Bremen attorney Lynn Clarke had everything on her side to fight breast cancer — including no history of breast cancer in her family — except the COVID-19 pandemic.
Clarke — who’s practiced estate, business planning and transactional law in Bremen for 30 years — was given the option of waiting a few weeks for her lumpectomy because of the pandemic.
Raul Zunzunegui, MD
, a board-certified surgeon and breast specialist, told her the cancer was found so early that she had the option of waiting — but, if in her shoes, he’d go ahead and have it done.
“The hospital was a ghost town,” Clarke said. “I was so used to it being so busy — people everywhere. That’s what made it so odd; going in and seeing the hospital so empty. That was the strangest thing.”
Clarke’s treatment journey began after a routine, annual mammogram in late February 2020 turned up a small area of concern. Mammograms use X-rays and sophisticated computers to produce images of breast tissue and are often the first line of breast cancer detection. A tumor in a breast can be found months sooner with a mammogram than it can be felt.
Clarke had been rigid about getting her mammogram every year, in accordance with the recommendations from Tanner Cancer Care’s specialists.
“Annual mammography helps us find breast cancer sooner,” said Dr. Zunzunegui, with Tanner Medical Group’s Comprehensive Breast Care Center. “The sooner we find it, the better the outcome. We have more treatment options, more ways of helping someone overcome cancer if we have more time. That’s why we advocate for yearly mammograms.”
Everything was still “normal” when Clarke went in for her annual mammogram — the new Tanner Health Pavilion in Carrollton, housing the new Tanner Breast Health, was bustling with people on their way to see a doctor or get an imaging procedure or eat at the Blue Bike Bistro.
Days later, when she was called back in for additional imaging — a sonogram — after the initial screening, the atmosphere had changed.
“The pandemic was starting,” said Clarke. “There was one person working the desk at the imaging center.”
The call-back for additional screening didn’t concern Clarke too much. She’d had another call-back almost 10 years prior. But when the radiologist came in to talk to her, she knew something was wrong.
The radiologist who reviewed the sonogram was Alexandre Morin, MD
, whose father — Denis Morin, MD — is a long-time family practice doctor in Haralson County.
“I’ve known the family for many years,” said Clarke. “When he came in to talk, I said ‘uh oh.’”
Dr. Morin carefully reviewed Clarke’s sonogram and mammogram and found the first tiny, early signs of a tumor in her left breast.
“Even Dr. Z said it was an incredible find,” said Clarke. “It was so early, and it was so tiny, that it was amazing that Dr. Morin had found it at all.”
The tumor was so small that Dr. Zununegui placed a marker in Clarke’s breast during her biopsy to be sure he could locate it again. Dr. Zunzunegui’s biopsy confirmed a diagnosis of Stage I breast cancer.
After almost a decade on the Tanner Foundation
’s Board of Trustees and several years on the Tanner Medical Center Inc. Board of Directors
, she knew many patients were so waylaid by a cancer diagnosis that they didn’t always hear everything the physician said. She brought her iPad to the appointment and patched her daughter in through Facetime during the appointment.
She and her daughter had plenty of questions, but Dr. Z and the staff took time to make sure they had all their answers.
The cancer was found so early that Dr. Zunzunegui felt that she had the option to delay her lumpectomy if she wanted to, giving her a chance to see if the pandemic subsided and things returned to normal. But, he also suggested that she think hard about that choice.
“He thought I should go ahead and have the surgery,” said Clarke. “He said it was up to me, but I agreed, and I’m glad I did. I was in a really good position – the cancer was tiny. If I’d waited another week or two, it might’ve been much harder to get in for the surgery because so many procedures were suspended for the pandemic.”
Clarke’s surgery went well, and her pain was minimal – an earlier procedure to locate lymph nodes under her arm was more unpleasant than the surgery, she said. The anesthesiologist for the lumpectomy procedure used a nerve block, and — though she was prescribed pain medication after the procedure – she never had to take them.
“I ended up taking the pain medication up to the fire station and turning it in,” said Clarke. “I had some discomfort, but it was not painful and it feels better every day.”
The COVID-19 pandemic has put a lot of lives on hold. Clarke has missed out on her annual humanitarian trip to Honduras and traveling to Europe with her granddaughter. She’s had to adjust her practice as well, making sure she’s socially distant from her clients to ensure their safety.
“A lot of my clients are older,” said Clarke. “And I like them and want to keep them around.”
But it’s also exposed the resiliency of the region’s healthcare system to care for everyone — even amid an influx of infectious patients.
“Being on the board, I knew everything the hospital was doing to keep patients safe,” said Clarke. “I knew about the UV robots they were using to sanitize the rooms and waiting areas, the negative pressure rooms they were using to keep the virus contained, the special cleaning protocols in place to keep everything safe. I knew I was safer in the hospital than anywhere.”
Clarke followed up the surgery with a five-day course of radiation — twice a day. Her son, a dosimetrist who specializes in ensuring cancer patients receive the correct dose of radiation, Facetimed with the team at the Roy Richards Sr. Cancer Center to understand her radiation therapy regimen. Because the cancer was in her left breast, the cancer center staff would have to take special care that the radiation didn’t damage Clarke’s heart.
The radiation therapy was followed by medication therapy with Bradley Larson, MD. The type of cancer Clarke had was estrogen-receptor positive, so it would respond to hormone therapies — a course of medication she’ll take for the next five years. The medication, however, has not had any noticeable side effects.
Overall, the surgery and treatment have gone well. Clarke went home after the surgery and said she even cooked dinner that night. She did not miss a single day of work after her day of surgery or during radiation treatment and suffered no ill effects at all from radiation. Clarke believes that is because of early detection.
And she’s developed a whole new respect for routine screening mammograms — even for those with no family history of breast cancer — and was happy to report that she is cancer-free.
“I’ve gotten my mammogram every year since I was 40, either in January or February,” said Clarke. “And by the hand of God, I was probably one of the last mammograms they performed before the pandemic began. If I had put it off for one week, I probably would’ve had to put it off for two months or longer. And who knows how fast it could’ve grown in that time?”
Her experience with the Tanner Foundation has given her insight into the health system’s work to make annual mammograms widely available to all women, regardless of ability to pay, through the foundation’s Mammogram Assistance Fund.
“It has been eye-opening to be involved in the big picture with a regional, multi-hospital system at the forefront of medicine,” said Clarke.
In addition to her practice and her responsibilities with Tanner Health System, Clarke is also chair of the LAMP Board — a literacy action group in Haralson County — as well as a member of a task force with Healthy Haralson, a member of the Bremen Rotary Club, First United Methodist Church of Bremen and is an avid tennis player.
She’s also a child of the region’s healthcare history; her father, Jack Thompson, MD, was a long-time general surgeon in Villa Rica.
“I’ve really enjoyed my time with Tanner,” said Clarke. “My dad made house calls, and the future is going to be telemedicine — it’s been a joy to be a part of that medical history and be part of where the future is going.”
More about scheduling an annual mammogram can be found at TannerBreastHealth.org