Before she was diagnosed with breast cancer, Deb Bickhart had no symptoms or lumps and felt perfectly fine. “I was only 38 years old at the time. I had a 16-year-old, a 2½ -year-old and a 1-year-old,” the diagnostic medical sonographer at Geisinger Lewistown Hospital explains. “I breastfed all of my children and had just stopped in January 2004 when I started my job.”
At Deb’s yearly gynecological exam, Ramona Shope, CRNP, reviewed her family history. Seeing that Deb’s mother had passed away in 1999 due to breast cancer, she ordered a baseline mammogram for her.
When the initial mammogram revealed abnormalities in Deb’s left breast, the radiologist recommended a diagnostic mammogram. “After that exam, they recommended a breast biopsy,” Deb explains. Deb’s primary care physician, Sharon Galvin, MD, set her up to see David Arbutina, MD, a surgeon based at the Geisinger Scenery Park Clinic in State College.
The biopsy showed cancer that was DCIS (ductal carcinoma in situ), the earliest form of breast cancer. Deb saw two oncologists, seeking a second opinion after getting the first doctor’s recommendation. Her second oncologist was David Wolfe, MD, who was also based at the Scenery Park clinic.
“In November 2004, Dr. Arbutina performed my mastectomy,” Deb explains. “Then Dr. Wolfe explained the chemo process. He said I was a candidate for a clinical trial and made me aware of all the risks and benefits. Knowing my participation would help other women, I was willing to give the trial a try.”
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Deb’s chemotherapy treatments began in January 2005. “My chemo nurses were wonderful. Kathleen Depra was especially passionate about serving her patients. She was my rock during chemo!” she says. Deb received one treatment every three weeks for three months. After those treatments, she began 12 weeks of a second type of treatment, along with a clinical trail medication.
But Deb’s treatment plan wasn’t over. She then started 33 treatments of radiation under the care of a former Geisinger provider, Bernard Rogers, MD. In November 2006, Deb had a right mastectomy along with reconstruction surgery that included a trans rectus abdominal muscle (or TRAM) flap. “TRAM flap uses your own fat and muscle to reconstruct the breast,” Deb explains. “Dr. Joseph Desantis was my reconstruction surgeon. He works out of Scenery Park but performed my surgery in Danville.”
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Deb’s story doesn’t end there. She developed a seroma, a buildup of fluid that is common with breast surgery patients. “I had the seroma drained every three weeks for a year,” she says. “Then, Dr. Desantis performed another surgery to clean it out and it finally healed.”
What did Deb learn on her long cancer journey? “I learned to be positive and to trust in God,” she days. “Talking about my journey was helpful. And I learned to not be afraid to ask for help and let others help when they offered. I kept my family close. They were my main support system, especially my husband, Mike, sister-in-law, Beth, and my daughter, Megan. I had a team of doctors and nurses to lean on if I needed to talk. They were fantastic — I’m so grateful to all of them.”
Deb has been cancer-free for 17 years and hopes to inspire others by sharing her story. “I want to help others who might be going through the same challenges as I did,” she says.
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