Cancer Patient Stories
Why he is fighting cancer, right here at home.
Richard Gardner’s roots run deep in Tallahassee. From husband and father to mentor and entrepreneur, his love for life is evident through everything he does. And through each of these hats he wears, there is certainly laughter shared with everyone he touches.
In 2010, Richard embarked on a new philanthropic journey by joining the Animal Therapy team at Tallahassee Memorial HealthCare (TMH), with his Boykin Spaniel sidekick, Bogey. Today, these two have made over 1,000 visits, and are often referred to as local celebrities on the TMH campus. From forming lifelong friendships with patients to walking the halls with Bogey with her stethoscope in mouth, their impact is immeasurable on patients and colleagues.
Last year, Richard entered into a new journey at TMH. Struggling to keep weight on, he visited his primary care physician this January for preliminary testing. He found himself going through standard testing of CT scans, ultrasounds and biopsy’s, after beating cancer 26 years ago he was used to it.
When his biopsy results returned, Richard was diagnosed with stage four stomach cancer. He was quickly referred to the Tallahassee Memorial Cancer Center with Jorge V. Perez De Armas, MD, medical oncologist, leading the charge in his plan of care.
Richard began bi-weekly infusion treatments in February, which will continue over the next six months. Richard had defeated stomach cancer before and was privy to how the process may go. He knew he needed the best team in his corner, and in true Richard fashion, he was not shy to make sure of that.
“I sat down and flat out asked him ‘Why should I stay here?’” recalled Richard on his first meeting with Dr. Perez. “And I have to tell you, from his answer that day, to every single time I walk through the Cancer Center doors, there is nowhere else I want my care to be done. Dr. Perez and Ali make me want to be here.”
Ali Kelly, RN, BSN, OCN is a chemotherapy educator at the Cancer Center. Alongside Dr. Perez, Ali’s goal is to ensure Richard is well versed in this journey every step of the way. From touring the facility, walking through every detail of medications, side effects and what to expect emotionally, she serves as Richard’s shoulder to lean during his fight with cancer.
“Richard just makes you gravitate towards him,” Ali said smiling and laughing. “I have the pleasure of helping him through his fight, while he has helped me in learning to look at the bright side of everything. He has the best attitude and is grounded in his faith through this all. That is simply one of the biggest parts of fighting cancer, and a quality that I admire.”
While Richard was impressed with the entire team at Tallahassee Memorial from the beginning, day in and day out he continues to be blown away by their team.
“This team has made me hit every comfort level possible,” he firmly stated. “I know this is not somewhere you want to be. But they make you feel so damn good. I cannot say enough about this team.”
Richard’s story is not finished by any means. While Bogey now has a new role of accompanying Richard in treatments, these two are fighting cancer, right here at home – and they will be back walking the halls of TMH, as the amazing Animal Therapy team that they are, before we know it.
Born and raised in Tallahassee, Vicki Ward loves her hometown. It’s where her kids were born, her cherished memories were made, and it continues to hold a very special place in her heart. As Thanksgiving was approaching, Vicki noticed abnormal vaginal bleeding. Healthy as could be, she cautiously visited her physician. What she thought would be a routine visit turned into her immediately being referred to a gynecologist.
After two weeks of testing, Vicki received devastating news. She had an abnormality in her uterus and tested positive for uterine cancer.
“It was after Christmas, I was by myself on Dec. 28 when they called me into their office,” said Vicki. “I was told that I had cancer. I swore I was having an out-of-body experience. I did not know how this was happening to me.”
Her team of physicians determined her cancer was in a very small portion of the uterus and was caught very early. In turn, Vicki visited the Tallahassee Memorial Cancer Center to begin outlining her treatment plan with their gynecologic oncology team. As a technical person, she vividly remembers the physicians sitting down with her to outline details, even drawing out diagrams for her to fully comprehend the treatment plan.
“I was so nervous,” recalled Vicki. “I came with my family for support, however left there knowing I was in great hands, and had the support of the whole medical team. They spent over an hour going over every possible detail for me to best understand everything.”
On January 22, 2016, Vicki went through a hysterectomy, the first step in her treatment. Following a successful surgery and a few weeks of recovery, she was cancer free. Rejoicing with her family and the Cancer Center, Vicki could not be more relieved. Life was good. In April 2017, the week of her birthday, Vicki had her quarterly follow up visit planned. Due to the timing of celebrations and spring schedules, she struggled with possibly changing her appointment time to a later week. However, Vicki went to the appointment as scheduled. Once again, her world was shaken. Finding an abnormal spot in the scans, her team requested an emergency biopsy.
“I left my appointment and had to go to my 60th birthday party,” said Vicki. “With my mind racing, I told my family and together we prayed about what may come.”
Following further testing, it was confirmed her cancer had come back to the same exact location. Abnormal to see cancer come back to the specific spot twice, Vicki immediately sat down with Raj Bendre, MD radiation oncologist, and the physicists at the Cancer Center to go through every detail of her radiation plan. Determining the uniqueness of her case, her treatment plan was aggressive.
“It was so hard,” Vicki shared. “A treatment like this is so personal, and the staff at the Cancer Center made me so comfortable while keeping my dignity through everything. I did not meet one person that was not nurturing or caring. From every hug, to human connection, they made me a part of their family from day one.”
After months of treatment, Vicki proudly ran the freedom bell at the Cancer Center in November of 2017. She is now cancer free and enjoying her family, friends and health. Today, Tallahassee holds a new meaning to Vicki’s stories. It is where her life was changed and a new family was made.
“While I hope no one has to experience my same story, it is such a blessing the Tallahassee Memorial Cancer Center exists,” Vicki proudly shared. “All my treatments were in my hometown. I was able to continue working with a loving community, and am alive. There is hope due to their team.”
College hunting, student celebrations and time with her siblings is what Kyleigh Sanders’ day to day activities entailed. An exciting time in her life, she was in her senior year of high school and looking forward to her graduation in the coming months.
Feeling tired and worn out, Kyleigh thought nothing of it as she was in the midst of applying to colleges, volunteering and in school full time. Going about her day to day, she continued partaking in all the senior year activities.
