Published on November 05, 2020

Comprehensive Cancer Care Helps Alpena Woman Navigate Treatment

Photo of breast cancer survivor, Donna Hart and her dog, Ace.

Hart is pictured with her dog, Ace, who provided great comfort to her when she returned home after receiving cancer treatments.

Donna Hart was feeling great. She had sold her farm just north of Alpena and was enjoying a simpler life with her boyfriend, a cat and her beloved dog, Ace. She was shocked when rushing through a shower she felt a lump in her left breast. It was a life-altering moment, and she’s happy to be around to share her story.

“You know,” Hart said, “I was very happy living an active life and doing my thing. But I have to admit, I was taking my health for granted.” At age 62, Hart had only ever had one mammogram and wasn’t big on going to the doctor, a philosophy she was raised with. Not having insurance didn’t help incentivize her about being proactive with her health. But when she discovered the lump in October 2019, everything changed.

“There is no history breast cancer in my family, but it scared me,” she said. Hart’s boyfriend was traveling for work at the time and after a few days of worrying on her own, she got up the courage to reach out to Christy L. Werth, D.O., her primary care provider. “Dr. Werth was amazing,” said Hart. “She got me in for a mammogram that same day. They did an ultrasound where there was a lot of measuring going on, so I knew that wasn’t a great sign. Dr. Eggleston came in shortly after that, and talked with me about the biopsy he would be doing. He was very kind.”

Radiologist Ben Eggleston, M.D., identified four lumps with one in the lymph nodes. He performed the necessary biopsies, and Hart was scheduled for a mastectomy within two weeks. To help her get through she was assigned to work with Bonnie Goff, R.N., B.S.N., C.N.-B.N., breast nurse navigator. “I was so grateful to have Bonnie helping me,” said Hart. “There is great fear of the unknown with cancer. She met with me and shared resources. She came to all appointments with me and encouraged me to take things one step at a time.”

Goff also helped Hart connect with other community services including Friends Together and the Breast and Cervical Cancer Control Navigation Program at District Health Department No. 4 where she applied and qualified for insurance coverage. “At my job, insurance was not offered,” Hart said. “I always paid my bills first and put my other needs after. When I knew that my treatment would be paid for, I was able to focus on being strong and following doctors’ orders without having to worry about treatment and keeping up with costs. That was a big deal.”

General Surgeon Michael Paulsell, M.D., performed Hart’s mastectomy and axillary lymph node dissection. She was happy that he was thorough and left nothing to chance. From there, she met with William Hitzelberger, D.O., medical oncologist in the Alpena Cancer Center. “I appreciated that Dr. Hitzelberger was straightforward. He didn’t offer false promises and had a good, honest approach,” said Hart. “He said we’d do everything we could do, and we did.” Hart was relieved to be given a tour of the facility and learn about what would happen during her chemotherapy and radiation treatments. Knowing what to expect and learning where everything was proved to be very helpful in easing anxiety. “Some of the staff members are so young, but boy are they smart and professional and caring. You could tell they were working careers not jobs. It impressed me every day, and we really got to know each other.”

Mario Lacerna, M.D., radiation oncologist, administered the radiation treatments, explaining and educating Hart along the way. She was encouraged to rest when needed and frequently referred to the Breast Treatment Handbook given to her by Goff to help answer questions when she wasn’t at the Medical Center. She kept her sense of humor and determination. She also tried her best to be a positive force for other patients going through similar situations. “You do build relationships,” said Hart. “I look at life differently now.”

“Donna is a striking example of the many different specialties patients encounter during their treatment of breast cancer,” stated Goff. “At MidMichigan Health, we offer a skilled health care team that cares for patients from the initial diagnosis of cancer through treatment and into survivorship. Additionally, we ensure that patients have the needed resources to help eliminate any barriers to their care.”

Hart completed treatments in June of 2020. She said that, aside from masking, she felt just as comfortable and safe receiving treatment during the COVID -19 pandemic as she did prior. She is in the follow-up phase of her treatment now with regular blood work and bone density checks. She actually looks forward to appointments so she has a chance to see those she has become close with. She eats a healthy diet and lives more in the moment. “Attitude makes a huge difference,” she said. “I try to stay happy and grateful. The staff at MidMichigan Medical Center – Alpena has made that effort easier.”

To help breast cancer patients navigate through the many choices available and determine which treatment options are right for them, MidMichigan Medical Centers in Alma, Alpena, and Midland offer comprehensive, multidisciplinary Breast Health Programs. These programs are comprised of a team of dedicated physicians, nurses, breast nurse navigators like Goff and other health professionals dedicated to developing individualized treatment plans and assisting patients through every step of their treatment and recovery process. Those who would like more information about MidMichigan Health’s Breast Programs may visit www.midmichigan.org/breast.