On Christmas Eve 2018, as she was enjoying the holiday with her husband and two teenaged children, Cassie Painter was trying not to think about the three words that would forever change her.
You have cancer.
But Cassie is known as a perpetually positive person.
“It could always be worse,” asserted the energetic stylist, owner and operator of Chic Salon in Marshall. “I’m better off than the next person. I caught it early and have had a definite treatment plan. I don’t feel like I’ve had to fight that hard because I have good people taking care of me. The team at the Cancer Center is just remarkable.”
Cassie’s journey with cancer began just before the holidays in 2018 when, during a routine self-exam, she found a lump in her breast. At age 36, she had never had a mammogram. Screenings aren’t recommended until age 40 for those with no family history. And cancer didn’t run in her family, she said, conceding that three aunts on her father’s side had been diagnosed with breast cancer; but they were all in their post-menopausal years.
Her primary care provider, Diane Weinrich, APRN, family nurse practitioner at Mid-Missouri Family Health, referred her for a 3D mammogram and breast ultrasound at Fitzgibbon Hospital prior to Christmas. The day after Christmas Cassie underwent a biopsy, also at Fitzgibbon Hospital.
“The next day they called me and told me it was cancer. I remember I was looking at my daughter when they told me,” said Cassie, whose children are now ages 14 and 17. “I just kept telling myself, ‘It can’t be. It’s not cancer. It can’t be.’’’
But it was cancer- an aggressive form known as Triple Negative. Triple Negative breast cancer bears its name because the three most-common types of receptors known to fuel breast cancers – estrogen, progesterone and the HER-2 gene – are not present in the cancer tumor, ruling out common treatments using targeted therapies. The good news is that research shows Triple Negative may respond more positively to traditional forms of chemotherapy and radiation when caught in the early stages.
As soon as she heard the diagnosis she called her best friend, Miranda Warren, who “can always keep it together for me,” she said.
“She came immediately to the shop,” Cassie explained, adding that within two hours she was surrounded by supportive family, friends and relatives.
“I can’t imagine not having a village of family and friends to help you through this. It’s important to have someone who cares,” she said.
It has been the caring spirit of the Fitzgibbon Community Cancer Center staff that has helped her through some very rough times during her treatment.
As she began what would be 16 rounds of chemotherapy treatments at the Fitzgibbon Community Cancer Center in February, she suffered an allergic reaction to Taxol.
“My tumor was so large that I had to have a lot of chemo to shrink it before it could be removed. I stopped breathing twice here in the Cancer Center about six minutes in,” she says. “But they took good care of me. All the staff surrounded me and gave me Benadryl to stop the allergic reaction.”
Her doctors switched her medication to Abraxane, which was administered over three months.
“Chemo can take you to a very morbid place,” she said with a pause, looking off in the distance as she recalled her own experience. “When you’re sick and you don’t – or can’t – take care of yourself, you have to conserve your energy and use it for positive things. If you’re sitting next to ‘negative Nancy’ you’re not going to heal. You need to surround yourself with support and positivity. Like the girls here at the Cancer Center – you have to be a special person to do what they do. If they are having a bad day, you’d never know it.”
When asked if she had any advice for others facing a cancer diagnosis she said to “ask for help when you need it.”
“I think the mental game is the biggest part,” she said. “I try to stay positive, but there were just days that you have to dig really deep in your soul to get through it. When you are around other people, you have to be strong for them.”
Cassie underwent a double mastectomy at KU Medical Center in early July. During her surgery doctors removed 16 lymph nodes, three of which contained cancerous cells. She returned to Fitzgibbon Community Cancer Center in mid-August for radiation therapy.
“I’m doing radiation as a precaution every day for 30 days,” said Cassie, explaining that her surgeon at KU Med agreed on a treatment plan together with the physicians who staff the Fitzgibbon Cancer Center, medical oncologist Mark Tungesvik, M.D., and radiation oncologist Steven Westgate, M.D.
“Dr. Westgate is so compassionate, and he has such a goofy sense of humor. I actually get excited to come here. Oh I love these girls,” she laughed, referring to the female staff of the Community Cancer Center – a staff to whom she brought Easter Baskets filled with goodies in gratitude for the care and kindness she had received during chemo.
“I just have had the best experience. I have cancer, but I’ve received the best care possible right here. This cancer facility is the best choice I could have possibly made for my journey,” she said. “I would never tell anyone to go anywhere else. I’ve had children, I’ve had surgeries. I’ve been to hospitals in Columbia and Kansas City, but I’ve never received better care anywhere.”
Cassie has such overwhelming gratitude for the excellent level of care she has received that she has volunteered to sit with other cancer patients who may not have family or friends nearby but who are receiving treatment at the Community Cancer Center. And she said this before she even finished her own course of radiation treatments.
“I think you have to give to receive. And I have received so much love and support through all of this. I know it sounds weird to say, but it’s made me a better person,” said Cassie. “My husband and I have always been ‘givers,’ but nothing like this. We’ve never really been on the receiving end. But now I will do more. I will give more. I will volunteer more. I’m going to be an advocate.”