Diane Frey had always made sure she went for her annual mammogram.
But when she got hurt in a car wreck in Arizona in 2016, getting a mammogram that year was the furthest thing on her mind.
“I was hit by an 18-wheeler, so I was worried about getting the rest of my body healed,” said Frey, 61, who lives in Carrollton.
Her injuries were so severe that she had to be life-flighted to the hospital. All the ribs on one side of her body were broken and three chest tubes had to be put in.
“My son and I both were in it,” Frey said. “We were lucky to survive it.”
As if surviving a terrifying car crash wasn’t tragic enough, she found herself fighting for her life again the following year when she was diagnosed with breast cancer. She knew something was wrong in late December 2016 when she felt burning and pain in her breast. She went to the emergency department and requested a mammogram.
Frey didn’t have a primary care doctor at the time so she scheduled an appointment to see J. Taylor Gordon, MD, who wrote an order for a diagnostic mammogram at Tanner Breast Health in Carrollton.
“When I went to have it done, the radiologist said he didn’t like the way it looked and had me go into the next room where they did an ultrasound,” Frey said.
After the radiologist reviewed the results, the patient was referred to Raul Zunzunegui, MD, with Comprehensive Breast Care Center. Dr. Zunzunegui is a Susan G. Komen Fellowship-trained, board-certified surgeon who specializes in breast surgery.
“Ms. Frey did exactly what we encourage anyone to do if they suspect something’s wrong — don’t wait, don’t assume it’ll get better; be your own advocate and act,” said Dr. Zunzunegui. “She was proactive, and that allowed us to find the cancer when we did.”
Frey was seen for an exam and consultation in his office where he discussed her results.
“He said it could be cancer. It could just be something benign, but only a biopsy can tell for sure,” she said. “That threw me for a loop.”
And like the crash, everything happened so fast. While at the office, Frey was scheduled for a core biopsy. After the biopsy, Dr. Zunzunegui confirmed the diagnosis of breast cancer and discussed her options.
“Within a few days, he had scheduled the surgery; my head was spinning,” Frey said. “It all happened so quickly. I really didn’t have a chance to feel anything because they were already setting me up for surgery and I was like, ‘OK, just get it out of my body.’”
She had a lumpectomy and sentinel node biopsy to determine if the cancer had spread beyond the primary tumor. Once the cancer was removed and staged, it was time to discuss post-operative treatment options. Her treatment included three different types of chemotherapy drugs and radiation therapy.
When asked which experience was more terrifying, she noted that her memory of the crash is a blur.
“I didn’t really remember a lot of it,” Frey said. “The cancer was scarier to me than the wreck because my mom had had breast cancer.”
Her mother, who is 83 years old and lives in Las Vegas, was diagnosed about 10 years ago then had the cancer removed. Something else that scared Frey was how cancer treatment would affect her thyroid condition, diabetes and multiple sclerosis (MS). She later learned that she had to stop taking medicine for MS because of her cancer treatment.
“Dr. Larson and my neurologist agreed it mixed badly with the chemo drugs,” Frey said.
And while her cancer treatment was successful, her diabetes took a turn for the worse.
“My diabetes was under control until I got cancer, then it went out of control and I went from taking pills to insulin,” Frey said. “So I basically said, ‘I’ve got diabetes and MS. I conquered it, and now I just got to pull my boots up a little higher and we’re going to conquer cancer.”
When it comes to dealing with multiple chronic conditions, she turns to her faith.
“They say, ‘God doesn’t give you more than you can handle,’ and I’m like, ‘OK, but give it to me in small doses,” Frey said with a soft laugh.
While undergoing treatment, she found that it was harder to go through radiation therapy than chemotherapy. She underwent radiation daily for two months and developed burns on her skin that felt like a sunburn. She was thrilled when she completed chemotherapy and had her last radiation therapy treatment in February.
There’s a bell in the Roy Richards, Sr. Cancer Center that patients ring as they leave the radiation treatment area following their final treatment.
“It was great,” Frey said. “I rang the bell and it was like, ‘Yes, I did this. I completed it!’”
