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The Fighter

Age was no factor in Effie Wortham’s cancer journey

Effie Wortham knows what it takes to beat cancer.

She successfully battled lymphoma in her late 40s and now, several decades later, she is finishing up her treatment for breast cancer. As a cancer survivor, Wortham knows how important it is to have an individual treatment plan — and for every patient to have voice in their treatment.

Because she is 78, doctors gave her several different treatment options. Some were less aggressive because as people get older, they often choose to pursue less aggressive and less traumatic treatment options. But Wortham didn’t want to hear that.

“I told him, ‘if you say anything else about my age, I’m going to get up and leave,’’’ she recalled. “I wanted to talk about how to beat this cancer — not about how old I am.”

Her doctor listened.

“Treatment options may vary depending on a patient’s age,” said Randall Pierce, MD, a board-certified medical oncologist with Northwest Georgia Oncology Centers and a member of the patient care team at Tanner Cancer Care. “But we heard her loud and clear that she wanted to pursue the most aggressive treatment, so that’s what we did.”

Wortham initially felt shocked and devastated about her diagnosis.

“I was really upset when they first told me,” she said, adding that she has always gotten an annual mammogram. “I was mad at the world at first, but then I just tried to think about what I needed to do.”

She said the patience and kindness of her doctors helped her a lot.

Raul Zunzunegui, MD, a Susan G. Komen Fellowship-trained breast specialist and board-certified surgeon with Comprehensive Breast Care Center, a Tanner Medical Group practice, was her breast surgeon at Tanner.

“Because of her annual mammogram, we were able to catch the cancer early and have such a positive outcome,” said Dr. Zunzunegui.

Soon after she was diagnosed in May 2015, she underwent lumpectomy surgery and quickly started chemo. She wanted to begin chemo as soon as possible after surgery because when she had lymphoma, her doctor in Atlanta had suggested that was the best approach to fighting cancer.

“I wanted to get started as soon as possible,” Wortham said. “I didn’t want to be waiting around on anything, so I told them to be ready for me.”

She also felt sense of urgency because of her family’s experience with cancer. All three of her brothers had prostate cancer, but only two of them survived.

Her brother who died from prostate cancer didn’t begin his treatment quickly; his doctor in Alabama waited several months to operate and then delayed chemo.

“I felt like they weren’t acting fast enough on him,” she said. “The cancer got into his bones and killed him.”

The pain of losing her brother stuck with her and served as a powerful reminder.

“Patients need to pay attention to what’s happening and speak up when it comes to their care,” Wortham said. “I’m no doctor, but I tell it like it is.”

Wortham believes that patients need to feel comfortable talking with their doctors.

“If you don’t understand what a doctor is saying or you don’t like what they are going to do, then tell them up front,” Wortham said. “They aren’t mind readers, so be honest about what you are thinking.”

Wortham is a widow and her son lives in Seattle, so she didn’t have family close by to help during her cancer treatment. But she does appreciate all of the help she has received from a neighbor who is also a close friend and from the ladies in her Sunday school class at Bowdon Baptist Church.

“I knew it was going to be a rough road,” she said. “What really hit me hard was losing my hair this time because I never lost my hair with lymphoma.”

But in some ways it has been a much smoother path.

During her treatment, doctors prescribed anti-nausea medicine — a big comfort that wasn’t available during her first battle with cancer 30 years ago.

Something else was different this time, too: Wortham, who lives in Bowdon, didn’t have to travel to Atlanta because she had everything she needed in west Georgia.

“Why go all the way to Atlanta or even Newnan when you have wonderful doctors and excellent care right here?” she said. “My doctors have taken such great care of me and they have been so good to me.”

Although chemo and radiation have been difficult, Wortham said, the caring staff made everything so much easier.

“They were so nice to help me with everything I asked for, and they waited on me hand and foot,” she said.

As a cancer survivor, Wortham knows that a patient’s individual treatment plan doesn’t end when chemo and radiation are done. After surviving lymphoma, she went for check-ups every six months for many years until she was cleared to go for annual exams. And she has always gotten an annual mammogram.

“It’s important to follow through and do everything the doctors tell you,” she said.

As Wortham entered her final two weeks of radiation, she still had her fighting spirit and positive attitude. She was pleased to see a little bit of her hair coming back.

“I’m on my way now — getting closer and closer to beating this cancer,” Wortham said. “I can see the light at the end of the tunnel.”

Photo caption:
Cancer survivor Effie Wortham of Bowdon enjoys a spontaneous and very sweet moment with two members of her Tanner Cancer Care patient care team: Randall Pierce, MD (left), a board-certified medical oncologist with Northwest Georgia Oncology Centers, and Raul Zunzunegui, MD (right), a Susan G. Komen Fellowship-trained breast specialist and board-certified surgeon with Comprehensive Breast Care Center, a Tanner Medical Group practice.

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