As the weeks progressed, the swelling of her lymph nodes became more apparent. However, she and her mother continued brushing it off as a possible cold or added stress. “I felt ok, I really did,” said Kyleigh. “There are always things going around at school, and it didn’t faze me one bit.”
Read more of Kyleigh's Story
Just like the ocean tide, you never know what the day will wash in. For Early Duggar, the last thing on his mind was cancer. As founder of the popular casual seafood restaurant The Wharf, Early spent much of his early life on the water. From fishing and oystering to shrimping and crabbing, Early unexpectedly found his passion for seafood at a young age.
Growing up in Tallahassee, Fla., Early met his now wife, Eva, and the rest was history. After trying to win Eva over, Early found himself getting to know Eva’s father and brothers – who were in the seafood business. What started as a way to win Eva over turned into a love story and lifelong passion.
Years into their marriage, Early had worked on the bay selling and packaging oysters. In the fall of 1985, two back-to-back hurricanes wiped out all of the oyster beds from Texas to Apalachicola. Everything was on the line and Early and Eva were at a loss. They traveled to the James River in Virginia to check on the beds and oystermen, some who didn’t make it in the storm, and on the way home they stopped in Thomasville, Ga. to get dinner.
“When we were waiting to be served I started looking at the menu,” recalled Early. “I knew the size of the shrimp they were serving and quickly realized they made more off one dinner than I was making off 100 pounds of shrimp sold at wholesale.”
What seemed like a blink of an eye turned into the beginning of a brighter future for Early and Eva. They opened their first restaurant in 1986 – The Wharf.
Fast forward 28 years later, and four stores opened with one store just newly opened on the north side of Tallahassee, Early started experiencing a new level of exhaustion, combined with sudden severe headaches.
“For the first time in my life, I was too exhausted to even go to work,” said Early. “I said ‘something has got to give.’ I realized I was having to really focus on the task at hand – it was taking me a long time to grasp what I needed to do at work, which had never happened before. I started holding everyone up.”
Early contacted his primary care physician and, after initially thinking it was a blood-related issue, they ordered lab work. The results determined he had a low blood count. They questioned if there was internal bleeding and all signs pointed to something else.
On April 21, 2015 the doctor ordered a CT scan.
"I remember the tech asked me if I had a stroke or bad accident lately. I said ‘no.’ He sent information over to the radiologist and my primary care doctor. As I sat in the lobby, he came back out and asked if I had time to get an MRI. When he told me I needed to do it today, I knew something was up.”
Once the results of the MRI arrived, the radiologist contacted Eva and set up an appointment with Matthew Lawson, MD, Board Certified Neurosurgeon at Tallahassee Neurological Clinic.
“Dr. Lawson was an excellent surgeon,” said Early. “In our initial meeting, he explained to me that the tumor was the size of a baseball. We made plans to have the surgery done the following week and they were able to remove 85-90% of it.”
After spending three days in the ICU and one day in intermediate care, Dr. Lawson referred Early to the Tallahassee Memorial Cancer Center for treatment.
“Every single person at the Tallahassee Memorial Cancer Center was wonderful,” recalled Early. “I didn’t realize how many people actually had cancer until I arrived. I had the option to get treatment somewhere else and I said ‘Why would I leave when we have the best right here at home?’”
Early received treatment from Hematologist/Oncologist Iman Imanirad, MD. “Dr. Imanirad was really great. He always knew what to say. I have formed such a close bond with him and his nurse, Lea.”
When patients like Early go through treatment for brain cancer, treating the affected area and sparing the rest of the patient’s brain is absolutely crucial. Early received radiation therapy to his brain under the direction of D.D. Raj Bendre, MD, Radiation Oncologist.
“Dr. Bendre is really a wonderful guy,” said Early. “My family, who researched everything that related to my situation, absolutely approved of him.”
What started as a 2-4 month prognosis has now turned into a second chance at life. Early has surpassed all odds and it’s been 2 ½ years since his diagnosis. His goal is to inspire others with glioblastoma and remind anyone with cancer that ‘just stay positive.’
“I like to joke that I’m too busy to die,” laughed Early. “It’s important to stay in the right mindset and remain positive – I want people to know they can beat this thing.”
Early continues his mission to give back and provide help to those who need it by donating a portion of proceeds from purchases at The Wharf to the National Brain Tumor Society. When he’s not working on the business side at The Wharf, Early is enjoying his days with Eva and visiting with family including their son Stephen Jr., daughter Genny and their grandchildren.
It was December 2015 and 39-year old Tallahassee native Nashenna Nix was surprised when her husband, Jonathan, found a large lump in her breast. Just two days before Christmas, that lump would be diagnosed as triple negative breast cancer. Read more...
During a routine physical in June of 2015, 50-year-old Jenifer E. Thorn, PhD, a Program Director in Sports Medicine at Keiser University, wasn’t thinking about the possibility of breast cancer. Just eight months prior she had a routine mammogram that came back negative, so she was shocked when her primary care physician found a lump.
Jenifer was sent to Radiology Associates for follow up testing where she found out she had breast cancer.
“A million things run through your head when you hear something like this. I was particularly concerned that I had no family history of cancer, so I researched everything I could and requested a second opinion,” said Jenifer.
One of Jenifer’s friends was a breast cancer survivor and recommended she look into Moffitt Cancer Center.
“My family lived in Tampa, so Moffitt Cancer Center seemed like a natural fit. I sent them my biopsy from Radiology Associates and went through ct scans, bone scans and an MRI. They concluded I had Stage IIB triple positive breast cancer.”
For most large, node positive “triple positive” (hormone receptor and HER2 receptor expressing) breast cancer patients, chemotherapy is recommended prior to surgery. Jenifer decided to start chemotherapy at Moffitt.
Working 40 hours a week, on top of the long drive from Tallahassee to Tampa to receive chemotherapy, Jenifer was becoming physically and mentally exhausted. She knew she needed to start looking into other options.
