Special to the Banner-Herald
For Denise Williamson, becoming a breast health nurse at St. Mary’s Health Care System came easily.
“I had practiced several kinds of nursing and liked women’s and children’s nursing best,” she says. “When I saw this opening at St. Mary’s, I knew that’s what I wanted to do. I am proud to be part of the St. Mary’s breast health team.”
Now, Denise works with veteran breast health nurse Ashley Woodall and St. Mary’s radiologists, technologists and other women’s health professionals to be a compassionate and knowledgeable resource for women in all stages of their battle against breast cancer.
“We come into the picture when it becomes clear a patient needs a biopsy,” she says. “That’s the point in the process where most women start getting anxious about their health and the complicated choices that might be ahead of them.”
Biopsy is the process of taking samples of tissue from a suspicious lesion. St. Mary’s offers minimally invasive stereotactic, MRI-guided and ultrasound-guided breast biopsy options, in addition to surgical biopsy. Samples are analyzed in St. Mary’s Laboratory, where pathologists microscopically examine tissue to see if cancer is present and, if so, determine what kind of cancer the patient has.
“When a patient needs a biopsy, we talk with them about the kind of biopsy they might need and what will be done during the procedure,” Williamson says. “We provide comfort and support, and take the time they need to answer all their questions.”
On the day of the biopsy, either Williamson or Woodall is there as part of the team.
“During their biopsy, we are right by their side,” Williamson says. “We will talk with them, distract them, if they want. We often talk about family, kids, grandkids, pets, anything that helps them relax. Sometimes, they just want a hand to hold. They just need to know that someone is there with them.”
Many times, the results of the biopsy are good and women are relieved. But other times, their worst fear is confirmed.
“We are often the ones who call,” Williamson says, “although some of our doctors like to do that personally. We explain the results and what kind of cancer they have. We go over the statistics and survival rates, which are good and getting better, especially when breast cancer is diagnosed early. And we let them know we are always here to listen, answer their questions and provide emotional support. That day when they are diagnosed is overwhelming. We help them start the process of letting it sink in.”
At diagnosis, Woodall and Williamson provide each woman with a comprehensive handbook about breast cancer, in addition to gently talking them through the journey ahead and the next, most immediate steps.
“We also can take care of making their appointments with a surgeon and oncologist, to take some of the burden off of them while they are feeling so overwhelmed,” Williamson notes. “We make sure the surgeon has all the images and test results so that the patient doesn’t have to worry about those details, either.”
A big part of their work is educating patients about their options. Before biopsy, they help patients understand the different types of procedures so that each woman can make informed decisions and will know what to expect. After diagnosis, they help women understand their next steps.
The biggest question many women have is whether to undergo a lumpectomy (removal of a portion of the breast), mastectomy (removal of the entire breast), or double mastectomy (removal of both breasts).
“It’s very, very personal,” Williamson says. “There are so many decisions that have to be made, often quickly, so that treatment can start soon but also be individualized to the needs of the woman. What is best for one woman may not be right for someone else.”
Through every step, the whole team at St. Mary’s focuses on success. Williamson, for example, tells patients about the many women the team has helped who now come back each year for a routine mammogram. That word, “routine,” is important. They are survivors. They are cancer-free.
“I love being able to tell our patients as they start this journey that whether their biopsy is positive or negative, we’re here for them,” Williamson said. “It can be a rough road, but it’s getting better all the time.”
For more information, please visit St. Mary’s website at www.stmarysathens.org or call St. Mary’s breast health nurses at (706) 389-2309.