Phoebe T. Ward, Jr., keeps her own opinion on statistics. “It’s a bell curve and I’m on the side of the bell curve that succeeds and survives,” she says. “That’s my choice. That’s where I place myself in the picture every time.” Diagnosed with lung cancer last September, she learned that the cancer spread to her brain in January. And yet, she considers herself lucky.
Ms. Ward retired from her 30-year career as an audio engineer with ABC on September 1, 2013. “Back when I started, I was told that women don’t do that kind of work,” she says. But she persisted.
That perseverance continues to serve her well. In early September, she insisted on getting a chest x-ray for a cough that wouldn’t go away, even after two doctors told her it was merely lingering bronchitis. But she knew something was wrong. “Listen to your body,” Ms. Ward says. “I really encourage people to reach out. If they don’t agree, ask somebody else for help.” A chest x-ray on September 13th revealed a mass in her lungs, which was biopsied on the 19th. Ms. Ward turned 65 on September 20, 2013 and received her lung cancer diagnosis a few days later.
Facing cancer, Ms. Ward began to consider her treatment. She was willing to leave the state if necessary. But she didn’t have to. She explains, “A friend of mine who had been here at UNM for breast cancer sent me an article about Dr. Edelman having arrived in the last few months. And I said, that’s my ticket!”
Martin Edelman, MD, FACP, is a medical oncologist and a world-renowned lung cancer expert. To design the best treatment approach for Ms. Ward, he worked closely with radiation oncologist Thomas Schroeder, MD. But in January, surgical oncologist Jess Schwartz, MD, FACS, FCCP, told her that the cancer had metastasized to her brain, rendering her lung cancer inoperable. “Dr. Schwartz was so beautifully compassionate,” Ms. Ward recalls. “It was not what I anticipated and I was terribly grateful.”
Facing a cancerous brain tumor, the team pulled in neurologist Erich Marchand, MD. Then they approached Ms. Ward about the stereotactic radiosurgery (SRS) procedure. Because she would be the first one at UNM Cancer Center to undergo the treatment, several people would be paying very close attention to the procedure to check, double-check and cross-check every aspect. She agreed without any hesitation.
Ms. Ward, her sister Honey, and sister-in-law Sandy Davis arrived at the UNM Cancer Center at 7:00 a.m. for the SRS procedure. Dr. Marchand started by applying the metal head frame — which Ms. Ward jokingly refers to as her “Hannibal Lecter mask” — directly to her skull. By pinning it directly into her skull, Dr. Marchand ensured that it wouldn’t move during the procedure. As Dr. Schroeder explains, “There is no room for error.”
With the head frame in place, Ms. Ward got an MRI and a CAT scan to pinpoint exactly where the tumor was, how big it was, and what its shape was in three dimensions. The medical physics team used these scans to develop the radiation plan. Then they double-checked the plan with Drs. Schroeder and Marchand. In SRS, Ms. Ward would receive a single high radiation dose to her brain, given in several “arcs” or sweeps that concentrated on the tumor. Radiation therapy to other parts of the body is usually given in a series of lower radiation treatments over several days or weeks. So, the medical physics team had to be sure their plans and calculations were correct and would not injure the delicate brain tissue surrounding the tumor.
While the team worked on the plan, Ms. Ward waited for several hours with the frame on her head. She says, “There’s pain; it’s discomfort. It’s not excruciating.” The medical team gave her just enough medication to keep any headaches at bay. Her family and some friends stayed with her as she relaxed, waiting.
For the procedure, the medical physics team secured Ms. Ward’s head frame — and her skull with it — to the radiation table on which she lay. The frame formed a box around her head that gave the medical physics team important reference points with which to make their detailed calculations. The team used those reference points now to check that Ms. Ward was exactly in position. The treatment is so precise that even the slightest movement or misalignment would throw off the painstaking calculations. The entire radiation table swings in an arc, allowing a smaller radiation dose to go through healthy tissue and the largest dose to be concentrated on the tumor cells. The medical team had spent hours calculating the arcs and dosage and testing all the equipment. The procedure itself took only 30 minutes.
About an hour after Dr. Marchand removed the pins and the head frame, the team discharged Ms. Ward with some instructions to help the pin holes heal. Then, Ms. Ward and her family went to dinner. “She was all right,” says Honey Ward. “The pain medication was just enough.”