“I was extremely blessed with an amazing support system from my family and friends as well as the administration, faculty and staff at Keiser University. However the long drive to and from treatment started to take its toll. I felt it was important to have a local medical oncologist to help me address chemotherapy side effects and potential emergencies.”
At Tallahassee Memorial’s Cancer Center, Jenifer was seen by Karen Russell, MD, FACP, Hematologist/Oncologist.
“I thought she was the greatest,” said Jenifer. “When we met we connected instantly. She has this passion for helping her patients and making us feel like everything will be all right. On top of this passion, she also has research experience and knew the best treatments for my type of breast cancer.”
Each time Jenifer would return back from her trips to Tampa, Dr. Russell would see her for follow up care.
“My first few treatments at Moffitt went well, however after my fifth infusion, I just started feeling different. I became severely dehydrated and went to the Tallahassee Memorial Bixler Trauma & Emergency Center for fluids.”
A week later, Jenifer started to feel bad again and contacted the Tallahassee Memorial Cancer Center. After speaking with Dr. Russell’s nurse, she was advised to go to the hospital to be admitted for monitoring. Dr. Russell came by to check on Jenifer and found she was severely dehydrated and needed fluids, in addition to a blood transfusion.
In an instant, Jenifer went from being simply dehydrated to needing emergency surgery. She started vomiting blood and Dr. Russell and a team of physicians gathered together to make decisions about her treatment. Quick tests showed Jenifer had a major artery rupture in her small intestine.
Jenifer had emergency surgery by Eliot Sieloff, MD, General Surgeon at Tallahassee Memorial HealthCare. She spent four days in the intensive care unit followed by three additional days in the hospital for recovery.
“If I had not been at TMH getting fluids, I would not be here today. I knew I was at the right place at the right time. Dr. Russell has saved my life more than once and I am forever grateful.”
Once she was healed, Jenifer had a bilateral mastectomy in Tampa where 29 lymph nodes were removed and returned home to Tallahassee to begin radiation therapy treatments.
“I remember sitting with Dr. Russell at the Tallahassee Memorial Cancer Center going over my treatment options for radiation. I told her, I have enormous trust and confidence in her as my medical oncologist and that I would leave it to her to see who whom I should see as my radiation oncologist at TMH.”
Dr. Russell recommended Philip Sharp, MD, Radiation Oncologist at the Tallahassee Memorial Cancer Center.
“Dr. Sharp and I connected instantly too, as he answered my 100 questions during the initial consult. He would go through his routine physical with me to make sure I was doing well and then we would talk football or Harry Potter. It was great to have a bond with my radiation oncologist and at the same time, feel incredibly confident with the care he provided.”
Jenifer’s days became routine for the next month. Receiving radiation every day for 34 days, she would go to work and then end her afternoon at the Cancer Center with a team that had turned into family.
“Coming from a place like Moffitt which is a larger facility, it’s a relief to be at a place like TMH where it’s much more intimate. I had a relationship with every single person who worked there. Everyone knew my name and was so positive. It was really uplifting knowing that receiving treatment is the toughest part of the journey.”
About half way through her treatment on March 2, Jenifer celebrated a birthday. She knew just how she wanted to spend her special day.
“I was sitting in the radiation waiting room all dressed in my gown ready for treatment with this huge cake on my lap. The tech asked what the cake was for and I told her it was my birthday. My thinking was -- what better way to celebrate than have a piece of cake with my ‘rad buddies?’ Nurses, doctors and radiation techs all gathered around and we enjoyed the cake together. It was something I will never forget.”
Throughout her journey, Jenifer can reflect on the outstanding care she was provided at Tallahassee Memorial as well as the love and support of family and friends.
“My mantra throughout this entire journey was to have hope and believe in the process. For I knew God’s plan for me was hope and a bright future. My belief in Dr. Russell and Dr. Sharp at the Tallahassee Memorial Cancer Center was part of the process and I had confidence that I would be a breast cancer survivor.”
TMH is happy to report Jenifer is cancer free but will still be in the halls of the Cancer Center helping others with her new dog Hope, named after her treatment mantra, who she will have trained to become part of the Tallahassee Memorial Animal Therapy program.
For someone who had been biopsied and had benign lumps tested and removed regularly, Lisa Vince was shocked when she felt like this time it was completely different.
This time her lump was slightly larger than before, about the size of a marble, and came with consistent throbbing pain that burned. She immediately called her primary care physician. After a mammogram and ultrasound, Lisa was referred to Tim Ruark, MD, General Surgeon at Tallahassee Memorial HealthCare for a core biopsy.
It was June 2014 when everything changed. The results were in and Lisa was diagnosed with invasive ductal carcinoma, the most common type of breast cancer -- about 80% of all breast cancers are invasive ductal carcinomas.
“I received Dr.Ruark’s call late afternoon/early evening. I insisted he tell me then. My heart stopped for a moment, I couldn’t breathe. I froze, collected myself, thought about it and knew right then I was determined to fight this battle, stay strong for my family and friends and remain positive. Dr. Ruark was so thorough and I appreciated him taking his time to really explain everything to me.”
After reviewing her options for a potential lumpectomy -- surgery to remove the cancer or abnormal tissue from the breast -- or a double mastectomy -- where both breasts are removed -- and with her history of regular lumps in mind, Lisa decided to go with a double mastectomy.
On August 5, 2014, Lisa went in for her double mastectomy and to prepare for reconstruction, performed by Dr. Ruark and Alfredo Paredes, MD, Plastic Surgeon at Tallahassee Memorial HealthCare. The procedure started with tissue expanders, an empty breast implant that will be filled with saline over a period of time, this process slowly stretches your skin to allow for the implants.
“Dr. Paredes is a perfectionist. I felt so confident in his care and everything he did for me was absolutely perfect. I could not have asked for a more perfect surgical team. Prior to surgery I heard the general surgeons and plastic surgeons work well together and they really do. They make a great team.”
After her procedure, Lisa was referred by Dr. Ruark to the Tallahassee Memorial Cancer Center, where she met with Philip Sharp, MD, Radiation Oncologist.
“Dr. Sharp was spot on. He explained my results, told me what everything meant so I could understand. He is very personable and when I left my appointment with him I felt like we were old friends.”
