Shannon Watson’s phone began to ring. As a Riverview Health employee herself, she quickly recognized the number as her doctor’s office. Shannon excused herself from her desk to take the call in private.
During the call Shannon got the news she had been fearing—she had breast cancer. Once back at her desk, the severity of the situation came crashing down on her. She began to sob.
“Luckily, I had a great coworker with me who was so caring and understanding and talked to me in the moment,” Shannon said. “I also called my mom, who calmed me down as well.”
Shannon’s diagnosis came during the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, which further complicated her treatment.
“My surgery was delayed due to COVID, which was really scary for me,” Shannon said. “I kept thinking to myself, ‘What if it spreads or gets bigger before I can have surgery?’”
Due to visitor restrictions, Shannon also had to go to her appointments alone, which was something she said was difficult for her.
“I was by myself and scared. I didn’t really know what questions to ask or anything. I think I heard ‘cancer,’ ‘breast removal’ and that’s all.”
Luckily, Shannon’s Riverview Health surgeon, Samuel Heiser, MD, helped ease her fears and walked her through the process step-by-step.
“Dr. Heiser and his team were amazing and made me feel like everything will be ok. I cannot begin to give them enough praise. He made me feel so much better about even being diagnosed with cancer,” Shannon said. “He has a very calming demeanor and answered all of my questions. I walked into his office scared and came out feeling better.”
Shannon also appreciated the work of Lynn Alexander, a nurse and patient navigator at Riverview Health.
“Lynn answered a million of my questions that I—of course—thought of after my appointment,” Shannon recalled. “She was available day or night and even called me on the weekend. She helped me through it all and offered to speak with my children, too, because they did not handle the diagnosis very well.”
Shannon underwent a successful double mastectomy with reconstruction. She felt good post-op and was ready to get back to her life. But Shannon’s struggles weren’t over.
“Prior to her surgery, Shannon underwent a pre-op evaluation with our lymphedema team at Riverview Health Outpatient Rehab,” said Amy Huntsman, an occupational therapist at Riverview Health. “Dr. Heiser then requested we allow Shannon time to heal for three months before having her return for post-op arm remeasurements.”
Lymphedema is caused by blockages in the lymphatic system and that cause various parts of a patient’s body to swell as fluid builds up. Shannon had lymph nodes removed during her surgery, which increased her risk for developing lymphedema. When Shannon was remeasured three months after surgery, it was noted that she had a considerable change in her arm girth, as well as in her hands and trunk.
“After her evaluation, it was determined that Shannon was experiencing stage one lymphedema, which consists of soft, pillowy skin. This is considered reversible if it is caught early on and if a patient undergoes lymphedema treatment,” Amy said. “This is a big win and is why the lymphedema team at Riverview Health started pre-op evals in the first place—so patients can be informed about lymphedema prevention and treatment can be quickly implemented.”
While her outlook was very positive, it was still difficult for Shannon to get the news of another complication and diagnosis.
“Amy wrapped my arms at the end of our first appointment, something I was not prepared for,” Shannon said. “When I got to my car, I—once again—cried. All I could think of initially was how ridiculous I looked. I was stressed that I would have to wear them every day and forever.”
However, Shannon didn’t give up, and has been diligent with her treatment. She wears a reduction compression arm band each day, has therapy two times a week with Amy and does exercises and massages at home to help her lymphatic system.
“Amy has been great,” Shannon said. “She is always available to me to answer questions and help. She truly cares about her patients and it shows. She has taught me so much about lymphedema and the treatments. Not only that, she encourages me each and every time I see her.”
Amy also helped Shannon get approved for the Women of Vision Giving Club grant at Riverview Health. Because insurance did not cover all the costs for Shannon’s lymphedema supplies, the grant was used to help purchase her gloves, compression t-shirt and compression bra. Shannon worked with the Riverview Health Women’s Boutique manager, Terri McCall, to have a personalized fitting for her supplies.
While Shannon’s journey toward beating lymphedema is not over, she is determined to keep powering through.
“Shannon is not a complainer and comes promptly to therapy expecting to learn something new with a positive mindset for recovery,” Amy said. “She is learning to be her own self advocate as a breast cancer survivor, and how to effectively manage lymphedema and increase lymphedema awareness in this community. I applaud her efforts and the way she pushed her fears aside—COVID-19, cancer and lymphedema—which is a tall order, to say the least.”