Tallapoosa resident Becky Ellis almost passed on her opportunity to get a free screening mammogram before retiring from Tanner Health System at the end of July 2017.
She credits Tammy Hall, a former co-worker in the scheduling department at Tanner Medical Center/Carrollton, with encouraging her to get a mammogram — and perhaps saving her life — so she can continue her hobby and “mission” of singing in a gospel quartet called RUGGED: Right Under God’s Grace Every Day.
“I had planned for my retirement, and July 31 was going to be my last day,” said Ellis, now age 66. “One of the girls [in the scheduling department] had asked me, ‘Are you not going to get a mammogram before you leave?’ I said ‘No, I just had one a couple of years back and I don’t think I need another one. I keep a check on my breasts.’ She just kind of insisted. She said it’s been two years and you need to go ahead and have it because it’s free for employees. She just kept insisting several times. I finally made an appointment to go in and have it done, not expecting anything to be wrong.”
Instead, much to her surprise about two weeks after the screening mammogram, Tanner Breast Health called and asked her to return for a diagnostic mammogram. They had found a small abnormality in her right breast.
“They did an ultrasound and another diagnostic mammogram, too,” said Ellis, who says she her memory is still a little fuzzy from the radiation (not to mention the shock of her diagnosis) and doesn’t remember every little detail. “The radiologist said it needed to be biopsied and referred me to Dr. Z.”
“Dr. Z,” as he is affectionately known to his patients, is Raul Zunzunegui, MD, a Susan G. Komen Fellowship-trained breast surgeon who is board-certified in surgery. He practices with Comprehensive Breast Care Center, a Tanner Medical Group practice.
Dr. Zunzunegui performed a biopsy of the lump in her right breast on July 25, 2017.
“The night before my retirement party, which was planned for the last Friday in July 2017, Dr. Z called me at home around 7 p.m. He said, ‘Well, I’ve got some bad news. The place I biopsied is malignant.’ He also said it was small and thought he could get it all with surgery,” said Ellis.
“Mammography is the first step in diagnosis, because it allows us to see that there’s a potential problem as early as possible,” Dr. Zunzunegui said. “The biopsy provides us with confirmation and helps guide treatment decisions, so we know what we need to do as providers to give patients the best opportunity to overcome cancer.”
Ellis, who worked for around five years in Registration at Tanner Medical Center/Carrollton, then for Denis Morin, MD, at Buchanan Medical Clinic for 13 years before transferring back to Carrollton in scheduling, was no stranger to health care and the importance of mammograms, but she emphasized that when Dr. Zunzunegui called with the news it was still like the ground had fallen out from under her.
“I never dreamed I’d have breast cancer — though there has been some cancer on my dad’s side of the family. I was one to keep my breasts checked,” said Ellis. “You can check them and not feel any lumps, but you can still have cancer.”
The next day was her retirement party in the scheduling department.
“I went in and I think I just broke down,” said Ellis. “I think a lot of people thought it was because it was my last day, but my heart was hurting because I had gotten the bad news. I finally broke down and told my boss. Of course, several of them cried, and we all just talked about it. But I had a real good retirement party.”
What to do next required some prayer. And there was no shortage of that. Ellis had lots of prayer warriors, and she knew “God is so good.”
“I first thought about going to another facility when I found out it was malignant, but I prayed hard about it,” said Ellis. “I knew Tanner was good. I’d heard so many good things about the Tanner Cancer Care, with their mammography, radiation and chemo services from the girls and a lot of people who’d had cancer. They told me that they felt Tanner was the best place to go. And I loved Tanner; it’s such a good place to work.”
On Aug. 11, 2017, Dr. Zunzunegui performed a lumpectomy with sentinel node biopsy at Tanner Medical Center/Carrollton. The results from the operation showed that she had a stage I breast cancer.
Following the lumpectomy, Ellis received the good news from Randall Pierce, MD, a board-certified oncologist with Northwest Georgia Oncology Centers, that she wouldn’t need chemotherapy, but she would need seven weeks of radiation.
Richard Bland, MD, a board-certified radiation oncology specialist with Tanner Radiation Oncology, oversaw her radiation treatments at the Roy Richards, Sr. Cancer Center on the campus of Tanner Medical Center/Carrollton.
“No one else could have been any better than them. They were some of the nicest people in that office,” said Ellis. “I had to go five days a week for seven weeks. Each radiation treatment took 20 to 30 minutes or less, but the last few were longer.”
Then she said she got to ring the survivor bell at the cancer center, with a big smile on her face.
Becky Ellis with RUGGED quarter“I try to be a fighter not a whiner,” said Ellis. “I couldn’t have asked for any better treatment. I think Tanner is one of the best, growing hospital systems ever. I personally have a lot of faith in Tanner, not just for breast cancer but for anything.”
Following the radiation treatments, which were completed on Nov. 15, 2017, Ellis now has regular mammograms and follow-ups with Dr. Pierce and Dr. Zunzunegui.
“Breast cancer is like many other kinds of cancer, in which follow-up care is vital,” said Dr. Pierce. “You have to work with your patient care team to schedule your screenings and to make sure you know who to call if you have any complications or any signs that the cancer has returned — and to make sure you’re taking the steps to reduce the chances of that happening as much as possible.”
Married for over 45 years to husband Dennis, who also sings in the RUGGED quartet (pictured above) along with another couple, Peggy Shepherd and Bobby Robinson, Ellis said she doesn’t know what she would have done during her cancer surgery, radiation treatments and recovery without them, daughter Jamie Shell, a nurse and the program chair for medical assisting at the Waco campus of West Georgia Technical College, and daughter Jennifer Davis, a prayer warrior who now lives in California.
“When I came back from my surgery, they had my oldest daughter [Jennifer] on speaker phone from California,” said Ellis. “She is such a blessing to me. She is such a prayer warrior. My room was full when I came back, and she called and had this special prayer for me along with my church family. Something about it made me feel like I was already healed. She checked on me every day.”
Her son Jonathan Ellis, the pastor of Refuge in Tallapoosa, which she and her husband also attend, and daughter-in-law Wanda (both pictured below) also provided even more family and spiritual support and reminded her of another reason to heal quickly.
Becky Ellis and her family“We have so many prayer warriors at Refuge,” said Ellis. “I have had so many people praying. God has blessed me so much. I can’t thank Him enough for all that He has done.”
Ellis is now back to singing in the RUGGED quartet.
“We have made two CDs and we have a lot of singings,” said Ellis. “This year has been a big year for us. We’ve performed at churches, senior centers, nursing homes and other places. It’s just amazing to see these older people having a good time, clapping, smiling and singing along.”
Her voice filled with emotion, Ellis wondered aloud one more time: “If my coworker hadn’t stayed after me about getting a mammogram, I don’t know where I’d be today. I’m so thankful that I went for that mammogram because I almost didn’t. And I probably wouldn’t have for a long time. Then it would have been a lot worse. Please take time out for your yearly mammograms and check your breasts regularly. This is so important.”