Laura Burnett has a kind of optimism that is hard to miss. Warm and talkative, she isn’t shy about sharing her story. And like most cancer journeys, Laura’s seems filled with far fewer highs than it does lows. From an aggressive diagnosis, to disappointing test results, to unexpected setbacks, Laura recounts the details of what she’s experienced over the past year, quickly and honestly.
“It has been challenging,” she said, “but I knew I just had to keep moving forward. I know how quickly my team moved made all the difference in the world.”
In a story like Laura’s, when test results come back saying the cancer is aggressive and immediate surgery isn’t an option, decisions must be made — and sometimes, timing is everything.
From diagnosis to treatment
It was July 18, 2016. Laura, the Associate Director of Clinic Operations for MU Health Care, was sitting at work when she reached across her desk and felt a pain in her chest. It was painful enough that it caught her attention. She put her hand to her chest and discovered what felt like a bump under her skin. She told herself she’d wait until the next day to see if it was still there before getting concerned. The next morning, when the bump hadn’t changed, she called her doctor.
“They got me in with a nurse practitioner the next day at the OB/GYN,” Laura said, “and because my mammogram was highly suspicious, they had me get an ultrasound and diagnostic tests at Ellis. During that time, your whole world feels like it’s spinning.”
The following week, Laura received a diagnosis: It was cancer. A PET scan showed definite cancer in her lymph nodes in her chest and questionable cancer on her neck and aorta. It was aggressive, she said, and Laura’s health care team needed to act fast.
“That was a Monday when I first discovered the bump,” Laura remembers. “The diagnostic was on the following Friday. By Tuesday, I met with the oncologist.”
Because Laura’s form of cancer was so aggressive, surgery wasn’t her best option. She needed chemo first to reduce the size of the tumors.
“So Wednesday, I was getting a port, and Thursday I started chemo,” she said. “That’s 11 days from me finding it to starting treatment.”
What followed were 16 chemo treatments, which Laura finished on Dec. 22. It was also during that time when Laura’s medical team set her up with genetic testing to see if she carried the BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes, an inherited gene mutation that increases the risk of developing breast and ovary cancer. When her test came back positive, Laura’s next step in treatment came quickly.
“I got through chemo and set up surgery for Jan. 5 to have my ovaries removed and a double mastectomy,” she said. “I had to keep moving forward.”
On Jan. 25, Laura had another PET scan. A little more than six months since her diagnosis, she was cancer free.
“That was my YES moment,” Laura said. “This is what Dr. Koivunen, Dr. Nistala, Dr. Westgate and my entire team were working for. This is what we were working for.”
‘I call it my triathlon’
Laura decided to continue with radiation even after receiving the clear PET scan “because if there was even one bad cell left, the radiation would take care of it.” She completed radiation on March 24.
She continued working throughout her radiation treatments. In fact, aside from the three weeks she took off for surgery, she missed minimal days throughout the whole experience. Much like her cancer care team and their drive to continue her treatments as quickly as possible, Laura said she just kept moving forward, thinking positively and taking it one day at a time.
“I never thought negative,” she said. “I only thought positive. I knew I had it, but I was going to beat it. I did everything they [my cancer care team] asked me to do, followed all the rules and had great results because of that.”
Laura also credits the support she received from her family, including her husband, Bill, and their four children, as well as her boss and co-workers at MU Health Care.
Laura’s MU nurse navigator, Dawn Frederick, RN, was another pillar of support.
“That is one of the best positions they’ve ever put into a system,” Laura said. “Ellis Fischel introduced me to Dawn when I first received my diagnosis, and she was with me the rest of the way. She took care of my appointments, she’d come to the AIU when I got chemo — she was there for me, to help guide me, through everything.”
Now on the other side of treatment, Laura said she has a new appreciation for what others go through on their cancer journeys. She’s learned more about herself, too.
“You never know how strong you are until you go through something like this,” she said. “I call it my triathlon: chemo, surgery and radiation. During treatment, people would often ask me what was next, and I would say that I’m only focused on today — focus on today, then I’ll get through the next step. And I did — and I’m so blessed.”