plays in overcoming an illness and staying well. She found the information especially useful after her cancer diagnosis. She started to drink more water and eat more vegetables, especially broccoli and fresh spinach. Now, she even has arugula as part of her breakfast.

A Return to the Life She Loves

Today, Linda is done with radiation therapy and is cancer-free. At the direction of Dr. Sandra Lombardo, hematologist/medical oncologist at New Milford Hospital, Linda will need hormonal therapy for five-to-seven years to reduce the chances of cancer recurrence. This will be in the form of an oral medication.

Linda and Tomm have resumed their travels. They recently went to International Beatles Week in Liverpool, England, and they are looking forward to a Caribbean cruise later this year.

They have also rescheduled the trips that were planned for the first half of 2019 and postponed due to Linda’s treatment. They’re actively planning their trip to Antarctica, too, the only continent they haven’t seen.

Although no one forgets undergoing surgery and treatment for cancer, Linda said she particularly will remember the incredible New Milford Hospital staff that helped her along the way.

“I want people to know that this place [New Milford Hospital] is phenomenal,” said Linda. “Everyone made a difference — they are all so caring. They all embrace you. As bad as it was to learn about my diagnosis, and the surgery and treatment I endured, it turned out to be so, so much better than I would have expected.”