In 2013, 46-year-old Charlton resident Sharon Yager thought she was done with cancer treatments. The previous year she had undergone surgery and radiation for thyroid cancer at one of the major medical centers in Boston.
“When I finally finished treatment, I thought I would slowly start to feel better and regain my energy,” she says.
Yager’s energy levels, however, remained the same, and she felt worse, not better.
When Yager brought these concerns up to her oncologist during follow-up appointments, they were brushed aside. Since Yager had her thyroid removed, she was on synthetic hormones, and her doctors attributed her low-energy levels to her body adjusting to these.
“They kept telling me that it was going to take a while to get used to,” she explains. “But in my gut, I knew something was wrong.”
In January 2014, Yager decided to get another opinion close to home. Step one? Visiting her OB/GYN, Dr. Christine Carey, at Harrington HealthCare System.
“I was way overdue for my mammogram, so I figured it was a good place to start,” she says.
Little did Yager know this appointment was about to give her the answer to her concerns, but unfortunately, it wasn’t the answer she wanted to hear.
A Second Diagnosis
During the mammogram, the technician found a fairly large tumor in her left breast.
Dr. Carey referred Yager to Harrington’s general surgery department, where she then underwent a lumpectomy performed by Dr. Colette Whitby in June 2014. After the lump was biopsied, Yager learned she had stage IIB breast cancer, which means the tumor was greater than 2 cm but less than 5 cm and had spread to her lymph nodes. The diagnosis led to an aggressive, 30-week treatment plan involving chemotherapy and radiation.
“Dr. Whitby didn’t sugarcoat the news,” Yager says. “She told me, ‘Yes, it’s going to be hard, you’re going to feel awful and look awful, but think of it this way: we’re going to take a year away from your life so you can have 30 to 35 more years of health.’ That notion got me through the toughest days.”
In July 2014, Yager started chemotherapy with Dr. Shakeeb Yunus and then Dr. Christopher Seidler as her oncologists at the Cancer Center at Harrington. She went every other week for five months, ending that portion of treatment in November 2014.
Looking back, she reflects on the irony that such great care was so close to home, yet she had chosen to go back and forth to Boston for her first cancer treatment.
“My experience at the Cancer Center at Harrington was very different from my previous cancer treatment in Boston,” she says. “Being in such a bright and peaceful place did a lot to boost my spirits during a pretty depressing time. Everyone from the second you walk in the door to the second you leave is just wonderful. You get to know them all, and it becomes sort of like your own little community. I knew they were rooting for me. I didn’t get that personal touch in Boston, and it really meant a lot.”
During chemotherapy, she experienced side-effects such as hair loss, serious skin problems, and a weakened immune system.
“It was very challenging,” she explains. “But Dr. Yunus and Dr. Seidler treated each problem as it came along. They always took the time to explain why it was happening and what I could do to make myself more comfortable.”
During this time, Yager found a flyer in the Harrington resource room for the “Look Good Feel Better” program, a service program that teaches beauty techniques to cancer patients to help them manage appearance-related side-effects.
“The Cancer Center has so many resources,” she says. “From information on support groups and programs to more practical things like blankets and pillows you can use when you go in for treatment, they have everything. The Resource Room was a really big help.”
After Yager finished chemotherapy, she started 33 days of radiation with Dr. Thomas Fitzgerald from the affiliated 21st Century Oncology on the first floor of the Cancer Center.
“The radiation department was just as wonderful as the oncology department,” she says. “The nurses and technicians had this really great sense of humor, and they would play music they thought I would like. I just felt like everyone really got me.”
It’s been eight months since Yager had her last round of treatment, and in September 2015, she finally got the news she had been waiting to hear:
“I’m cancer free!” she says, laughing.
Yager says her energy is now back to where it was before, and she has returned to her position as the Council on Aging Director for the town of Shrewsbury. She enjoys spending time with her husband, children, and grandchildren.
“During what was the scariest and most difficult time in my life, every single staff member at the Cancer Center did what they could to make it the best situation possible,” she says. “Having everything in one place so close to home took a lot of stress out of treatment. I never had to worry about finding parking or traffic jams. The convenience of it all really made a difference.
“The hospitals in Boston do amazing things, and they save so many lives, but it’s not for everyone, and it’s not for me. If you’re unlucky enough to get cancer, be lucky enough to go to Harrington.”