It was November 2014 and Elizabeth Personius, 58, had just received the shock of her life: a diagnosis of lung cancer. On the verge of surgery and the journey of care that would treat her illness, Elizabeth and her husband, Ed, attended “Shine a Light on Lung Cancer,” a new education and support program offered at the Cayuga Cancer Center. Now a year later, with a clean MRI of her lungs and no sign of cancer, Elizabeth was the guest speaker at the annual shine-a-light event. This is her story.
The summer of 2014 had been hard. There were deaths in the family and, as if that weren’t enough to cope with, Ed Personius had been through open-heart surgery. Weary to her bones and fearing that she might have diabetes or anemia, Elizabeth Personius made an appointment for a Tuesday in late September with Dr. Blanche Borzell, her primary care physician in Watkins Glen. Following a thorough physical exam, Borzell ordered laboratory tests and, upon hearing her patient cough as she left the office, ordered a chest X-ray, as well. The next morning, on her way to work, Elizabeth had that chest X-ray at Schuyler Hospital. “Two hours later, Dr. Borzell came to see me at work,” says Elizabeth, who handles Medicare billing for Schuyler Hospital. “We stepped into the kitchen near my office and she told me there was a suspicious mass on my left lung. She stayed with me while she called and made an appointment for me to have a CT scan at Schuyler Hospital the next day and she spoke with my boss, who gave me permission to leave work.” The CT scan happened Thursday. “The scan confirmed that there was a mass,” says Elizabeth. “Dr. Borzell picked up her phone and called oncologist Dr. Julie Campbell at Cayuga Hematology Oncology Associates (CHOA) in Ithaca. I had an appointment with her the very next day, which was Friday.”
Elizabeth progressed through the diagnostic process, beginning with a needle biopsy of the tumor in her lung. It was performed by radiologist Dr. Robert Domke under imaging guidance at Cayuga Medical Center. “It was a very good experience,” says Elizabeth. “Dr. Domke explained the risks of the procedure to me—but then he nailed it right away. He was wonderful and the nurse assisting him, Jacqueline Adam, was a sweetheart.” The biopsy results were positive for lung cancer.
“I had to see a surgeon next to have the lymph nodes in my chest checked, so I went to Dr. David Schwed,” says Elizabeth. Schwed, a general surgeon with Surgical Associates of Ithaca, explains that before a cancerous tumor in the lung is removed, a biopsy of the lymph nodes in the center of the chest is performed to determine whether or not the cancer has spread. “If there is involvement in certain lymph nodes around the tumor, it doesn’t make sense to remove part of the lung,” says Schwed.
“There are lymph nodes inside the chest. We didn’t know if they had cancer cells until the nodes were removed and examined,” says Elizabeth. “Dr. Schwed talked with Dr. Campbell after he got the pathology report. She called me right away to tell me that the lung cancer was potentially curable with surgery, which is what I really wanted to hear!”
Facing major surgery
Surgery for lung cancer is a major operation and patients are assessed thoroughly prior to having the procedure, explains Schwed. Elizabeth had a PET (positron emission tomography) scan in the Imaging Services Department of Cayuga Medical Center to look for additional metastases around the body.
She also had pulmonary function testing to assess her lung capacity. “We had to determine whether her breathing capacity was adequate for losing this much lung,” Schwed explains, “and we wanted to be able to give her an estimate of her pulmonary capacity after the surgery. It turned out she had good lung function.”
At the time of her lymph node biopsy surgery, Dr. Joseph Bylebyl, her anesthesiologist, had noted some irregularities in her heartbeat. So before she could be scheduled for major surgery, Elizabeth had to be evaluated by a cardiologist. During a cardiac stress test with cardiologist Dr. Lynn Swisher, Elizabeth’s blood pressure went up, she experienced some pain, and there were changes in her EKG. Dr. Swisher recommended follow-up with Dr. Malcolm Brand, director of cardiac catheterization at the Cayuga Heart Institute. “I had cardiac catheterization on November 17,” says Elizabeth. “Dr. Brand told me right then and there that I was good to go for the surgery, which was very comforting to know.”
Dr. Schwed removed the upper lobe of Elizabeth’s left lung. The tumor, with a clean margin of tissue around it, was 7.8 centimeters, which is about three inches across. “In determining the stage of the lung cancer, doctors look at three factors: the size of the tumor, whether or not nearby lymph nodes have been invaded with cancer cells, and whether the cancer has spread to other parts of the body,” Schwed explains. “There were no metastases or lymph node involvement, however her tumor was larger than 7 centimeters. This made her cancer stage 2B.”
Elizabeth went from the recovery room to intensive care and then on to the adult surgical floor during her hospital stay. “The nurses and aides just couldn’t do enough for me. They handled my pain extremely well,” Elizabeth recalls. “I was having trouble eating and the people from dining came up to see me. They told me they would make me whatever I wanted. The food was wonderful—I just didn’t want to eat. My first meal was Thanksgiving Day turkey dinner with my husband Ed in the hospital.”
During her hospital stay, Dr. Campbell visited with Elizabeth to talk about chemotherapy following her recovery from surgery. Due to the size of the tumor, Campbell recommended four months of follow-up treatment to help ensure that the cancer would not return. Elizabeth began a regimen for four months consisting of three days of chemotherapy every 28 days. She is now six months out of treatment and has had a clean MRI, with no sign of the cancer recurring.
Shine a Light on Lung Cancer
After Elizabeth was diagnosed with lung cancer—before undergoing surgery and chemotherapy—she had received an e-mail from Deborah Danko, RN, an oncology nurse navigator with the Cayuga Cancer Center. Danko invited Elizabeth to attend an event called Shine a Light on Lung Cancer, offering education, support, and networking opportunities to people whose lives had been impacted by lung cancer. Elizabeth and Ed decided to attend. The program was one week before her surgery.
“That program was a real turning point for me. They made me feel like the night was about me; they were all so kind,” Elizabeth recalls. The featured speaker at the event, a cancer survivor, had gone out of town to a major cancer center for her surgery and Elizabeth talked with her about that decision. Ultimately, Elizabeth decided she wanted her surgery and her care at Cayuga Medical Center.
“I cannot imagine getting better care anywhere in the world than the care I received here,” says Elizabeth. “Dr. Schwed
is my hero—he’s really tops! Deb Danko is awesome and the nurses in the chemo suite are caring and smart and they knew what questions to ask; they were able to make such a serious time almost pleasant! They were always concerned about Ed, too, as my caregiver” she adds. “He’s been wonderful. I went through the dead of winter on chemo and never got sick.” Elizabeth was able to have her post-operative appointments and follow-up care with Dr. Campbell and CHOA nurses right in Montour Falls, which was all very convenient.
“If I ever need hospitalization of any kind, I’ll go to Cayuga Medical Center,” says Elizabeth. “Everyone made me feel like I was the most important patient they’d ever had.”