Donna's Story

Crozer-Keystone Health System

Donna with Patti Hollenback, RN, BSN, OCNDonna with Patti Hollenback, RN, BSN, OCN

Donna Thompson readily admits she is not the model lung cancer patient. At 45 years young and a nonsmoker, even her doctors were surprised by her diagnosis. But on October 23, 2015, she received the news: lung cancer. Her life – and many others’ – was about to change.

“I would get a sharp pain in my back every so often,” she said, “But then, on a day in September 2015, I started getting chest pain. I knew it was serious. I had to go to the ER.” So she checked in to the Emergency Department at Delaware County Memorial Hospital (DCMH), part of Crozer-Keystone Health System. They did blood tests and X-rays. A day later, Donna got a call from the ED physician. “He said I had a mass on my lung and needed to see a doctor right away,” she said.

Stunned at the news and never before needing a specialist, Donna was referred to Geoffrey Koff, MD, DCMH pulmonologist. “I loved his approach,” she said. “He was very calming and helped me get through all the testing I needed for a very scary diagnosis. He was the first to say the word ‘cancer.’” Dr. Koff did everything he could to help Donna understand the severity of her condition while at the same time giving her hope to manage it. He drew pictures to show her the location of the four-centimeter tumor, nearly the size of a golf ball. “I thought, ‘How could this be?’” she said. “I was in complete shock.” But when she started putting the pieces together, Donna realized there were other signs and environmental hazards that put her at risk for lung disease – decades of exposure to mold and second-hand smoke, along with constant coughing and diagnoses of asthma and allergies in the six years prior to her cancer diagnosis. She was ready to take her next step at Dr. Koff’s urging: a visit to Fox Chase Cancer Center thoracic surgeon Stacey Su, MD, Director of Thoracic Surgical Oncology at DCMH. As a Fox Center Partner, Crozer-Keystone Health System hospitals bring new advances in cancer care, access to clinical trials and more treatment options than many other community hospitals.

Despite what she went through, Donna feels stronger because of her diagnosis.

Dr. Su immediately evaluated Donna and scheduled her for surgery on November 30, 2015. “That was the day my cancer was removed,” Donna said. “Dr. Su removed the upper right lobe of my right lung and part of my lymph nodes. She and her physician assistant, Kerry Clay, were amazing.” The tumor was an advanced, aggressive form of cancer, so after Donna had a consultation with Fox Chase medical oncologist Hossein Borghaei, DO, Donna’s medical team, led by Crozer-Keystone medical oncologist Rajesh Thirumaran, MD, decided on a four-month course of chemotherapy at the Crozer-Keystone Regional Cancer Center at Broomall. But Donna was only able to tolerate two months’ worth before she had to stop.

Her latest CT scan, in March 2017, showed no evidence of cancer. “Even though Donna had an aggressive cancer, we took a timely multidisciplinary approach in treating her,” Dr. Thirumaran said. “She is doing very well and, today, is cancer-free.”

Despite what she went through, Donna feels stronger because of her diagnosis. She talks openly with others about her experience, in hopes that they, too, will listen to their bodies if something seems wrong. “It’s hard for me to talk about myself,” she said, “but if I’m doing it for someone else, then I can handle it.” The experience also led Donna to Patti Hollenback, RN, BSN, OCN, oncology nurse navigator at Crozer-Keystone at Broomall, who says the largest growing population of new lung cancer diagnoses is among nonsmoking females. “The point is, any person who has lungs has a risk of developing lung cancer,” explained Patti. “It’s not restricted to people who smoke, so maybe that shouldn’t always be our first question.”

Patti helped Donna clinically and also helped her find the financial resources to defray some of her medical costs. “Patti is ‘my person; my kindred spirit,’” said Donna. “I’m everyone else’s person, but she is mine.”

Donna with Geoffrey Koff, MD (seated), Patti Hollenback, RN, BSN, OCN, and Rajesh Thirumaran, MDDonna with Geoffrey Koff, MD (seated), Patti Hollenback, RN, BSN, OCN, and Rajesh Thirumaran, MDDonna has a new lease on life and devotes a great deal of time organizing events and speaking to groups about her lung cancer journey. She’s changed her eating habits, exercises regularly, and has even helped Patti launch a new general cancer support group, “Stronger Together,” at Crozer-Keystone at Broomall. “She’s going to save lives by making people more aware – especially women – that they need to listen to their bodies and take action,” Patti said. “Donna is a patient advocate and an inspiration to other patients with lung cancer,” Dr. Thirumaran added.

“If you aren’t feeling well, do something about it. The message is to have a good relationship with your primary care physician and keep asking questions,” Patti said. “If you have a symptom that you’re worried about and you don’t meet the lung screening criteria, talk to your doctor or see a pulmonologist.”

“If I would had waited just a few months, my situation would have been very different,” said Donna. Going forward, she will have frequent scans for the next few years. From there, she will not need to be monitored as closely but will require follow-up visits and testing.

Donna’s “village” is her DCMH and Crozer-Keystone at Broomall medical team. She was impressed how Crozer-Keystone and Fox Chase Cancer Center experts worked together to achieve the best possible outcome. “I trusted my doctors from the very beginning. I would not go anywhere else.”

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