Sabrina Fitzgerald always liked Tim McGraw’s country music ballad, “Live Like You Were Dying,” but the song really hit home when she received her breast cancer diagnosis a year ago this March — on her birthday.
“Every day really is a blessing, yet we take so much for granted,” said the married mother of two and grandmother of one. “Who is most important in your life? What is most important in your life? I wish we all could focus on the lessons of that song — but without having to go through the life-threatening diagnosis that I faced!”
“Am I dying?” she asked Tanner breast cancer specialist Raul Zunzunegui, MD, of the Comprehensive Breast Care Center on the day they met for her biopsy, a day after her mammogram revealed a likely malignancy.
He replied in an equally direct manner to her question: they would know the next day when her biopsy and scan results were available. He outlined two possibilities based on his evaluation of her to date. No matter what, she was not alone, and he would be with her through whatever lay ahead.
Dr. Zunzunegui — “Dr. Z” to his staff and patients — and the full Tanner Cancer Care team kept their word through the almost year-long journey that followed for Fitzgerald to treat invasive ductal carcinoma of her left breast, stage 3b. Chemotherapy, mastectomy, hysterectomy, radiation, reconstruction and maintenance medications to prevent a recurrence were to follow.
Today, she is in remission and planning for the future — which includes lots of fun times with her 18-month-old grandson Sullivan, aka “Sully.”
The Tanner Cancer Care Promise
The Tanner Cancer Care Promise is Tanner’s commitment to give patients answers — and peace of mind — faster.
Tanner cancer specialists discuss what goes into keeping that promise and how to get the patient started on their cancer journey within three days of receiving a referral.
“The Tanner Cancer Care Promise was fulfilled for me. On a scale of 1 to 10, Tanner Cancer Care and its wonderful people earned a 20 when it came to their care of me,” said Fitzgerald. “From the very beginning and at every key juncture of my journey, they were knowledgeable, credible and very organized, but also kind and caring, empathetic and reassuring. Their confidence inspired my self-confidence. I needed all of that to feel able to move forward and confident that I could beat my cancer.”
“I was diagnosed on a Tuesday, got my infusion port inserted on Friday at Tanner Medical Center/Carrollton outpatient surgery and by the following Wednesday, I was sitting in an infusion chair at the infusion center for my first chemo treatment. And the rest of my journey went just like that,” said Fitzgerald.
‘You have cancer’
The three words, “you have cancer,” are overwhelming and scary, said Fitzgerald, who had no family history of breast cancer, took only a daily multivitamin, always worked to stay on top of her annual checkups, kept a healthy weight and had been hospitalized only once — for the delivery of her daughter, Destiny.
She acknowledges that the COVID-19 pandemic caused a blip in her otherwise solid healthcare compliancy record. She skipped her annual mammogram in 2020 but got right back on track in 2021. Early in 2021, she noticed a lump in her breast near her ribcage and initially took it for a pulled muscle.
“We took a wonderful trip to Cancun, which turned out to be a major blessing with what would unfold afterwards. When we got home from our trip, we got back to the business of life, including getting my mammogram scheduled and that lump evaluated. The date for my mammogram was my birthday,” Fitzgerald said.
A ‘rock star’ team
From the radiology technologist who took her mammogram images to every member of the Tanner Cancer Care team Fitzgerald met in the days, weeks and months that followed, she found herself surrounded by a team she admiringly calls “rock stars.”
“My sweet radiology technologist had her game face on that day, especially when she had to come back in for more and more images. She knew it was my birthday, and she didn’t want me to spend it worrying about this lump. I knew right then that I was not alone,” Fitzgerald said.
“The next day, when it was time for my biopsy, Dr. Z explained everything in understandable terms and he took extra time to answer my questions, never rushing. My husband Corey was allowed to accompany me for my biopsy and Dr. Z even turned the screen around so he could see what he was seeing. He also explained the sights and sounds of the biopsy process so both of us would be comfortable,” she added.
As part of the Tanner Cancer Care Promise, each patient is assigned a patient navigator to help them manage their cancer care journey, including scheduling appointments, explaining procedures, detailing potential treatment side effects and answering the myriad of questions that arise during a scary time for most patients.
“My navigator, Nicolle Rooks, RN, always helped me be prepared for what to expect as my treatment process unfolded. I managed my life in 24-hour increments. If today was an infusion day, then that’s what I would deal with today. Tomorrow would be a new day,” said Fitzgerald.
“Nicolle took me through all the details. She called me about every single milestone and what to expect, day by day. Almost to the hour, she was spot on, and she always followed up afterwards to see how I was. She even provided directions for every appointment, including which door, which floor, everything. I needed that. I was never alone.”