It was determined during her first meeting with Dr. Sharp that she wouldn’t need radiation so he sent her upstairs at the Cancer Center to meet with her Medical Oncologist, Iman Imanirad, MD.
“Dr. Imanirad is truly amazing. He’s so knowledgeable and he knows I’m a visual learner so during my appointments he would pull my scans or results up on a screen and walk me through everything, step by step. I remember my first appointment I left feeling like he knew everything about me – it was apparent he had studied my case and didn’t miss a beat.”
Lisa continued with chemotherapy for 4 months and although she did experience common symptoms of feeling tired and lacking energy, she progressed well until one day when she arrived at work.
“I remember getting out of my car and struggling to walk from my car to the office. My first thought was the chemotherapy must have taken a toll on me, however when I started having trouble breathing, I called Dr. Imanirad. He contacted me back immediately and after hearing my condition he advised that I go straight to the ER. He wanted me to get a CT scan and have them check for potential blood clots in my lungs. Thank goodness I called him because he was right.”
Sure enough, Lisa had blood clots in her lungs. She was hospitalized for three days and put on a blood thinner for the next six months. This bump in the road put her surgical procedures on hold but Lisa continued on.
Once she was well, Lisa went in for the final surgical procedure with Dr. Paredes, where they would take out her expanders and put her implants in. Months later, she opted for Dr. Paredes to perform nipple construction and fat grafting to improve the natural appearance of her breasts.
“Never in my wildest dreams would I have ever thought I would be going through this. God gave me pretty cute breasts, cancer convinced me to remove them and Dr. Paredes replaced them with some pretty darn good looking ones.”
With breast cancer behind her, Lisa spends her time with the Joanna Francis Living Well Foundation and Chrome Divas Group. She looks forward taking time off to travel with her husband, George, and even looks back on her experience at the Tallahassee Memorial Cancer Center with only positive memories.
“After I was cleared by my doctors, I would find myself going back to the Cancer Center just to sit in their outdoor healing garden. It was just such a comforting environment that I felt withdrawals and it made me happy to get that sense of comfort back. It eased my mind to know that I was never alone.”
Life was good. At the age of 57, Laurie Black was a new grandmother and avid sports fan enjoying every bit of life. Between spending time with her new granddaughter and working for their family-owned business, Laurie was so busy she hadn’t realized she was overdue for her regular mammogram.
“I was six months late and even though I had yearly mammograms since I was in my forties, this time I was just so busy,” said Laurie.
With no pain, no change in shape or discoloration, Laurie wouldn’t have even thought about it but she described an “odd” feeling when she performed her routine self-breast checks.
This questionable concern is what led her to get her mammogram. Within days, she received a call from the radiologist. They wanted to give her an ultrasound-guided biopsy. The results turned her concern into reality — Laurie was diagnosed with HER2+ breast cancer.
“My whole world was rocked. It was the last thing I expected to hear. My husband, John, and I just sat quietly together and absorbed the information. Once things settled down, I started making phone calls to family and friends.”
Laurie was referred by her primary care physician to Robert Snyder, MD, General Surgeon at Tallahassee Memorial HealthCare. He discussed the possibility of doing a lumpectomy – or removal of the malignant tissue while conserving the mass and contours of the breast. Before he did anything, he wanted an MRI for a more precise view. Much to Laurie’s surprise, they found another mass, twice the size as the other. They decided together that Laurie would have a double mastectomy in addition to chemotherapy followed by radiation.
“Dr. Snyder is such a kind, warm- hearted person. He listened to everything I had to say, all of my concerns and respected everything I asked. My options were all outlined for me based on my results.”
It was a new day and although still somewhat apprehensive, Laurie faced her diagnosis head on. She pulled up to 1775 One Healing Place – it was a place Laurie had never seen before, one she dreaded to go. As she walked through the sliding glass doors, everything changed.
“I remember the first time I walked through the doors of the Tallahassee Memorial Cancer Center I was immediately welcomed. It wasn’t like walking into a doctor's office, I felt like I was at someone’s home. I could tell that everyone’s goal was to help me get through this and, just within days, they all knew my name. My initial fear faded and I started to feel much better.”
Laurie started her experience at the Cancer Center by meeting with Karen Russell, MD, FACP, Hematologist/Oncologist to review her customized plan of care.
“When I first met Dr. Russell, we sat and got to know each other while talking through my treatments. I shared I was a big football fan and also explained I wanted to learn about my care in the most simplest of terms. I was so impressed when she literally got a pen and paper out and drew my plan of care out into a play diagram. She explained my cancer in football terms and walked me through everything. I just felt like she understood me and I walked away knowing exactly what was going on.”
Neoadjuvant chemotherapy, a type of medicine administered before surgery, was provided through a port, or small implanted IV access site in Laurie’s chest. Her chemotherapy lasted for 10 hours at a time, given every three weeks for a period of four and a half months. Her body had a positive response to the medication and allowed her to progress with additional treatment. Laurie was then sent to Ovidiu Marina, MD, Radiation Oncologist, to begin her radiation treatment.
“My radiation was every day for 33 days. For someone who doesn’t like being still... this was the hardest part of my treatment. Dr. Marina encouraged me by sharing all the positive benefits that would come out of this, how it would help lower my chances of reoccurrences. He was such a warm, funny person and I respected how family oriented he was. Plus he had really great style! I just found him to be so relatable.”
Thrown a true curveball, Laurie reflects on the life lessons she learned along the way.
“My cancer journey looked daunting at first, but looking back on it, because of the support from my family and physicians, it was very doable. Throughout this experience I have learned that tomorrow isn’t promised and it’s important to live in the moment. I spend more time with my family and continue to be kind to everyone I meet. It’s so nice to know you can get the most advanced cancer care right here in Tallahassee through the Tallahassee Memorial Cancer Center. I want other people to know you do not have to leave home to seek treatment. We have the best care right here.”
Laurie will continue her cancer journey with breast reconstruction performed by Alfredo Paredes, MD, Plastic Surgeon at Tallahassee Memorial HealthCare. Once her reconstruction is complete, Laurie looks forward to living her life as fully as she can.
