When the caregiver becomes the patient

When the caregiver becomes the patient

When veteran mammography technologist Patty Cuffe learned back in 2012 that she herself had breast cancer, she was dumbfounded.

“I’m the caregiver, not the patient,” Patty says five years later, describing her feelings at the time. “I’m a mammographer. I don’t get breast cancer. We diagnose it.”

Nevertheless, the then-49-year-old Patty had seen the type of indentation she found on her left breast many times before on her patients during her long career at Advocate Eureka Hospital in Eureka, Ill. The result was often cancer. But this time, she would be the patient.

To make matters worse, Patty’s diagnosis came less than a month after she and her husband Jim learned that their son Grant (then age 22) had an aggressive form of testicular cancer that had spread to his lungs, abdomen and brain.

“It was disbelief,” she says. “I knew it couldn’t happen to me at the same time my son was sick.”

Grant required specialized care at a hospital in Indianapolis. By mutual decision, Jim stayed by his side, while Patty began the process of dealing with her own cancer back home.

Because of the likelihood that her cancer would spread to her other breast, Patty had both removed via a bilateral mastectomy at Advocate BroMenn Medical Center in nearby Normal, Ill, followed by reconstruction.

“When I got home from the hospital, my older sister came to stay with me,” Patty says. “It was really hard for me not to have my husband there, but we agreed to put Grant first.”

It was also hard for Patty to move from her usual caregiver role as both a mom and a health care professional to that of a patient. But Grant’s fragile condition helped motivate her to get back to a position where she could be of help to him. Her treatment did not require chemotherapy or radiation, but she began a regimen of taking tamoxifen, a drug that can inhibit the growth of certain cancer cells.

Flash forward to 2017. After several rounds of high-dose chemotherapy, a double stem cell bone marrow transplant and surgery to remove 29 lymph nodes, Grant is doing well and has been off medication since 2014.

As for Patty, while she continues to take tamoxifen regularly and has check-ups every six months, she, too, has recovered physically – although it’s taken some time to recover emotionally.

“We focused on Grant, so it took me longer to focus on my emotions,” she says. “But it’s easier for me to talk about than it was before.”

One thing Patty knows for certain: her experience has – after more than 30 years on the job – made her a better mammography tech.

“From the time I started, I always tried to treat patients like they were my mom, but after my diagnosis, I could understand the fear a lot more,” she says. “Sometimes it takes a lot of courage to come in for your mammogram.”

Patty feels that her own cancer journey helped to give her more connection and empathy with patients and made her a better listener.

“I never realized how much being a mammographer was part of my identity,” Patty says. “Being the patient has put everything in perspective.”

Our Breast Health Assessment estimates your five-year and lifetime risks of developing breast cancer.

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health enews Staff
health enews Staff

health enews staff is a group of experienced writers from our Advocate Aurora Health sites, which also includes freelance or intern writers.