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Nurse learns about patience, patients after breast cancer diagnosis
Melissa Summerlin 2.jpg
Nurse practitioner Melissa Summerlin survived breast cancer and has now returned to work to serve patients, some of whom are also battling the disease. - photo by Scott Rogers

What happens when the nurse becomes the patient?

That’s a question Melissa Summerlin wasn’t ready to answer when she was diagnosed with breast cancer this past November. In fact, she was on the verge of starting a new phase in her life and career. Disease was the last thing on her mind. 

“I think I was in shock,” Summerlin, 50, said. “I was like, ‘Whoa, now what?’” 

The biopsy that revealed her cancer was given on the last day of her job as a hospice and palliative care nurse with the Northeast Georgia Health System in Gainesville. And that test only took place after she was told to do so during an educational conference a week or so prior, a conference that aimed to teach women just how to perform self-examinations. 

The revelation that she faced Stage 3 invasive lobular carcinoma quickly settled in, however, if only because of its severity. 

They don’t say cure. If it had been caught earlier, they would have talked cure.
Melissa Summerlin

According to the Mayo Clinic, this form of breast cancer begins in the milk-producing glands, or lobules, and can spread to the lymph nodes. 

“Then we started talking treatment plans,” Summerlin said. 

That comment says a lot about the resident of Dahlonega, a wife and mother of two adult children with a granddaughter to boot. 

Summerlin, by her own admission, is not exactly equipped with patience. She likes to determine her fate and push ahead no matter the obstacle. 

“I don’t want to drag this out,” she told her doctors.

But patience is exactly what she had to learn during the course of her treatment.

“One thing I learned through all this is that no one has the same treatment plan,” Summerlin said.

Hers has included four cycles of chemotherapy, with the pain and nausea worsening with each cycle, plus 28 radiation treatments to the left breast, which must be carefully administered because of potential complications on the heart.

Summerlin also chose to have a double mastectomy because of the high chances of the cancer recurring.

But she also learned a lot along the way that she wants to advise other women about.

“Even though I thought I was making good decisions and informed decisions, still at the end of the day those decisions were being made with emotion,” Summerlin said.

For example, she jumped at the opportunity to start plastic surgery reconstruction as soon as possible, something she would come to later regret. 

“I don’t know that all my decisions would be the same,” Summerlin added. 

Summerlin’s cancer is now in remission and her prognosis or survival rate over five years is above 90 percent, she said. 

“They don’t say cure,” she added. “If it had been caught earlier, they would have talked cure.”

She returned to work and a new job in September in the oncology field in Gainesville, and working again with patients has been exciting, if also a bit of a change of pace. 

“I had not gotten up early in almost a year,” she said, laughing. “It’s what I feel like I was put on this earth to do.”

Summerlin said she doesn’t talk about her cancer diagnosis with her patients. But she feels she has a newfound sense of empathy.  

“I can truly put myself in their shoes,” she said. “Many times we take much better care of our patients than we do ourselves.”

For example, Summerlin said she can relate to the many symptoms of the disease and corresponding side effects of treatment, or the burden cancer places on family members.

Summerlin said she hopes she can dispel some misconceptions that she herself may have harbored, such as breast cancer being an obvious solid lump that is easily detected. She encourages women to be very proactive in getting regular mammograms and performing self-exams.

“There’s got to be something good that comes out of this,” Summerlin said. 

Read other stories from The Times' "Pink is Stronger than You Think" coverage.