Tag Archives: #ItsOurFightToo

Cancer Gets Personal When Doctor Becomes the Patient

In her 22 years as an emergency medicine physician in Lexington Medical Center’s Emergency department, Debbie Simpson, MD, has seen it all.

“I’ve seen a lot of people go through a lot of things. It makes you appreciate the priorities in life,” she said.

As part of her job, Dr. Simpson refers patients who need follow-up care to other doctors after they leave the ER. That’s how she first crossed paths with Steve Madden, MD, oncologist with Lexington Oncologydr-madden-and-deborah-simpson, a Lexington Medical Center physician practice.

“Debbie would call me about admitting cancer patients to the hospital from the ER,” Dr. Madden said.

While Dr. Madden has become accustomed to Dr. Simpson’s referrals over the years, there was no way he could have imagined that this healthy, energetic woman would be calling his office on behalf of herself.

That’s because Dr. Simpson was diagnosed with breast cancer after a routine mammogram. The woman who was used to giving life-saving care to patients for more than two decades in the ER was now the one who needed help.

“I didn’t wear my hospital badge when I visited the doctor, or waited for this test or that test,” Dr. Simpson said. Instead, she simply tried to be a patient. “It made me appreciate everything all of our patients go through when we send them for tests.”

Scans and biopsies revealed that Dr. Simpson had two tumors, but her health problems didn’t stop there. Dr. Madden did additional testing to make sure they had a full picture of what was going on inside Dr. Simpson’s body. That’s when he discovered that she also had renal cancer.

Over the next year, Dr. Simpson underwent multiple surgeries including a lumpectomy, a hysterectomy and kidney removal. After all of that, Dr. Simpson endured chemotherapy and radiation.

“She never complained,” Dr. Madden said. “It’s her faith, really. She is solid.”

It wasn’t always easy, but Simpson finished her last radiation treatment over a year ago. Her hair returned after she lost it during chemotherapy, and her long-term prognosis is good. In true Dr. Simpson form, she prefers to focus on the positive side.

“Being a mother makes me a better doctor,” she said. “Life experiences make me a better doctor. My husband died of a heart attack at 42; that was almost 11 years ago. I feel like these things shape you, then you can relate to what your patients and their families are feeling,” Dr. Simpson said.

Ideally, Dr. Madden would like to see all of his patients get to spend more time with their families. He’d like parents to see their sons or daughters get married or their children graduate from college.

“You don’t treat the disease; you treat the whole person,” Dr. Madden said.

In this age of computers and technology, he has made it his mission to keep the personal part of medicine front and center.

“That’s a blessing I get from the patient. It’s a two-way street. They appreciate us helping and all of that, but everyday, someone says something that lifts me,” Dr. Madden said. “We are definitely in this fight together.”


Blythewood Woman Values 3-D Mammography

In October 2006, Constella Zimmerman’s life turned upside down when she was diagnosed with breast cancer after her doctor discovered a lump during a checkup. Living in New Jersey at the time, Constella was preparing to return to her home state of South Carolina for a new job opportunity. She endured chemotherapy and radiation in New Jersey and South Carolina.

Constella says she never lost sight that her faith would see her through her cancer treatments. “The first thing I did was have my son shave my head,” she said. “While I had to come to terms with what I was facing, I realized that other people have survived and I had to have faith that I would survive, too.”

Constella Zimmerman photographed at Doko Manor in Blythewood

Constella Zimmerman photographed at Doko Manor in Blythewood

Now, as a 10-year survivor, Constella is adamant about keeping up with her annual checkups. She’s a patient at the Northeast Columbia office of Sandhills Women’s Care, a Lexington Medical Center physician practice, where she had her first 3-D mammogram.

Sandhills Women’s Care offers 3-D mammography, also known as ‘tomosynthesis.’ This breast cancer screening tool creates a group of three-dimensional pictures of the breast and allows doctors to view tissue one millimeter at a time, making tiny details visible earlier and easier.

Jennifer Linfert, MD, FACOG, an OB/GYN at Sandhills Women’s Care, stresses that early detection is key in treating breast cancer successfully.

