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Healthier Together

Winter 2018 issue
A personalized approach to cancer treatment

A personalized approach to cancer treatment


Cybil Mills carried a little yellow notebook and pen to every meeting with her breast surgeon, her radiation oncologist, her medical oncologist — to every appointment she made while undergoing treatment for breast cancer at Novant Health UVA Health System Cancer Center.

It helped her keep track of the details she knew would slip from her memory as the doctors explained her diagnosis and treatment options.

“You’re hearing all these medical terms and nodding your head and saying, ‘Yes, yes,’” Mills said. “Then you walk out of the office and you don’t remember any of it.”

That notebook became her appointment companion after her first round of diagnostic tests — a one-day whirlwind that would have left her feeling lost if not for a caring team of doctors and nurses at every step.

John Williams, MD, Mills’ breast surgeon and medical director of the Novant Health UVA Health System Breast Center, said that’s the center’s core part of treatment — helping patients at a very vulnerable time and offering a plan customized for their situation.

“No two patients are ever alike,” Dr. Williams explained, “which is why our Breast Center’s personalized approach to surgery and treatment is incredibly successful.”

Stunned … and then soothed

Before an annual wellness checkup with her gynecologist, Mills discovered a tender bump on her right breast. Her doctor had her come right in, and then sent her straightaway for a mammogram at her local hospital, Novant Health UVA Health System Prince William Medical Center, to clear up any questions.

Mills didn’t give it a second thought. A biopsy of a different spot on the same breast the year before showed no cause for concern.

But within hours, she would receive a breast cancer diagnosis that left her stunned. She had just helped her husband, Ed, through treatment for tonsil cancer at the Cancer Center. He was back at work. This couldn’t be happening to her, too.

At a loss for what to do next, Mills again reached out to her gynecologist’s office, and a nurse invited her to come and talk. That gesture of understanding calmed Mills. Meanwhile, the gynecologist was working to get a biopsy performed as soon as possible, and found her a spot that day with Dr. Williams.

“I can’t imagine getting the diagnosis and going home and not knowing what’s going to happen,” Mills said about that same-day appointment. “He was able to talk to me about my breast cancer and the steps we were going to take. That was amazing.”

Seamless care across the Cancer Center

Mills decided to have a double mastectomy, and after two weeks she returned to work at Baldwin Elementary School in Manassas — not in the traditional classroom but as a teacher providing intensive support for students in need. Her goal was normalcy, and her new role allowed her to work, recover and manage radiation therapy five days a week for five weeks.

Moira Sutton, MD, Mills’ radiation oncologist, said the Cancer Center’s multidisciplinary team approach helps physicians provide seamless care to support patients from diagnosis to survivorship.

Early in 2017, the Cancer Center marked its 10-year anniversary, bringing together services from Novant Health UVA Health System Prince William Medical Center, accredited by the American College of Surgeons Commission on Cancer; Novant Health UVA Health System Breast Center, recognized by the National Accreditation Program for Breast Centers; and Novant Health UVA Health System Haymarket Medical Center. The Cancer Center itself is accredited by the American College of Radiology.

“I work closely with the rest of the breast cancer care team — the surgeon, medical oncologist and breast navigator,” Dr. Sutton explained. “Cybil, who is young and had an aggressive cancer, saw all of us within a week, so we were able to have a plan in place for her quickly.”

Mills said she really bonded with her care team — they comforted her through every part of her treatment.

That was two years ago. Mills is glad to be back in the classroom as a second-grade teacher. And, although she hopes her loved ones never face a cancer diagnosis, she is ready to recommend her team at the Cancer Center anytime.

In fact, she already has. “And she has the same doctors that I do,”Mills said. Mills was also sure to pass on the tip about the little yellow notebook and pen. •