Reflecting on a breast cancer journey
Mary Hinely rings the bell signifying the end of her cancer treatment.

Reflecting on a breast cancer journey

Breast cancer was common in Mary Hinely’s family – in addition to aunts and cousins who were diagnosed with the disease, her sister beat breast cancer 17 years ago – so the manager of patient experience at Piedmont Fayette Hospital knew she had to take care of herself. She stayed up to date with annual mammograms and ate healthy, but one day something just didn’t look right. She contacted her primary care physician, Samer Blackmon, M.D., who scheduled a diagnostic mammogram for Hinely right away. 

“They saw something and wanted to do some further testing, so there was an ultrasound and then a biopsy,” Hinely said. “The breast biopsy is pretty intense, but the staff was so caring and the nurse explained everything they were doing the whole time.”

The next day Hinely got the diagnosis that it was breast cancer.

“Even though I knew the chances were high, it was completely shocking,” Hinely said. 

Hinely and her family jumped into action to develop a plan. Her first stop was an appointment with Nicole Sroka, M.D., a highly regarded breast surgeon at Piedmont Fayette.

“I was there when Dr. Sroka won an award for the highest patient satisfaction among all of the Piedmont physicians, and meeting her as a patient I could see why her patients loved her,” Hinely said. “She walked us through the whole process in the meeting and scheduled more tests to determine whether the cancer had spread or not. She provided all of the options available and gave recommendations, but she reminded me that it was it my choice.”

Hinely’s Piedmont family surrounded her and her family with love on the day of her surgery and she was home the next day. Although it appeared that the cancer had been removed and had been contained, in a follow-up appointment she was told that the cancer had spread to her lymph nodes.

“I was devastated because that meant chemotherapy, which was my biggest fear, and radiation treatments,” Hinely said. “The most aggressive treatment was recommended and I agreed, but I also chose an oncologist, Dr. Minesh Patel, who supported my strong belief in alternative therapies for support with the traditional treatment. Targeted nutrition, meditation, yoga, and acupuncture made all the difference for me”

The aggressive treatment consisted of 16 rounds of chemotherapy and 25 radiation treatments. The chemotherapy was as tough as she had imagined, but Hinely was never alone. She also found the acupuncture helped with most, if not all, of the side effects. There were still bad days however. She lost 30 pounds and saw both her red blood counts and white blood counts drop at one point. 

“It was definitely the darkest time, but the light was there and I could see it coming,” Hinely said, adding that the day she rang the bell to mark the end of her chemotherapy was emotional. “There were a lot of people outside waiting for me, people who had cheered me on the whole way.”

After a one-month break, Hinely began radiation treatments and reunited with Tina Wiggins, a nurse she had worked with 30 years ago in the operating room. Wiggins is a nurse in radiation oncology and, just like when they had been paired up in the OR, she took Hinely under her wing again. Hinely had a treatment every day, five days a week, for five weeks. It was how she started every day before going to work. There were challenges, but she was blown away by the kindness and compassion of the staff in Radiation Oncology. 

Hinely rang the bell marking the end of radiation therapy and the end of treatment, once again surrounded by her family and colleagues from Piedmont Fayette. 

In addition to a team of doctors and nurses, Hinely also worked with Kelly Teed, a genetic counselor, Corey Tolbert, a nutritionist who specializes in nutrition for oncology patients, Michelle Long, an exercise physiologist who works on strength training with breast cancer patients before and after surgery, and Alison Franklin, an occupational therapist who also helps patients recovering from cancer who have lymphedema and scar tissue. 

“I feel so blessed to have so many of these services here under one roof, or so close by,” Hinely said. “I also believe that becoming a cancer patient gave me insight I could never learn any other way and it really deepened my own compassion.”

Hinely found that a lot of people had advice during her treatment, but the best advice came from people who had been through similar situations. 

“Wellness is the top priority. You have to do the things that keep you feeling healthy and strong,” Hinely said. “You also have to learn to truly put yourself first, say ‘No,’ more than you are probably used to, and never hesitate to ask for help when you need it.”

Hinely had never given much credence to the phrase, “cancer is a journey,” until she embarked on her own. Looking back, she can see that her diagnosis and her battle was an opportunity for a big transformation. 

“There’s a phrase, ‘How do you drink while you pour?’ You can’t pour from an empty cup, so what do you choose to fill up with? I have given that a lot of thought and really know what that means now,” Hinely said. “It crosses over to the people I surround myself with, the music I listen to, the media I consume, and how I spend my time. Self-care is so much bigger than a spa day.”

As Hinely goes to follow-up appointments now, there are three important letters she focuses on: NED, which stands for No Evidence of Disease.

“Going through treatment was very challenging but it was all worth it,” Hinely said.

To learn more about oncology services at Piedmont, visit piedmont.org/cancer.