Abby Bender Kirkland
It was May 20. The night before her annual gynecological exam. 39 year old Abby Bender Kirkland knew Dr. Vikki McKinnie, OBGYN would ask if she had performed self-breast checks over the past year. Since she had completely forgot to do this, and so she wouldn’t have to lie, Abby went ahead and checked herself. Knowing she had her annual mammogram seven months prior and the results were normal, Abby wasn’t concerned. However, much to her surprise, she found a dime-size lump under her nipple in the right breast.
The next morning, Abby shared her discovery with Dr. McKinnie.
Taking Abby’s medical history into consideration, Dr. McKinnie reviewed all possibilities and causes for the lump. Knowing that Abby had a former endometrial ablation – a procedure that destroys the uterine lining to treat abnormal uterine bleeding – Dr. McKinnie knew it could be difficult to correlate breast tenderness and/or breast changes that can occur each month with a menstrual cycle, as these cycles aren’t regular after a treatment like this. For this exact reason, Abby had not experienced a menstrual cycle since her procedure.
Dr. McKinnie advised they closely monitor the lump over the next few weeks and if there was even the slightest change in size or if she experienced any pain, to be seen immediately.
After one month, the lump was still present and Abby started experiencing discomfort.
“I wasn’t sure if this was all in my head or not,” said Abby. “I contacted Dr. McKinnie’s office to schedule an appointment and also reached out to my primary care physician, Dr. Karl Hempel to be seen by his office as soon as possible.” Luckily ARNP-C Emily Karnik was available to see Abby immediately and did not give up on finding out what her condition was.
Abby was scheduled immediately and went into her primary care office for an appointment. She was then referred to TPCA to get a diagnostic mammogram and sonogram.
Within several days, the results were in and Abby was diagnosed with a clogged duct, which could be treated by antibiotics. She was also referred to Richard Zorn, MD, General Surgeon at Tallahassee Memorial HealthCare.
“My first impression was Dr. Zorn was so kind and made me feel very comfortable,” said Abby. “He examined me and stated he felt I had intraductal papilloma’s, a benign breast condition, and I could remove them for peace of mind.”
Surgery to remove the benign tumors was scheduled for early September 2014. During her surgery, Dr. Zorn discovered something that would change Abby’s life.
“Dr. Zorn told my husband he found suspicious areas in my breast and he decided to perform an emergency pathology evaluation. It was determined I had invasive ductal carcinoma.“
Invasive ductal carcinoma is a common form of breast cancer, which starts in the milk ducts and accounts for about 80% of breast cancers in women and 90% in men.
When Abby woke from her surgery, her husband shared what he had learned. She had breast cancer.
“That ride home was the most blurred memory. Having to go home and tell my daughters was by far the most difficult part of this process. We called family and friends and explained the diagnosis. Many were in shock to say the least.”
The following day, Abby received a call from Dr. Zorn with his recommendation for a single or double mastectomy.
“Because I am a worrier by nature, we decided on a double mastectomy,” said Abby. “Dr. Zorn explained we could decide which plastic surgeon we want and to just let him know. There was a sense of comfort for me having Dr. Zorn call me each time personally. That first week after diagnosis was so stressful waiting for answers as in stage, cancer type etc. Each piece of news my husband and I received, we researched and became experts. We rejoiced when we were told my situation and stage was the most curable of breast cancers.”
In addition to her double mastectomy, Abby had decided to move forward with reconstruction. The physician she collectively decided on with Dr. Zorn was plastic surgeon, Ben J. Kirbo, MD.
“My husband and I went and met with Dr. Kirbo, who was highly recommended by other physicians and by friends of mine. We reviewed all of my options for reconstruction and decided the best option was to do it at the time of the mastectomy.”
Once scheduled for surgery, Abby was also referred to receive chemotherapy and radiation treatments at the Tallahassee Memorial Cancer Center.
“Knowing you are walking into a Cancer Center to receive chemotherapy is about intense as it gets emotionally. I remember feeling like this can’t be real, and can’t really be happening to me. Immediately when you walk in, you’re greeted by many smiling faces, which reminds you that you are human. Dr. Imanirad had the same smile, and along with his willingness to hear us out and take his time with us, we knew we had made the right selection for my oncologist.”
Dr. Iman Imanirad, hematologist/oncologist at the Tallahassee Memorial Cancer Center met with Abby to review her plan of care. After reviewing her results, he shared that she had a highly treatable form of breast cancer and her care should be fairly quick.
Like any new patient at the Cancer Center, Abby was also introduced to her patient navigator, Dreama Taylor. Patient navigators are a complimentary support service provided to all patients at the facility. They provide each patient with a trusted confidante from pre-diagnosis all the way to returning to a normal life after cancer.
“I remember my first chemotherapy session,” said Abby. “I was so nervous but Dreama showed me the infusion room where I would receive treatment and explained exactly what I could expect. I was put at ease.”
After just one month of chemotherapy, Abby was sent downstairs at the Cancer Center to receive radiation treatment with Raj Bendre, MD, Medical Director, Physician Partners - Radiation Oncology Specialists.
“Nurse Yolanda was the first to get me from the waiting room to meet with Dr. Bendre. Following with the rest of the staff at the Cancer Center, she was so delightful and made me feel at ease. When Dr. Bendre entered the room he seemed to know my entire medical records. We discussed the best options for me and he seemed to know every case study regarding my type of cancer. Knowing Dr. Bendre and Dr. Imanirad were my oncology team made me feel much more secure. I was then taken to the radiation room to meet the technicians who would be working with me daily for the next 7 weeks. I instantly felt a connection to all three of them and knew I was in good hands.”
As of January 2015, Abby was declared cancer free. Having returned to full health, giving back became her mission. With much involvement in the community, she wants to remind everyone about the importance of self examinations and regular doctor appointments.
“My attitude in life has surely shifted to being more accepting of what God’s plan is for me. This very crazy journey was filled with every emotion possible. Seeing the love I received from so many people made me truly understand my meaning to others. Today I work hard to give back to those who need to feel that same love during such a difficult time.”
