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For Gig Harbor mom, cancer care close to home 'saved my life'

Posted on Oct. 31, 2011 ( comments)
Jennifer Taylor receives care from Claudia Andersson, RN, at the MultiCare Regional Cancer Center in Gig Harbor.

After Jennifer Taylor learned she had breast cancer, many of her friends encouraged her to seek treatment outside of Gig Harbor, where she lives with her husband and two young daughters.

“So many people said that I should go to Seattle or at least cross the bridge for my treatment,” Taylor said. “But I wanted to stay near my kids.”

The MultiCare Regional Cancer Center at the Gig Harbor Medical Park let her do just that — and access resources through the network of MultiCare Cancer Centers and the Seattle Cancer Care Alliance.

“The location made it so I could still live my life and take care of my kids,” she said.

Taylor was diagnosed with breast cancer last Valentine’s Day. She was 39, and her daughters were 4 and 6.

She had suspected a breast infection, but after two weeks of antibiotics, her symptoms weren’t going away. Her breast remained tender and swollen and the skin had a pink rash.

An initial mammogram and two ultrasounds came back clear. But further testing revealed what Taylor had begun to fear: inflammatory breast cancer.

Dr. Carolyn Rutter, a radiation oncologist in Tacoma and Gig Harbor and one of Taylor’s providers, said inflammatory breast cancer is the most alarming breast cancer diagnosis.

“It progresses so fast,” she said. “If you don’t do something about it quickly, it gets out of control.”

The cancer is rare, accounting for about 1 to 5 percent of all breast cancer cases, according to the National Cancer Institute. The cancer cells block the lymph vessels in the skin of the breast.

The symptoms mimic a breast infection — redness, swelling, and warmth in the breast —and in most cases, the patients don’t have the distinct lump that warns of cancer. Inflammatory breast cancer grows disturbingly fast, developing in a span of weeks.

Taylor was referred to the Gig Harbor oncology clinic within 24 hours of her diagnosis, and her treatment started within two weeks. The clinic provides vital cancer care services including chemotherapy, therapeutic infusions, blood transfusions, education and support to cancer patients and families.

And as a Seattle Cancer Care Alliance member, MultiCare oncologists have access to the latest treatment, clinical trials and can consult with the network’s physicians. That gave Taylor peace of mind about staying in Gig Harbor for her treatment.

“I knew I was getting the right medicine,” she said.

As an oncologist, Rutter likes knowing she can get additional expertise and knowledge if she needs it. And her patients can avoid commuting for treatment.

“Gig Harbor is such a tight community – there’s a real sense of small town that gives a person a lot of reassurance,” she said. “It’s the best of both worlds.”

Taylor’s treatment included chemotherapy, a double mastectomy and radiation. The Gig Harbor oncology clinic became Taylor’s second home, just five minutes from her house and her children’s school.

The little things made all the difference: The clinic staff would schedule all of her appointments. They recognized her voice on the phone. And they gave her pillows, skin cream and words of encouragement.

“They just kind of surround you and do everything they can to help you through the process,” Taylor said. “Even the barista was really nice.”

The clinic’s amenities were convenient. She got her wig at the MultiCare Healthy Reflections Medical and Day Spa, and her occupational therapist was in the same location. She used onsite YMCA nursery for her preschool-aged daughter.

As she sat in the clinic’s waiting room or received an infusion, Taylor noticed former patients stopping by to say hello to the nurses.

“You think that an oncology office is a scary place, but it’s actually filled with a lot of hope and joy,” she said.

Taylor finished radiation this month, though she remains on cancer treatment medication. Her hair has grown in, she’s back at her job at a local restaurant and she just volunteered in her daughter’s class for the first time.

Her family is planning a trip to Hawaii next year. And she’s starting a fitness class for cancer survivors at the YMCA.

Less than a year after her diagnosis, Taylor is a cancer survivor. Tests show no signs of cancer in her body. She credits the Gig Harbor oncology clinic.

“They saved my life,” she said. “They made it possible for me to be here for my kids.”

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