COLORS FOR A CURE: Breast cancer patient counts her blessings with local treatment

When 54-year-old Buffy Shelton scheduled her annual mammogram in 2020, the Columbus native was checking off one of her annual to-do items, as she had done every year since turning 40.

Shelton had been due for her annual breast screening in February, but she delayed the test for six months until Aug. 1 of that year due to timing of the COVID-19 pandemic and the nation’s public health emergency.

After her appointment, Shelton returned to work at her in-home daycare center, Little Whippersnappers, which she launched in 1994 after becoming a first-time mother with the birth of twin sons.

But Shelton was interrupted later in the day, informed over the phone that she needed to return to the Columbus Regional Health Breast Health Center for an ultrasound test – the next day, Shelton recalled.

The request came from Dr. Suzanne Hand, a diagnostic radiology specialist with the Breast Health Center since 2018. Hand, who conducted Shelton’s mammogram, specializes in breast imaging and biopsy.

“I’m fine,” Shelton remembers telling Dr. Hand, convinced they had called the wrong person by mistake, but she returned Aug. 2 just the same.

The ultrasound confirmed what the mammogram had found — a suspicious spot on her left breast.

Dr. Hand then recommended a biopsy, which she performed, and it discovered a 1.5-centimeter cancerous tumor, described as Stage 1, the earliest stage of cancer. Shelton was diagnosed with Invasive Ductal Carcinoma, the most common type of breast cancer.

Decision time

Shelton learned that she would need surgery to remove the tumor — and that a capable team of general surgeons at Columbus Regional Hospital was ready to perform the surgery. Or, if she were willing to wait about a week and a half, Shelton was told that she could meet to discuss her case with a surgeon who specializes in breast cancer cases, Dr. Carlos Vieira, who was about to join the Columbus Regional Health staff.

Had her only option been to have the operation done by a CRH general surgeon, Shelton said she would have tried to find a breast cancer specialist to do the surgery in Indianapolis, where others before her had traveled.

“But I didn’t want to go north,” Shelton said during a video interview hosted on the CRH website. “I wanted to stay here. I have a business to run. I have a family. Traveling back and forth is not what I wanted to do,” Shelton said.

So she and her husband, Phil, met with Vieira on Sept. 3, 2020, his first day as Columbus Regional Health’s first surgical breast cancer specialist, to discuss having her surgery performed just seven minutes from her north side Columbus home.

They showed up with a long list of questions.

“By the time he finished, we didn’t have any questions left,” Shelton said of Vieira, the only fellowship-trained breast surgeon in southeastern Indiana. “He had covered everything so thoroughly.”

One in every 8 women (12 percent) in the United States has had or will have breast cancer, statistics indicate. In Shelton’s case, Vieira recommended that she have a lumpectomy, a procedure in which the surgeon removes cancer and other abnormal breast tissue and a small amount of healthy tissue around it.

Shelton was presented options, however.

She also had the opportunity to consider a mastectomy, a surgical operation to remove one or both breasts that does not require radiation. It was also up to Shelton whether to go through her cancer treatments in Columbus or commute to Indianapolis.

Surgery scheduled

Shelton chose to stay in Columbus and have Vieira perform a lumpectomy, which is the procedure in 80 percent of his breast cancer cases. As his first Columbus patient, Shelton’s surgery was scheduled for Sept. 11 at Columbus Regional Hospital. Vieira would also remove lymph nodes from under Shelton’s arm.

“He called me with my test results,” Shelton said of Vieira. “That’s a big deal for me.”

Lumpectomies also require radiation therapy, which reduces the chances of cancer returning. After the cancer was removed, Shelton did 20 rounds of radiation, Monday-Friday for four weeks, also in Columbus.

Additionally, it was recommended that Shelton go through hormonal therapy, a process that lasts five years, which she is also doing in Columbus.

Besides Vieira, her cancer team also included Dr. Mark Henderson, a radiation oncologist, and Dr. Stephanie Wagner, a medical oncologist and hematologist, both with Columbus Regional Health.

Time of celebration

After a post-surgery follow-up mammogram, Shelton was declared cancer-free. She said there’s a 1 percent chance of her cancer ever returning — favorable odds that she was happy to receive.

At the conclusion of her six-month follow-up appointment with Dr. Vieira, she was asked to wait a bit before leaving — and the whole breast surgery staff came in and cheered her.

Like Vieira’s other patients who had successful surgeries, Shelton was presented a pink sweatshirt that said “stronger than cancer” on the front.

“I felt like we’d just had a big party, a true celebration. I felt I’m on the other side of it now,” Shelton said.

In July 2021, Vieira performed a second surgery on Shelton, a breast reconstruction.

Most hospitals require a different plastic surgeon to do the reconstruction, Shelton said. Being able to have Vieira do hers, however, “that’s huge,” she said.

At her one-year follow-up, Shelton brought in coffee and doughnuts for Dr. Vieira and his staff.

“Dr. Vieira’s staff is tremendous. They all know you by name,” she said.

After her experience with Vieira and the staff of Columbus Regional Health Breast Surgery, Shelton said, “You will not get any better care anywhere else.”

She has since recommended that five friends diagnosed with breast cancer also work with Vieira. “All have had great success,” she said, with one of the women still undergoing treatment.

Despite the occasional celebratory atmosphere, recovery from breast cancer is not a piece of cake.

Shelton said the hormonal therapy can cause occasional, difficult side effects of feeling sick.

“It can be very bad for some people,” she said, causing them to quit the treatment early.

Nevertheless, Shelton vows to keep forging ahead with hers.

Although she had plenty on her personal plate to restore her health, Shelton said she couldn’t help but think about the 10 students she cares for, newborn to age 5, when confronting her cancer.

At the time of her surgery, the new school year was just starting and Shelton said she worried about impacting the parents who count on her to supervise their children so they can go to their own jobs.

Regarding her own frame of mind, “I needed everything to be normal, the same routine day-in and day-out,” she said.

By having the surgery in Columbus, she was able to miss just one day of work – her day of surgery. On that day, Julie Fox, who has been Shelton’s daycare assistant for 18 years, ran the daycare for her.

And during the four weeks of radiation therapy, Shelton was away from the daycare for just an hour each day – coinciding with naptime, which Fox also oversaw.

While convenience played a part in her decision to seek her cancer treatment in Columbus, she quickly developed absolute confidence in her care team, ultimately resulting in “a great deal of gratitude” she felt toward them.

“It was absolutely amazing to do everything here. It was the right decision,” Shelton said. “However, I didn’t make that decision until I met Carlos Vieira.”

Shelton felt breast cancer was not something she wanted to go through in life, but she was glad that she went through it with him.

“It could have not turned out better. I feel very blessed,” Shelton said.