Friends and family questioned why Gina Howard would drive up to an hour to the AdventHealth Gordon Cancer Center for chemotherapy when there were other clinics closer to home.
“I live closer to Rome, and a lot of people say, ‘Why don’t you go to Rome?’” said Howard, of Aragon, Georgia. “But after the experience here, I say, ‘Why would I go to Rome?’ It’s worth the drive to get better care.”
Howard has been undergoing chemotherapy to treat her stage 2 breast cancer at the AdventHealth Gordon Cancer Center since February. Her diagnosis came in early 2021 after she went for a routine physical for her job at a scrap metal yard, and her physician asked her if she had ever had a mammogram. Howard hadn’t, so the doctor’s staff scheduled one for her.
“A couple of weeks later, I felt a lump,” she said. “Then I had a diagnostic mammogram. I started chemo in February. I had four treatments of what they call ‘The Red Devil.’ I had that every other week.”
The powerful intravenous drug — named for its bright red color — is commonly prescribed to treat several types of cancer, including breast cancer.
“I lost my hair and lost my energy, of course,” she said. “Then I started this Taxol, which is supposed to be a milder one.”
The cancer center, which opened in December 2020, has 17 infusion bays for patients like Howard to complete their chemotherapy course. Infusion services also include intravenous iron supplementation.
“I have 12 weeks of this one I’m doing every Thursday,” Howard said of her second round of chemotherapy. “It just knocks you out. After they get done with all the treatments, I’m supposed to have surgery — a full mastectomy — and after that, I’ll do radiation.”
She’s also planning to have reconstructive surgery after her radiation therapy.
Mridula Vinjamuri, MD, a fellowship-trained hematology and oncology physician with AdventHealth Medical Group Hematology Oncology at Calhoun, said treatment plans at the cancer center are personalized to each patient.
“It’s personalized Cancer Care aimed at treating the whole person,” she said. “Treatment is based on the type of cancer and where it’s spread.”
The cancer center provides comprehensive Cancer Care including diagnostic imaging services, infusion services, immunotherapy, radiation therapy, surgery, genetic testing, nutrition counseling, mental health counseling and other support resources.
“We have all of that in one place,” Dr. Vinjamuri said. “We’re committed to making sure every patient knows they can get everything they can get in a top institution right at home.”
Through the affiliated Edna Owens Breast Center at AdventHealth Gordon, Howard had the opportunity to speak with a genetic counselor. Because she had an aunt who had survived breast cancer decades ago, she opted to undergo testing to see if she was positive for a gene mutation that makes her a higher risk for developing other types of cancers.
“I did a hereditary test, and it came back negative,” she said.
Dr. Vinjamuri said she’ll also be starting clinical trials in the near future as part of the cancer center’s continued commitment to bringing cutting-edge evidence-based cancer treatment options to the community.
“Because we are a community-oriented center, we treat every patient like they’re family — not just a number,” Dr. Vinjamuri said. “We all know each and every one of them by name and their family members. It’s a small-town effect with a big university setup.”
The cancer center’s multidisciplinary team of fellowship-trained oncologists, specialized nurse navigators and other team members collaborate regularly throughout patients’ treatment plans to offer coordinated whole-person care, as well.
Dr. Vinjamuri said the center’s nurse navigators often accompany patients when they meet with her for updates about their treatment.
“They make the patient know we care about them all through their journey, not just when they first come here,” she said. “Every patient who comes here sees a dietitian and a mental health counselor, also.”
Dr. Vinjamuri said helping patients manage insomnia, weight loss, depression and their overall well-being is just as important as ridding their bodies of cancer.
“Every time they come, the most important thing is holding their hand and letting them know they’re not alone and that they’re supported mentally, spiritually, physically and emotionally,” she said. “We’re also treating each patient with compassion, dignity and respect.”
She’s also focused on educating her patients and their families about the type of cancer they have, treatment options and common side effects from those treatments.
“I strongly believe in being honest with patients from the beginning,” Dr. Vinjamuri said. “They cannot make an informed decision unless you give them that knowledge. If they know everything about their diagnosis as I do, it makes them feel strong and not as scared. It also allows them to be the decision-maker in their own journey.”
She also encourages as much family participation in a patient’s treatment plan as possible.
“Cancer is not something that is just with the patients,” Dr. Vinjamuri said. “It affects the whole family…I let them know they’re all part of the team.”
She also believes in the therapeutic power of humor.
“I make my patients laugh a lot because I want them to be at ease,” Dr. Vinjamuri said. “I joke with my patients and make it very comfortable for them so they don’t dread coming to a doctor’s office. I ask them about their family. I tell them about my family. I make them feel like they’re coming to see a friend, not a doctor.”
The cancer center’s whole-person, family-focused approach is the main reason Howard keeps making the drive to Calhoun.
“I don’t dread coming up here like I should because everybody is just so good,” she said. “Everybody here just has a positive attitude. If I ask them a question about [my treatment], they’re very thorough and just very positive.”
For more information about Cancer Care at AdventHealth Gordon, please call 706-625-4285.
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