From the beginning of her cancer journey, Ms. Ward shared her story on Facebook. “I’ve had the most amazing outpouring of love and support from friends and family,” she says. “Everyone has been so grateful in feeling that they’re involved, that they’re up to date in what’s happening.” But most satisfying is feeling that she’s given others the courage to address their health issues. Several of her Facebook friends have contacted her since September to say they are now addressing medical issues they had put off.
Ms. Ward is also very grateful for her medical experience. “I got wonderful treatment here,” she says. “The ladies out front — they knew my name the second time I came here! And as busy as this place is, you never feel like you’re an imposition.” In addition to appreciating how Dr. Schwartz handled telling her bad news, she says she and her family were impressed with how responsive Dr. Edelman and Dr. Schroeder were whenever they needed advice, help or guidance. “And Dr. Marchand wanted to meet us in advance just to make that connection,” she says. “That was important to all of us.”
The only time Ms. Ward’s piercing blue eyes fill with tears is when she talks about the impact her cancer diagnosis has had on her family. Ms. Ward moved in with her sister and sister-in-law shortly before starting treatment. They live in Santa Fe and, along with many of Ms. Ward’s friends, bring her to each of her appointments, dutifully taking notes to keep track of all the information. “It’s tough on the family,” Ms. Ward says. “But she [Honey Ward] has been there for me in such remarkable ways, as has my sister-in-law. If I could choose differently, I would.”
To cope with her experience Ms. Ward learned how to meditate. Meditation has had the added benefit of enabling her to focus on the things she does have in her life. She says, “I feel that this is a journey that is not what one would want, but it is such a learning opportunity about oneself and about taking control of your life and being present.”
At her latest visit, Ms. Ward found out that her lung cancer looks sterile, meaning that the cells appear to be dead. She won’t learn the status of her brain tumor for another month. She continues to focus on staying hydrated (“Hydration is critical!” she says) and staying connected through Facebook. And, she’s planning some travel to Europe to visit some friends she hasn’t seen in a while.
“It didn’t have to be cancer,” Ms. Ward jokes. “There could be a bus with my name on it, so I have to make every moment count.” Honey Ward agrees and reflects, “The worst case is, she’ll go to places and see and do things and still be around for a really long time to tell stories about it. And that’s not bad at all.”
About Ms. Ward’s Team at the UNM Cancer Center
Ms. Ward’s multidisciplinary medical team included:
Martin Edelman, MD, FACP, Professor of Medicine, Department of Internal Medicine, Division of Hematology/Oncology; The Victor and Ruby Hansen Surface Endowed Chair in Clinical Research; Associate Director for Clinical Research.
Thomas Schroeder, MD, Assistant Professor, Department of Internal Medicine, Division of Hematology and Oncology; Medical Director, Radiation Oncology.
Ben Liem, MD, Assistant Professor, Department of Internal Medicine, Division of Hematology and Oncology.
Jess Schwartz, MD, FACS, FCCP, Associate Professor, Department of Surgery, Division of Thoracic & Cardiovascular Surgery.
Erich Marchand, MD, Associate Professor, Department of Neurosurgery.
Assisting the Radiation Oncology medical team were:
Donna Siergiej, PhD, Director of Medical Physics
Eder Calderon, MS, DABR, Medical Physicist
Rosalinda Schanbarger, RN, OCN
Misty McClung, RTT, Radiation Therapist
About the UNM Cancer Center
The UNM Cancer Center is the Official Cancer Center of New Mexico and the only National Cancer Institute-designated Cancer Center in the state. One of just 68 premier NCI-Designated Cancer Centers nationwide, the UNM Cancer Center is recognized for its scientific excellence, contributions to cancer research, the delivery of high quality, state of the art cancer diagnosis and treatment to all New Mexicans, and its community outreach programs statewide. Annual federal and private funding of over $77 million supports the UNM Cancer Center’s research programs. The UNM Cancer Center treats more than 60 percent of the adults and virtually all of the children in New Mexico affected by cancer, from every county in the state. It is home to New Mexico’s largest team of board-certified oncology physicians and research scientists, representing every cancer specialty and hailing from prestigious institutions such as M.D. Anderson Cancer Center, Johns Hopkins University, and the Mayo Clinic. Through its partnership with Memorial Medical Center in Las Cruces, the UNM Cancer Center brings world-class cancer care to the southern part of the state; its collaborative clinical programs in Santa Fe and Farmington serve northern New Mexico and it is developing new collaborative programs in Alamogordo and in Roswell/Carlsbad. The UNM Cancer Center also supports several community outreach programs to make cancer screening, diagnosis and treatment available to every New Mexican. Learn more at www.cancer.unm.edu.