Fighting Breast Cancer is Personal
If Janie Metsker gets a bit emotional when she talks about herself, it's easy to understand. Her story is emotional. It has forged her character and life's calling. She tells it often in a desire to bring comfort and hope to many who have shared, and continue to share, her experience with breast cancer.
Metsker trained for the nursing profession later in life than many nurses. A mother of three, she entered nursing school in 1994, while working as an OB Tech in the Birthing Center at St. Joseph Medical Center. She continued working in the department as a Labor and Delivery nurse after earning her degree in 1998. Nursing suited her and life looked promising for the next three years. But, in 2001, much would change.
In May, her husband of 34 years, Nathan, was laid off from the tool and die company he'd worked at for 18 years. Shortly after, Metsker discovered she had a lump in her breast.
Delays in insurance coverage between jobs postponed pursuing the examination of the lump and by the time she had it biopsied in mid-September, her new primary care physician was alarmed. Hoping the mass was only a papilloma, or benign tumor, she learned in recovery from the biopsy that her doctor's fears were realized—she had breast cancer.
"I was supposed to work that day," recalls Metsker.
"They were very busy and I felt bad about letting my co-workers down."
It was the beginning of a life-changing journey spanning a range of emotions on the heels of the 9/11 attacks. "I couldn't watch the news anymore,” says Metsker, who still had three children at home to take care of and a husband working full-time while studying to earn a computer science degree. "I never looked at life the same again."
Surgery in October 2001 (Metsker notes is Breast Center Awareness Month) required a mastectomy and revealed an aggressive cancer that had spread to the lymph nodes. She would have chemotherapy for the next six months.
To make matters worse, Nathan was laid off for a second time the week after her surgery. With Metsker working only sporadically, the bottom seemed to be falling out. Then, what Metsker calls a small miracle, "I remember Nathan's brother and his wife stopping by. They knew a man from their church who worked in the tool and die business. And just 24 hours later, Nathan had a new job and found that an old friend was also working at his new company.”
During the months of chemotherapy, Metsker had one son graduate from high school, saw another son get married, suffered through the hospitalization and eventual loss of her father. "Life doesn't stop when you have cancer," says Metsker. "And I wanted it to stop." Metsker continued working through her treatment and found the disease put into focus those facets of her life that were truly important. "I began to live in the moment," recalls Metsker. "I experienced more joy in the 'up' times and had the ability to say ‘yes’ to things. I took time to experience many things and to live my life.”
Her recovery, while steady, was thrown into doubt a year later when doctors discovered a microscopic calcium deposit in her remaining breast. These calcifications appear as tiny white dots or flecks on a mammogram too small to be felt. They are usually noncancerous, but certain patterns can be a sign of cancer. A 2002 biopsy proved benign. The following year, another biopsy gave the same conclusion. Her doctor kept a close eye on the situation for the next eight years, which was when the good news streak ended. Through digital mammography, doctors easily found the cancer that had formed in the left breast, although a less aggressive cancer than she had fought before.
"Cancers of the breast are many and varied," says Metsker,
adding "That's what patients need to understand."
In 2009, Metsker's experience drew her to a position in the Breast Center at St. Joseph. It was a relatively new discipline in breast cancers called patient navigators. As the term suggests, the patient navigator guides newly diagnosed patients through complex healthcare encounters, educating and supporting each patient in an effort to empower them to make informed treatment decisions throughout their cancer journey. The Breast Centers at both St. Joseph and St. Mary’s Medical Centers have navigators.
Metsker sought certification in the field as St. Joseph became an early adopter of this approach. And, when an opportunity to serve in such a capacity opened in the Breast Center at St. Joseph, Metsker jumped on it.
"I love what I do," Metsker says beaming. "My history gives people hope. I have the pleasure of teaching, supporting, listening and connecting with patients, many of which are angry and upset. And, with compassion, I help bring the walls down. I want to hear their stories."
Richard Kuckelman, MD, a member of Metsker's physician team can't imagine a better match. "She's seen both sides and has been there twice," says Kuckelman adding, "Patients really connect with her and realize they haven't been given a death sentence. Janie has been a huge asset to the Breast Center."
Beth Davis had never heard of a nurse navigator before her experience with breast cancer and credits Metsker with taking a great weight off her shoulders in a time of need.
"I was diagnosed at 11:04 a.m. on March 27 of this year", recalls Davis. "Janie brought me in at one that afternoon, and within a week, I'd had my surgery. I don't know how people without navigators manage."
Other survivors’ stories have similar themes. "I was full of fear, guilt and, yes doubt." says Pam Garner, another Breast Center patient. "I'm incredibly blessed to say the she navigated me through endless questions, pathology reports, and made calls and appointments. It's exhausting just thinking about it."
Metsker assists patients in understanding their diagnosis and develops a multi-disciplinary plan of care. "There's so much to do," remarks Metsker. "Sorting out their disease, making doctor appointments and getting their plans together can seem like a 500-piece jigsaw puzzle thrown on the table—and we have to determine the picture."
She is passionate about helping patients become survivors through a healthy lifestyle, including nutrition and exercise. "We actually talk about patients as survivors from the moment they're diagnosed," says Metsker.
Metsker developed the WELL program (Women Embracing and Loving Life), an eight-week session for breast cancer survivors providing information related to nutrition, fitness and stress reduction. The program also encourages breast cancer survivors to improve their psychological health by taking an active role in their recovery and interacting with other survivors. The program has received national attention and is being used by other hospitals in their own breast centers.
Metsker credits the “journey turned to joy in her life” to a strong faith. "I had a strong faith before but this has definitely brought me closer to God," says Metsker. "My experience has led me to a calling to help other people."
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