By Katie Kerwin McCrimmon
ALAMOSA – The grandmother sports chic short gray hair, her post-chemo look. She tells her doctor that she finally feels well enough to tend her vegetable garden this summer – a sure sign that her cancer is abating.
Dr. Madeleine Kane, a visiting medical oncologist and hematologist from the University of Colorado Cancer Center in Denver, confirms at this July follow-up appointment that the outlook is excellent.
“Your tumor markers are all normal,” Kane tells Carla Shawcroft, 65, a mother of four and grandmother of eight, who lives in Manassa, about 30 miles south of this clinic at the San Luis Valley Regional Medical Center.
“You’re doing very well,” Kane says, smiling. “We’ll see you this time in two months.”
After the checkup, Shawcroft can barely believe her cancer is gone.
“It’s such a great relief,” she says, tears overwhelming her. “She’s really been very nice to me, very caring, someone I can depend on.”
Being able to depend upon your doctor sounds simple. But, until Shawcroft found Dr. Kane at a hospital clinic minutes from her home, she repeatedly experienced poor medical care that could have cost her her life.
The saga began in 2009.
Shawcroft felt a lump in her breast and went to see a physician’s assistant who told her she was fine and that the lump was just tissue.
Shawcroft had been having regular mammograms for years. She had one in 2007 and now knows from her records that the radiologist had spotted an area of concern. She had another in 2009, but the same radiologist said that nothing had changed since 2007. By then, Shawcroft felt the large lump and her intuition told her that something was wrong. But medical providers kept dismissing her concerns.
“I kept thinking, ‘Why am I worrying?’”
The lump continued to grow and her breast would ache, waking her in the middle of the night. Shawcroft waited about six months, then went to see a different physician’s assistant. Finally, a mammogram, an ultrasound and a needle biopsy confirmed that the lump was cancerous.
“They said it was pretty aggressive. The tumor was big enough that if I had delayed another six months or a year, it would not have been good,” Shawcroft says.
Once she knew she had cancer, the problems with the medical system continued. Shawcroft tried to forge ahead with treatment and saw a surgeon in Pueblo, who asked her what she wanted: a lumpectomy or a mastectomy.
“I don’t know what I want,” Shawcroft recalled, thinking mostly that she didn’t want cancer at all.
She made a blind choice to have the lump removed last May only to be told a few days later that the surgeon had not been able to excise all the cancer.
She says the doctor told her that if they took the entire breast, she wouldn’t need radiation.
Shawcroft agreed to the mastectomy.
“Afterwards the surgeon told me I was cancer free,” she said. “I thought, ‘Glory, hallelujah! This is over.’”
Then tests came back showing that her cancer was “triple-negative,” which is a more aggressive type of cancer. She would need chemo.
Shawcroft had no idea the hospital close to her home had a cancer clinic or offered chemotherapy.
“I didn’t even know it existed. I had no way to know that I could see Dr. Kane.”
So, she decided to get chemo in Pueblo, where one of her daughters lives.
Once again, she received care that made her doubt the system. A technician at Rocky Mountain Cancer Center was supposed to be with her as she received her first infusion of a strong drug called Taxotere. But instead, Shawcroft found herself alone, apparently experiencing an allergic reaction to the medication.
“I started feeling strange and the nurses were all gone. It was almost like I couldn’t breathe.”
Finally, she was able to wave to another patient who got her help.
“It was scary. The whole thing is scary,” Shawcroft said.
“I came on home. I drove 2 ½ hours from Pueblo. I felt terrible and called over there (to the Pueblo cancer center) and asked for help. They just said ‘see your family physician.’’’
Shawcroft returned to her physician’s assistant and finally learned about Dr. Kane. She never went back to the Pueblo cancer center. Kane started overseeing her care and arranged for her to get chemo treatments in Alamosa.
“It was a total night-and-day difference. I didn’t know that I could do chemo in the Valley,” she said. “Now I feel like I’m in very good hands.”
After each treatment, Shawcroft could return to her house. She was wiped out, but she could sit in her own living room and recover. She had always been the cook in the house, but family members made sure she had meals.
Last year, Shawcroft’s husband had to plant the garden for her. This year, she felt well enough to do it herself.
“I love to be outside. Working with the soil is therapeutic. You can get out there and weed. You can actually see the garden grow,” Shawcroft said.
It’s been dry this summer, but her tomatoes, potatoes, corn and cauliflower are all thriving. So is Shawcroft.
“I’ve learned short hair is good. And you should explore your options.”