Without the comfort of her husband, children or friends, Lorita Kelley learned news that would change her life.
At age 41, Kelley was diagnosed with breast cancer.
Now in remission, Kelley provides the companionship she was missing to breast cancer patients through Medical Center Hospital’s Patient Navigator Program.
As the nurse navigator, Kelley is with a patient and the patient’s family nearly every step of their journey fighting against cancer.
From diagnosis, Kelley can accompany patients to doctors’ appointments, treatments and even assist family members and friends in learning how to cope and support their sick loved ones.
“What I’m hoping to do is make sure no one feels alone like I did,” Kelley said.
A lot has changed since Kelley was first diagnosed in 1998.
Kelley said when doctors first found an abnormality in her breast, treatment was decided nearly a month and a half after diagnosis because doctors could not decide if the cancerous cells would metastasize, or spread to other body parts.
“I had to take long walks because I didn’t know my future. As a nurse, you like to be in control and nothing was in control,” Kelley said. “In this time of indecision, all I saw were my children’s faces in my mind.”
Kelley’s doctors performed a lumpectomy on the infected breast and prescribed her tamoxifen, a hormonal treatment taken orally to stop cancerous cell growth.
After five years of taking tamoxifen, Kelley was in remission and not required to take medication.
But Kelley said survivors are often hesitant to say they’re fully recovered.
“You realize you are not invincible and your body made a mistake and can make it again,” Kelley said.
As part of her recovery, as well as the recovery of others, part of Kelley’s role as a navigator nurse is to speak with other survivors.
“As a cancer survivor, I better understand and I want to be more a part of it,” Kelley said of helping other survivors. “I’m eternally grateful for each day that I have to make this earth a better place.”
Kelley’s experiences have helped her better relate to patients like Debra Coleman, who is recovering from her second bout with breast cancer.
Coleman had a mastectomy on her right breast in July after her doctor urged her to have a mammogram, during which Stage 1 cancer cells were found.
After the surgery, Kelley visited Coleman and gave her a heart pillow made by volunteers at the Eisenhower Church of Christ. The pillow makes lying down easier post-surgery after breast tissue has been removed.
“It was like a ray of sunshine. That was when I needed someone to talk to,” Coleman said. “I felt human.”
The experience was drastically different from her initial diagnosis with Stage 3 breast cancer.
Coleman, a single mother, said when she was first diagnosed in 2008, she barely had enough emotional support to get her and her son through the battle.
After surgery on her left breast, Coleman endured painful chemotherapy treatment that caused her to go into deep depression.
“My bones hurt so bad. I couldn’t walk. I was healthy until I got cancer,” Coleman said. “I went through the chemotherapy by myself. I thought my life was over. I couldn’t plan anything because of chemo. It’s devastating when you’re single going through all of that.”
With the help of her doctor and Kelley, Coleman said her outlook on life is more positive.
“Having (Kelley) there to talk to, it helped me. It was like, ‘Slow down,’ ” Coleman said. “The first time, I couldn’t talk about cancer. I didn’t want to face it. It’s different (now). I’m reborn.”
Having experienced breast cancer and hearing others’ stories, Kelley said breast cancer awareness is essential for women.
“I’ve survived but there are a lot more (women) out there that need to get themselves checked and need a cure,” Kelley said.