It was Thanksgiving Day in 2012 when David Paul started feeling ill. His sinuses started to take over and he noticed a lump on the side of his neck. He decided to stay home and skip out on feasting and festivities.
When his condition continued to progress, David wasted no time and went to the local urgent care center to determine the problem.
After examination, the physician diagnosed him with a severe sinus infection. He instructed David to take medication and monitor it for the next week. If symptoms continued or worsened, he needed to follow up with his primary care physician.
After a few days, David began to feel worse and immediately followed up with his doctor. At his appointment, David’s physician showed concern and referred him to Spencer Gilleon, MD, Otolaryngologist also known as an ear, nose and throat (ENT) specialist. “I remember the day Mr. Paul walked in. His demeanor was cheerful, as it always is, but I could tell he was concerned,” recalled Dr. Gilleon. “After an exam and biopsy, we were able to identify the source.”
David was diagnosed with Squamous Cell Carcinoma and sent to the Tallahassee Memorial Cancer Center for immediate treatment.
“I will never forget the feeling I experienced when I walked into the Center. At first, I was devastated to be there. However almost instantaneously, I was provided with an incredible amount of hope,” said David. “The employees, nurses and physicians were always smiling and making me feel better. It was then that I learned how important it is to stay positive.”
David received a customized treatment plan of chemotherapy and radiation to aggressively attack his cancer led by Amit Jain, MD, Hematologist/Oncologist and Ovidiu Marina, MD, Radiation Oncologist and supported by the experienced team at the Cancer Center.
“Dr. Jain was the first physician I met with at the Cancer Center. He was absolutely terrific and so thoughtful, which helped set my expectations,” said David. “When I met Dr. Marina for additional treatment, I was comforted by how knowledgeable he is.”
Dr. Jain, a board-certified hematologist/oncologist with Physician Partners - Cancer & Hematology Specialists, oversaw David’s chemotherapy treatment. While Dr. Marina, a board-certified radiation oncologist with Physician Partners - Radiation Oncology Specialists completed David’s radiation treatments.
“During an appointment with Dr. Marina, I remember sharing new symptoms with him. Nothing that in my opinion was too out of the ordinary, but I wanted to make him aware,” explained David. “Instead of overlooking it, he insisted I get checked out and went above and beyond to make certain I was in good health. I could tell he truly cares about his patients.”
It was June 2013 when David received the news. He was cancer free.
Early on Christmas day in 2013, with no previous symptoms, Jody Spencer noticed an odd feeling in the back of his throat. After performing a self-exam, he noticed there was a mass on his right tonsil. The next day, Jody visited his primary care physician and was referred to get a tonsillectomy. Within a week of surgery his results came back and confirmed he had Diffuse B Cell Lymphoma.
Jody was then referred to Amit Jain, MD, Hematologist/Oncologist, at the Tallahassee Memorial Cancer Center. Thanks to six cycles of chemotherapy outlined and provided by Dr. Jain, Jody Spencer is now cancer free.
“Dr. Jain and the cancer center’s support staff did a wonderful job minimizing my anxiety and fear, while also reinforcing the hope of a positive outcome. Everyone did their best to accommodate my needs and make the challenge of chemotherapy winnable. With their help and the support from my wife, family and our community, I am excited to say that I'm now free of cancer," said Jody.
Looking forward to his bright future, Jody plans to continue working at his veterinary practice, spending time with his wife, two daughters and grandchild.
In his spare time he enjoys biking, kayaking, traveling, playing the violin for his church and fiddle in a bluegrass band.
Sterling Smith was active his entire life. Years ago, he was at Tom Brown Park with friends enjoying a game of racquetball when in the heat of their competition, he ran into the wall, causing a direct impact to his hip. He immediately felt pain, but kept playing thinking it was just the initial shock and would eventually dissipate.
Days later, the pain continued and he felt extremely sore and his wife insisted he go to their primary care doctor. After examination, a mass was found and he was referred to the Tallahassee Memorial Cancer Center, where he received radiation treatment from Philip Sharp, MD, Radiation Oncologist.
Sterling was healed until a turn of events years later when he felt significant pain in his right shoulder while lifting weights. He decided to take a break from exercising to help heal his arm but surprisingly, the pain persisted.
After eventually finding blood in his stool, Sterling visited his primary care doctor again to resolve his shoulder pain and discovered that he had another mass, this time in his shoulder, which led to the diagnosis of Multiple Myeloma.
Tim Broeseker, MD, Hematologist/Oncologist at Tallahasse Memorial Cancer Center, provided Sterling with induction chemotherapy that put his Multiple Myeloma into enough of a remission to allow for a stem cell transplant, which later took place at UF Health.
Although the cancer is still present, it is now being managed. Sterling gets bi-weekly shots and quarterly chemotherapy and visits Dr. Sharp and Dr. Broeseker consistently at the Cancer Center, while also going to Shands twice a year.
“It has been a blessing for me to have both Dr. Sharp and Dr. Broeseker as my physicians. They make me feel very comfortable and relaxed. The Tallahassee Memorial team always brings joy to my heart and puts a smile on my face,” said Sterling.
With the help of the team at Tallahassee Memorial, Sterling is back to enjoying the things he loves like carpentry, fishing, spending time with his family and their dog, Sean Lee.
With no history of health problems, Elizabeth Lawless was completely blindsided when she began to experience severe back pain that made it unbearable to walk. After a few weeks, Elizabeth developed another symptom when she became unable to lift her arm. Sensing a concern, she made an appointment with her primary care physician. She was advised that something was causing pressure on her spine and an MRI would be needed to confirm exactly what was going on.
The pain continued and was accompanied by heavy bleeding and large bruises all over her body.
After examination by Elizabeth’s primary care doctor, she was sent to the Tallahassee Memorial Emergency Center-Northeast for further evaluation. It is here that they discovered Elizabeth’s platelets were dangerously low. She was immediately transferred to Tallahassee Memorial Hospital where Tim Broeseker, MD, Hematologist/Oncologist, ordered a bone marrow biopsy and confirmed that Elizabeth had acute promyelocytic leukemia. She was transferred to UF Health for 36 days of treatment and testing.
