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Cancer Patient Learns Caring for Yourself Is a Gift to Others

Publication: Fort Worth Star-Telegram

By: Joan Kurkowski-Gillen

Like countless other women, Angie Girgenti put off getting her annual mammogram. Life was hectic for the 45-year-old, who was still reeling from the sudden death of her husband, Nick, two days after Christmas 2013. The gregarious, "full of life Italian" suffered a heart attack while sleeping.

Here is her full story

"It was a major trauma for me. There was a lot of stress at the time," the young widow explains. "Getting a mammogram wasn't a priority." A preventive care nurse, who oversees Angie's health care at the Naval Air Station Joint Reserve Base's medical center, thought otherwise. She called her patient several times to say a screening mammogram was past due.

"During her last call, the nurse insisted I let her know the date of my appointment," Angie recalls. "She was holding me accountable."

The strategy worked.

Angie finally scheduled the mammogram that helped save her life. "I just wanted to get it out of the way," Angie says.

Less than 24 hours later, a phone call sent her back tothe center for a diagnostic mammogram. The radiologist found something suspicious and requested a biopsy.

From Health Coorindator to Patient

Initially, Angie thought she had stage 0 non-invasive, estrogen positive breast cancer. Dr. Jennifer Snow - a breast surgeon at Texas Breast Specialists-Southwest Fort Worth, part of Texas Oncology - ordered an MRI after the biopsy that changed the diagnosis.

"It turned out to be stage I with micro invasion," she continues. "My cancer had traveled outside the milk duct, but not to the lymph nodes."

The news stunned Angie, who serves as the regional women's health coordinator for the Department of Health and Human Services.

"I was in a state of denial. It was like a fog," she says describing the days following her diagnosis. "It took me a while to wrap my mind around it and understand the journey I was about to take."

Caring doctors and nurses at Texas Oncology helped her take those first steps toward treatment and recovery.

"Dr. Snow is the best physician I've ever had," Angie insists. "She explained everything in detail as much as she possibly could."

The patient applauds her doctor's bedside manner and ability to communicate with patients on their level. "

She's empathetic, kind and takes time with her patients," Angie adds. "She always knew everything about me and didn't forget the details."

A health care team that cared

On October 31, 2016, Dr. Snow performed a lumpectomy. At the same time, Angie received breast reduction surgery.

"I had a lot of back problems and other issues related to having large breasts," she explains. "Dr. Snow helped coordinate a plastic surgeon to do a breast reduction at the same time as the lumpectomy and made the whole process seamless."

Following her surgery, Angie received daily radiation treatments for six weeks at Texas Oncology. In her case, chemotherapy wasn't necessary.

"Throughout my treatment, the Texas Oncology staff was incredible. They were always upbeat," the patient says. "I work in women's health and hear lots of stories, but until you walk through cancer, you can't understand what it's like. My care team held my hand throughout the process and was so supportive."

A New Chapter

Back at work as a cancer survivor and engaged to marry the new love in her life, Angie returns to Texas Oncology every three months for routine check-in appointments with Dr. Snow and medical oncologist Dr. Patrick Griffin. As a preventive measure, Angie's physician team developed a treatment plan that includes taking tamoxifen for the next five years.

"If that nurse hadn't been so persistent I hate to think what would have happened," Angie emphasizes. "It's a success story because my cancer was caught early and the team at Texas Oncology took such good care of me. My margins are clean so everyone feels confident I won't have problems going forward."

The risk of reoccurrence is low, but to improve her odds, the bride-to-be avoids sugar and eats lean protein and vegetables. To build muscle strength, she signed up for a monthly 5K walk/run with her fiancé. The pair also began boot camp workouts.

Staying mentally fit is also key.

"I try not to sweat the small stuff," Angie explains. "Cancer taught me not to take anything for granted and to live life to the fullest. The future is not a guarantee for anyone."

Reflecting on Lessons Learned

While earning a master's degree in public health at Texas Woman's University, Angie studied trauma and its effect on the body. She believes the stress of losing her husband may have contributed to her illness.

"That time in my life was so difficult, just surviving was hard for me," Angie says recalling the sleepless nights and loss of appetite. "My cancer happened two years later so I do feel, in some way, there's a connection."

That's why taking care of your health, when life becomes busy or stressful, is advice the breast cancer survivor likes to share with others. Annual check-ups and mammograms should top every woman's "must do" list.

"Women tend to take care of other people and put them first," Angie observes. "But if we don't take care of ourselves, how can we care for those we love the most?"

Carving out time for exercise, relaxation and medical screenings shouldn't generate feelings of guilt.

"Taking care of your health is really an act of love for others," she adds thoughtfully. "Make yourself a priority and don't put things off. Look at it as not being selfish, but selfless."

Read the full story from Fort Worth Star-Telegram.