Frey rings the cancer center bellThrough all the appointments, chemotherapy and radiation therapy, the support she received from family, friends and her medical team played a big role in helping her maintain a positive outlook. Her medical team included Dr. Zunzunegui, Bradley Larson, MD, a board-certified oncology and hematology specialist with Northwest Georgia Oncology Centers in Carrollton and a member of the patient care team at Tanner Cancer Center, Anna Harris, MD, a radiation oncologist at Tanner Radiation Oncology, physician assistant Mary Beth Maxwell, PA-C, Lisa Jackson, LPN, Brittany Steed, RN, and breast cancer nurse navigator Nicolle Rooks, RN, MSN.
“Dr. Larson really helped me understand the process even though he may have explained it to me before,” Frey said. “Nicolle helped me a lot on days that I was down and didn’t know what to do and I just felt like crying.”
She also recognized all the members of the medical staff who were helpful during chemo.
“Everybody was so wonderful — from the people at the front desk to the labs to all the nurses in the back,” Frey said. “I couldn’t ask for anything better.”
Now that the treatments are over and the cancer is in remission, she is more than pleased with the level of care she has received at Tanner. She pointed out that when she tells people about her breast cancer diagnosis, they ask if she went to Atlanta for treatment. When they learn she was treated at Tanner, they act surprised.
“They say, ‘You mean Tanner’s got a place like this?’” Frey said.
Her experience is a reminder that west Georgians can find great quality health care in their own backyard.
“You don’t have to drive to Atlanta to get a good experience,” Frey said.
Moving forward, she will go to the doctor’s office monthly to have her port flushed and yearly for a checkup.
“Once I hit the five-year point, I can say, ‘I’m cancer-free,’” Frey said.
Frey tries on wigs and hatsShe encourages any woman who is afraid to get a mammogram to “bite the bullet and do it.”
“You’ve got to do your self-checks and go get mammograms because you never know if something is going to show up or not,” Frey said. “I think the cancer center here is fantastic. I couldn’t ask for a better place to come to and be treated. Everybody is just wonderful.”
While she had a pleasant experience interacting with her medical team, living with multiple chronic conditions while undergoing cancer treatment was challenging. Frey admits that undergoing treatment drained her energy level and she had to do things at a slower pace. Despite the challenges, she still has the energy to walk her dog — a pit bull terrier mix named Chance — every day.
“I still have to pace myself because if I try to do too much today, then it knocks me out for two days. Some of that has to do with the MS,” Frey said.
That’s why she is thankful for the support of her family and friends, which includes her 32-year-old son, William Nesbit, who relies on his mother as a result of medical conditions of his own.
“What I can’t do, he does,” Frey said.
She also appreciates her friend, Pat, who brought her food before she had chemotherapy treatments.
“She always brought in something for me to eat or try to eat because she knew once I had the chemo, I was not going to eat for the rest of the day,” Frey said. “It was true. If I ate a little bit during that time, I didn’t have the dry heaves in the afternoon.”
Her son’s friend has also helped her by going grocery shopping.
“He calls me his second mom and helps out a lot,” Frey said. “If I need groceries and I can’t go to the grocery store, I just call him up.”
She also had friends who drove her to doctor’s appointments. Her son even drove her to the appointments on her motorcycle a couple of times.
“It was the only way I could get there,” Frey said. “It was either miss it or get there.”
Since no one was available to take her to daily radiation therapy treatments, she used Tanner’s van.
Frey’s support system wasn’t limited to her family, friends and medical team: She also got support from other patients whenever she went in for chemotherapy. She described the way the chairs were set up and how patients could choose their own seat.
“If you see somebody that you know, you can sit next to them and you can talk,” Frey said. “If you don’t know them, you start talking to them.”
Topics range from recipes to the different flowers they’re planting in their gardens.
“We all need that,” Frey said of those conversations. “We all need the companionship, and knowing we’re all going through hell basically, but we don’t have to think about that. We can think about the life stuff — the living, because we are going to live. We are going to survive.”