Jennifer Linfert, MD, FACOG

Jennifer Linfert, MD, FACOG

“Patients will find that 3-D mammography is no different from the mammogram they are accustomed to as far as compression, positioning and time,” she said. “The benefit to patients is that the multiple layers of images resulting from 3-D mammography can help doctors better evaluate the breast tissue.”

3-D mammography uses a low dose X-ray to create multiple images within seconds that are similar to the “slices” of images in a CT scan. The FDA-approved procedure uses the same type of equipment as a 2-D mammogram and a similar dose of radiation. Studies have shown that 3-D mammography also reduces false positives and unnecessary callbacks for patients with dense breast tissue.

Constella, who holds a PhD and is a professor at Webster University, understands the need for patients to be well educated and informed about their health care.

“My doctors made sure that I had plenty of detail about why 3-D mammography was a preferred method of screening for me,” she said. “And the fact that they could get results to you quickly is so important. You’re always thinking ‘what if.’ That’s the reality of it.”

Patients who have mammograms performed through Lexington Medical Center receive results in less than five days.

Constella is a true believer in encouraging every woman she knows to have her annual mammogram. “I skipped my mammogram one year; and as it turns out, that one year I skipped was the year it mattered,” she said. “If I hadn’t skipped, we would have caught it much sooner.”

Her advice to every woman is to mark that date on the calendar and never, ever miss that appointment.

Thinking Positive Beats Cancer

Henry Vehorn may be one of the most positive people on the planet.

“It became a joy to go to chemotherapy,” the 73-year-old Lexington County man said. “I never felt like it was a bad situation.”

Henry’s journey with cancer began in 2013. He was laying sod during a sweltering South Carolina summer. So he didn’t think much of it when his wife said she thought he was losing a lot of weight. When his weight loss continued after the landscaping project ended, Henry decided it was time to see a doctor.

“I went 70 years without as much as a headache,” Henry said.

Lexington Medical Center doctors diagnosed Henry with aggressive stomach cancer. Within weeks, he underwent surgery to remove the tumor and part of his stomach. His chemotherapy and radiation treatments started the day after Christmas.

Henry Vehorn and Dr. Quillin Davis at Lexington Radiation Oncology

Henry Vehorn and Dr. Quillin Davis at Lexington Radiation Oncology

That’s when he met Quillin Davis, MD, a radiation oncologist and medical director of cancer services at Lexington Medical Cancer Center.

“The radiation and chemotherapy for stomach cancer is tough,” Dr. Davis said. “But Henry just couldn’t have been any nicer or more grateful throughout his treatment.”

Henry’s health troubles continued. Months after his initial diagnosis, a scan revealed the stomach cancer had spread to Henry’s liver. He underwent a second round of chemotherapy and radiation.

This time, Dr. Davis blasted the lesion in Henry’s liver using stereotactic radiosurgery inside Lexington Radiation Oncology, a Lexington Medical Center physician practice. The procedure uses high doses of radiation with pinpoint precision to destroy a tumor without damaging tissue around it.

Henry’s liver responded; the lesion disappeared.

”Henry is a walking miracle!” Dr. Davis said. “At this point, he’s a long-term survivor of stage IV gastric cancer which is exceedingly, exceedingly rare.”

Henry has been such a memorable patient that Dr. Davis keeps a framed picture of the two of them together.

“The picture means more to me than any of my diplomas, certificates or awards,” Dr. Davis said. “It’s on my bookshelf in my house — the picture of me and Henry.”

Henry believes Dr. Davis served up gold-star treatment.

“I know he was always looking out for me behind the scenes,” Henry said. “He feels like family.”

Dr. Davis says his team is acutely aware that they are helping patients in what can be the most difficult fight of their lives.

“We are all there with them. We have an emotional connection with our patients,” Dr. Davis said. “We are all there backing them up and doing our best. We really do feel that cancer is our fight, too,” Dr. Davis said.

With new technology, focused treatment and a better understanding of cancer in general, Dr. Davis says more people are surviving cancer than ever before.

“My hope is that every single person we see is someone who is going to beat the odds.”

Just like Henry has.