Medical oncologist Brad Larson, MD, with Northwest Georgia Oncology Centers, oversaw Fitzgerald’s chemotherapy treatment plan, which consisted of eight infusions over 16 weeks at the West Georgia Infusion Center on the Tanner Medical Center/Carrollton campus.
Following those four months of chemotherapy, Dr. Zunzunegui performed a radical mastectomy to remove Fitzgerald’s left breast and lymph nodes. Three months later, Ryan Davis, MD, of Tanner Healthcare for Women performed a complete hysterectomy at Tanner Medical Center/Villa Rica, ensuring estrogen from her pre-menopausal ovaries would not fuel a reoccurrence.
Radiation oncologist Jason Sanders, MD, of Tanner Radiation Oncology oversaw the radiation component of Fitzgerald’s treatment plan, which included 30 daily radiation treatments at the Roy Richards, Sr. Cancer Center, also on the Carrollton campus.
During her radiation therapy, Fitzgerald benefitted from “deep inspiration breath hold,” a new radiation technique launched last year at Tanner to protect the heart from potentially harmful effects of radiation. The technique harnesses the natural movement of the lungs and heart during deep breaths to move the heart farther away from the targeted treatment area, reducing exposure. Heart health is even more important now with women living longer after breast cancer treatment.
Once Fitzgerald completed her radiation, she began an oral medication regimen of hormone blockers that she will continue for at least five years.
Earlier this year, Stephen Kahler, MD, a cosmetic, plastic and reconstructive surgeon, performed breast reconstruction surgery for Fitzgerald to help her get back to normal in terms of her body image.
“They were all rock stars, and the entire process was seamless. I always had a phenomenal team on my side. If this was going to happen to me, we were in the best place possible with Tanner,” said Fitzgerald.
Showing up for life and the fight
From the moment of her diagnosis, Fitzgerald was determined that cancer would not dominate her life. And she credits her Tanner patient navigator, Rooks, for helping her keep that promise to herself.
“I wanted to continue to show up for life because my faith was bigger than my fear. I always wanted God’s glory to shine through this. We all can be easily consumed both mentally and physically by this diagnosis. I have been so blessed by family, friends, Covenant Life Church in Bremen — everyone has been amazing,” said Fitzgerald.
Fitzgerald and husband Corey have been married 15 years, “perfectly” blending their families, she said, which includes son Zach, who will graduate from University of West Georgia this spring, and daughter Destiny and her husband who have 18-month-old Sully. Her parents, David and Jeannie Bryant, and in-laws Don and Jenny Fitzgerald, all live nearby.
Losing hair but keeping a sense of humor
Corey Fitzgerald operates his own tree removal service and the couple call Fairfield Plantation in Villa Rica home. Ironically, he sported a bald head for years by choice but decided to let his hair grow back a few months before his wife’s cancer diagnosis. Her eventual lack of hair due to chemo became a source of healing humor for them both.
“He has been a gift from God. We never expected that I would be the one with the bald head,” said Sabrina Fitzgerald. “When my hair began thinning about two weeks into my chemo, Corey whipped out a brand-new pair of clippers so he could shave my head. He kept telling me, ‘baby, you are beautiful, even with a bald head,’ as the wisps of hair fell from the clippers. He kept repeating that over and over, but he was sounding less and less convinced. Finally, he asked me, ‘did you know you have a birthmark on your head?’ I looked up and saw where the root touch-up product that I had been using during the pandemic had actually stained my scalp. Thankfully, the ‘birthmark’ eventually faded, but we got a good laugh out of it.”
On a couples’ trip to the beach during her journey, she bragged that she would only need 30 minutes to get ready for dinner while the others were heading off a couple of hours ahead to get ready. “Hey, I have trimmed 20 minutes off my get-ready routine by not having hair.”
““I can be cute, or I can be alive. Right now, I’m going for alive! Hair grows back,” she said.
Even grandson Sully rolled right along with her hair loss.
“I was so nervous that he wouldn’t recognize me, and he did look at me sort of funny the first time he saw me without hair. But then, he rubbed my bald head and laughed, and that was it.”
Looking forward, Sabrina Fitzgerald is intent on helping others face a breast cancer diagnosis.
“Early detection is most important. Don’t miss a mammogram. If you see or feel something, go get it checked. Put faith in our local hospitals. Some friends asked me if I planned to go to Atlanta or elsewhere and get a second opinion. Why would I when I have this excellent support system right here at home?”
She also encourages women to talk about their feelings about a cancer diagnosis.
“Cancer takes you through every single emotion — from being scared to death, to anger, to the sense of unknown, to being overwhelmed, to sadness and then, the gratitude and the gladness come as you emerge from the other side.”
“God is bigger than all this. Cancer doesn’t have to win. I have had an amazing opportunity to enjoy and soak up every bit of life and not take one single moment for granted. I will live life to the fullest and not be in fear of what cancer means. Life can change in a moment,” Fitzgerald said.