Now, free of cancer, Elizabeth is happy to get back to normal life, which includes spending time with her husband, their two young daughters, doing arts and crafts and visiting their lake house.
With no warning signs, 28 year-old Jessica Jopling started experiencing consistent fevers above 103 degrees that would begin every afternoon and go away in the morning. In addition to her fevers, Jessica would wake up in the middle of the night soaking wet with sweat. She originally thought this may have been because her fever was breaking, however, when this happened night after night, Jessica decided to visit her primary care physician.
During her first visit, Jessica’s doctor ran blood work and initially reported that everything looked normal and it appeared to be a virus. With a prescription for antibiotics, she was told to come back in 7-10 days if her symptoms didn’t get better.
When this continued over the next week, Jessica’s husband decided she needed to go back to the doctor. At her follow up appointment, it was revealed through an X-ray that she had a large mass in her chest. After going for an immediate CT scan, Jessica was sent to the Bixler Trauma & Emergency Center at Tallahassee Memorial, where doctors provided a thorough explanation of what was happening to her and that all signs pointed towards cancer. Jessica was then sent to the Tallahassee Memorial Cancer Center where it was confirmed she had Hodgkin’s Lymphoma.
After additional testing at the Cancer Center, Iman Imanirad, MD, Hematologist/Oncologist, provided close guidance throughout the long process of successful chemotherapy and radiation.
"To put it simply, Dr. Imanirad and the entire staff at Tallahassee Memorial Cancer Center saved my life," said Jessica. "They were kind, patient, informative, and put me and my entire family at ease as we went through a time in our lives that no one should ever have to go through. I will be forever thankful to this wonderful group of caregivers."
Now cancer free, Jessica and her husband decided to celebrate with a second honeymoon cruise to Haiti. Jessica continues to live her life to the fullest and enjoys spending time with family and having the opportunity to work for her alma mater, Florida State University, at a job she loves.
For 10 years prior to her diagnosis, Ines Orozco had annual mammograms due to multiple cysts in her breasts. With normal results, that all changed in June of 2012. A few weeks prior, Ines felt a lump in her left breast that was not quite the same as what she had previously experienced. This lump was hard and somewhat painful. She mentioned this to her OB/GYN who immediately sent her for a mammogram and biopsy. The result was positive, there was a small tumor that showed cancerous cells. Her doctor recommended she get a lumpectomy and referred her to an oncologist and a surgeon. She then began working with the Tallahassee Memorial Cancer Center and Amit Jain, MD, Hematologist/Oncologist, and Tim Ruark, MD, Surgeon at Tallahassee Memorial Hospital.
Dr. Jain sent her for an MRI and other testing where she was diagnosed with Invasive Ductal Carcinoma (IDC). These tests also showed several other tumors growing on her left breast. Because of the number of tumors, Dr. Ruark recommended a mastectomy. In July 2012, she had a mastectomy with a node biopsy and it was determined that the cancer was localized and had not spread.
After the biopsy results came back, Dr. Jain shared with Ines that her cancer was in fact HER2 positive, one of the most aggressive breast cancers today. He suggested that she receive an intensive six-cycle chemotherapy treatment, along with weekly Herceptin. In addition, she went through six weeks of radiation treatment.
She did well through the chemotherapy treatments, however the radiation caused several nodules that appeared on her lungs. Dr. Jain immediately sent her to Forrest R. Dolly, MD, Pulmonologist who was able to treat and heal the nodules.
Ines is now a survivor. She has found her freedom again and spends her time listening to music, taking walks with her husband, spending time with her grandchildren and going to church.
In June of 2001, while in law school and studying for the bar exam, Eric Trombley began to experience severe stomach pain that caused question for concern. To confirm the exact cause of his symptoms, he decided to make an appointment to visit a local clinic.
Just one week after his appointment, Eric received news that changed his life forever – it was confirmed he had Chronic Myelogenous Leukemia.
Prior to his diagnosis, Eric was accepted into the military and eventually had to put his plans on hold and make a change to focus on his health.
Eric was referred to the Tallahassee Memorial Cancer Center where he was a patient of Tim Broeseker, MD, Hematologist/Oncologist. Dr. Broseker worked with Eric to review treatment options that would be best for his situation.
“Dr. Broeseker and the entire Tallahassee Memorial Cancer Center team are like family to me,” said Eric. “Each time I visited, they would put me at ease and sit me down to ask how life was. They truly cared about how I was doing.”
Now in remission, although Eric receives regular treatments to fight his disease, he enjoys participating in Triathlons and living life to the fullest.
“After you go through an experience like this, you see the world in a completely different way,” said Eric. “Now when I walk by a flower, I actually notice it and want to smell it. When I was healthy I took the little things in life for granted.”
For much of the time that Sydrena Osborne has been a mom, she had also been engrossed in a fight against breast cancer, and young daughter Sydney was been by her side through it all.
“She was in preschool when my battle with cancer began, and I decided I couldn’t hide it from her. She was there when I was diagnosed and when I opened my eyes after having a double mastectomy,” said Sydrena.
While many might shy away from talking about cancer, for Sydrena, being open about her condition was crucial, especially in relation to Sydney.
“She knows everything about my treatment; she saw the scars, tubes and reconstruction. I think it’s so important to be open, because she understood what I was experiencing and why I was limited,” Sydrena says.
Initially, the journey to remission led Sydrena through not only a double mastectomy at Tallahassee Memorial, but also chemotherapy. When the cancer returned a year-and-a-half later, Sydrena underwent aggressive radiation treatment at the Tallahassee Memorial Cancer Center.
“The second time I was diagnosed, I was more afraid,” she says, “but the way the physicians at the Cancer Center worked together made me feel like everyone knew me and my specific situation. Now I feel 100 percent better and trust that the right decisions were made about my treatment.”
Today, Sydrena is cancer free and while she will continue to manage her risk of breast cancer with a lifelong medication regimen, cancer no longer keeps her from doing what matters most in her life, spending time with her daughter.
