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Thursday, March 29, 2012 - Breast Cancer Leads Alaska Woman on Journey Home to Tennessee

Cindy VonHalle, a 26 year veteran of the National Park Service and a park ranger supervisor at the Klondike Gold Rush National Historical Park, stands before the Alaskan landscape viewed from Chilkoot Trail. This international trail was one of the primary routes used to access the gold fields during the gold rush of 1897-1898 and is still popular with hikers today. Starting near Skagway, Alaska, the challenging trail crosses 33 miles of rugged territory and historic landscapes of British Columbia and the Yukon Territory, Canada.

In 1897 the Klondike Gold Rush brought thousands of “stampeders” through the remote landscape of Southeastern Alaska. They left in their wake small cities filled with history, if not gold, such as Skagway located at the head of the White Pass Trail.  The Klondike Gold Rush National Historic Park commemorates these brave adventurers and their epic journey. And it’s here that Cindy VonHalle works for the National Park Service as a park ranger supervisor and helps to preserve the historic boomtowns and trails of Alaska’s brief but influential gold rush era.

But when Cindy had a suspicious looking mammogram in December of 2011, it was the start of her own epic voyage that would lead her thousands of miles from Alaska’s mountains to a very different kind of boomtown nestled in the valley of East Tennessee.

Suspecting breast cancer, Cindy’s physician had recommended she go to Seattle, Washington for follow-up and a biopsy. But while the city offered an excellent hospital, it was just too big for Cindy and treatment wouldn’t be started as quickly as she hoped.

So she began looking for other options. Since she and her husband, Karl, were planning to visit Oak Ridge to spend the holidays with his family, she began to research the Oak Ridge Breast Center and the cancer services offered by Methodist Medical Center of Oak Ridge.  Her online search led her to Methodist’s Comprehensive Breast Clinic and Christine Zawodzinski, RN, a clinical coordinator at the specialized clinic. Cindy emailed the clinic to inquire about having a biopsy and learn more about the treatment options available through Methodist Medical Center. Christine immediately responded to the inquiry and assured Cindy that the Oak Ridge hospital had everything she needed for her cancer care.

“She went the extra mile to give me all of the information I needed to make me feel comfortable with it,” says Cindy.

She made the decision to pursue her treatment in Oak Ridge. She liked the close proximity to her husband’s family with whom they would stay and it was still convenient to her own family who live in Middle Tennessee.

“Oak Ridge is a scientific community and they have everything I need,” Cindy said to her family. “I have the best doctors right here.”

From her first day in Oak Ridge, Cindy’s medical care has fallen into place. Christine had instructed her that she’d need a local family physician to make her referral for the biopsy. The day Cindy arrived, she had an appointment with family practitioner Dr. David Seay, who confirmed the suspicious mammogram and gave her a referral to the Oak Ridge Breast Center. The following day she had her first biopsy, and by Monday, she was meeting with a breast radiologist who confirmed that she had breast cancer and a plan for treatment was put in motion.

Christine came to visit Cindy during one of her biopsy appointments, putting a face with the voice that helped to bring her to Methodist.

As part of her role as clinical coordinator at the Comprehensive Breast Clinic, Christine facilitated all of Cindy’s scheduling and arranged her appointments with an oncologist, a radiologist and a surgeon.

“I wanted to get it done and get back to Alaska,” says Cindy. 

While cancer treatment can take time, the Comprehensive Breast Clinic and the team of physicians who support it have helped to expedite Cindy’s care and make the most of her time in Tennessee.

That was something Cindy didn’t think could happen in a bigger hospital in Seattle.

She found personal service at Methodist and the physicians and staff always put her at ease. 

“Professional and caring- those are the words I’d use to describe the physicians and staff,” says Cindy. “They always gave me the chance to ask questions and they gave me choices.”

She notes that the diagnosis and treatment of breast cancer can be so overwhelming that you might not realize you have a choice in your care. “But you have control over it. It’s your decision,” says Cindy.

She began meeting with the rest of her physician team, medical oncologist Dr. John Foust, who reviewed Cindy’s treatment plan and will oversee her chemotherapy; and surgeon Dr. Alan Tripp, who performed a mastectomy and a lumpectomy. Once deciding upon surgery to remove the cancer, Cindy also began considering reconstruction and looked to plastic surgeon Dr. George Smith.

Cindy notes that the staff never rushed or pressured her. She was given lots of options and felt she could seek out a second opinion if she wanted.

Even the administrative staff that helped her with the inevitable flurry of paperwork that comes with such a diagnosis was found to be caring and sympathetic.  

“They know you are frustrated, but they have a ‘we’re in it together’ attitude,” says Cindy.

Following her surgery, Cindy took refuge at another special feature of Methodist Medical Center, the Hospitality Houses, which offer free lodging to cancer patients and their families when they must travel to Methodist for treatment. While Cindy had a temporary residence at her husband’s family home, there wasn’t room when her daughter arrived from Washington, DC and her sister came in from Franklin County to be with her for the surgery. The three women were given a suite in one of Methodist’s two Hospitality Houses where they stayed for 10 days during Cindy’s recovery.

“It meant the world for us to be together at that time,” says Cindy.

Cindy met with Debbie Scarborough, manager of the Hospitality Houses, who encouraged her to move into the suite the day before her surgery so that she would feel at home when she returned. The Hospitality Houses, which are located just across the street from the hospital, made it easy for Cindy to return for her follow-up care after the surgery. And when she had a post-surgery question on the weekend, hospital staff were on hand to assist her.

From her initial contact with the Comprehensive Breast Clinic and the ease and speed of making her doctors appointments, to finding a special place of refuge during her recovery from surgery, Cindy says it was all simply meant to be.

She has also found solace in the mountains of East Tennessee where she spent her early years working for the National Park Service in the Great Smokey Mountains National Park.

She returned to the peace and quiet of Cades Cove during her recovery, saying, “It was important for me to visit there during my health challenges for both my body and spirit.”

Cindy is still undergoing chemotherapy to treat her breast cancer, but she says she is looking forward to a full recovery thanks to the excellent care she’s received at Methodist.

Alaska may be home to Cindy now, but she knows that coming back to her old home state of Tennessee for her cancer treatment was the right decision.

“It’s great working with Tennesseans,” says Cindy. “They’re friendly and down-to-earth. If I’d been any place else, I’d not have been as comfortable with it all.”

While Skagway, Alaska has much of its history tied to the Klondike Gold Rush, Cindy may have just found her biggest gold strike in Tennessee.