The fight against breast cancer has long been a passionate subject for survivor Claire Harrison and her family.
“My mom had breast cancer in 1973, I battled cancer for the first time in 2002, and my sister-in-law, Sharon Ewing Walker, died of cancer in 2005,” Claire explains.
With the loss of Sharon, Claire’s family was determined to invest in local cancer care by helping to establish the Sharon Ewing Walker Breast Health Center. Since that time, they have continued to actively support the area’s cancer services. Claire’s brother, Claude Walker, serves on the Tallahassee Memorial Foundation Board and the Tallahassee Memorial Cancer Center Fund-raising steering Committee, and their mother, Maye Walker, leads the volunteer group that cares for the center’s outdoor Healing Garden. Last year, their efforts proved to be a source of support not only to the community, but also for one of their own.
After 10 years of being cancer free, Claire had a routine mammogram that revealed some suspicious calcifications. Debilitated by a severe ankle injury at the time, she was unable to have a diagnostic mammotome for several months. When the test was performed, she found she was battling cancer again and would need a full mastectomy, chemotherapy, and long-term treatment with medication.
Claire was referred to Tim Broeseker, MD, Hematologist/Oncologist, and began chemotherapy treatments in Tallahassee Memorial’s main hospital building where she had received radiation therapy throughout her first battle with cancer. In mid-July 2012, services expanded at the Tallahassee Memorial Cancer Center, allowing Claire to receive all of her remaining treatments in the new space.
“The Cancer Center is cheerful and offers more privacy during treatments, which puts you in a better state of mind. My physician and everyone else I have come into contact with at the Cancer Center have been absolutely fantastic,” she says.
After a total of 18 months spent healing from her ankle injury and undergoing extensive cancer treatment, Claire was eager to get back to one of her favorite pastimes -- horseback riding. “It feels like a million bucks to be horseback riding again,” she says.
Having returned to her hobbies and full health, Claire has also inspired another generation in her family to rally in the fight against breast cancer.
“When you go through something like this, it really pulls your family together. My family was great and that really is the silver lining,” says Claire.
A wife and mother, Dawn Brown had lived a healthy life until everything changed in 2011. Dawn discovered a painful lump in her breast and intuition told her to get multiple tests done. Once her results came in, it was confirmed, Dawn had breast cancer.
“Once I was diagnosed, I remember looking at my three year old daughter and thinking, this just isn’t an option. From then on out I considered it a job and my main goal was to beat cancer,” said Dawn.
After being referred to Tallahassee Memorial HealthCare, where she saw Tim Broeseker, MD, Hematologist/Oncologist and Robert Snyder, MD, General Surgery, Dawn was provided with treatment options for her condition. Following diagnosis, Dawn had a double mastectomy and completed six months of chemotherapy, four months of radiation followed by breast reconstruction.
“Dr. Broeseker and his nurses were phenomenal,” said Dawn. “Not only did he take great care of me, but he would also check in to see how my family was and anytime I needed something, he was immediately on it.”
Celebrating life now that she is cancer free, Dawn enjoys volunteering, spending time with family and being a mom. With a love of fashion, she also takes part in fundraising fashion shows and events with the Joanna Francis Living Well Foundation that allow her to help other cancer survivors.
When asked about her experience, Dawn said, “The positive thing that has come from this is it has made me be a much more effective person. I give everything I have to be a great mom.”
In April 2010, Gail McDonald had a routine mammogram and to her surprise, the results required additional testing. Once testing was complete, her suspicions were true; Gail was diagnosed with breast cancer.
Gail was referred to Tallahassee Memorial, where she received treatment from Philip Sharp, MD, Radiation Oncologist.
“Dr. Sharp and the entire cancer team were not only kind and supportive, but they were equally understanding,” said Gail. “No matter what the circumstance and in the toughest of times, Dr. Sharp always found a way to make me smile. I have nothing but positive things to say about Tallahassee Memorial.”
In addition to her medical team, Gail remained strong thanks to her family, husband, Neil, brother, Larry and her colleagues at Allegro Senior Living.
“During my treatment at Tallahassee Memorial, I felt that I was not alone,” said Gail. “The physicians provide continuous education and support for their patients. They even give you a booklet full of resources and helpful information to reference when you’re not at the cancer center.”
With the diagnosis behind her, Gail is overjoyed to regain her freedom once again. She is getting back to the things that she loves most, like cruising the back roads on her motorcycle with her husband and cheering for her favorite football team, the Miami Dolphins.
“This experience has taught me to seize the moment,” said Gail. “I have started a bucket list of things I would like to do and I'm looking forward to my bright future.”
Elementary school teacher, Kelli Dillon, had trained and completed the November 2013 Iron Man Triathlon just three months before her annual mammogram, where it was discovered she had breast cancer.
“When they found my lump, I was sent for a biopsy and MRI that same week,” said Kelli. “As I waited for the results, I mentally prepared myself for the diagnosis.”
Almost immediately, Kelli was sent to the Tallahassee Memorial Cancer Center, where she received treatment from Iman Imanirad, MD, Hematologist/Oncologist.
“I can’t say enough positive things about Dr. Imanirad and the entire Cancer Center team. He provided me with options, while also being flexible with my treatment schedule, which allowed me to continue with my life as usual,” said Kelli. “I was extremely confident in my care.”
Before, during and after her experience, Kelli had an incredible support system through Tallahassee Memorial and additionally, in her personal life. Family members, friends, her “Can’t Stop Wont Stop” running group, the Gulf Winds Triclub community and her school, DeSoto Trail Elementary were all by her side.
“The entire school was there for me,” said Kelli. “My principal, Michele Keltner was such an incredible support system. I will never forget the day I shared the news, she personally called me that night to offer her help and assistance. Michele gave me strength and took such great care of me when I needed it the most.”
Now cancer free, Kelli continues to teach, spend time with her husband, Bill, their daughter, grandchildren and dogs, while continuing to stay healthy and train for future triathlons.
“I have a second chance at life,” said Kelli. “ I want others to know how important it is to go to your doctor and most importantly, that a strong support system is everything.”