Patient Stories

Vicki McDowell

As a breast and liver cancer fighter, 73-year-old Vicki McDowell is the epitome of positivity.  “I am surviving.  You see, there’s this one thing—cancer doesn’t define who you truly are.”

It all started in 2004. Vicki had a mammogram where her doctor discovered a lump and diagnosed her with breast cancer. She had it removed and began radiation treatment, but in 2006, her doctor found another lump in her breast. This time, she had a mastectomy and for six years, Vicki was cancer-free.

That was until 2012, when she noticed pains along her mastectomy incision. She got a CAT scan which showed multiple spots in her liver, and was referred to see Dr. Mark Fesen at Central Care Cancer Center in Great Bend, who diagnosed her with Stage 4 liver cancer. For the first few months, Dr. Fesen had Vicki on the chemotherapy medication Taxol while he investigated the source of her liver cancer. “Dr. Fesen, being the way that he is, wasn’t satisfied with the answers,” Vicki explains, “He kept sending out biopsies and blood work, everything to various colleagues. Finally, a lab in California found it. I was HER2-Positive.”

HER2 is a protein that promotes growth on the outside of all breast cells. Breast cancer cells with higher than normal levels of HER2 are called HER2-postive. These cancers tend to grow and spread faster than other breast cancers, but are more likely to respond to treatment with drugs that target the HER2 protein.

At the time she found out about her liver cancer, Vicki’s husband of 51 years, Jim, was living in Oklahoma City waiting for a heart transplant. The couple was only able to see each other on weekends for lunch in Wichita, and with the impending heart surgery, Vicki was nervous to tell Jim about her liver. “At first I didn’t tell him because I knew,” Vicki says, “I knew that he would quit and he was already pretty high up on the list for a new heart.”

However, Jim could tell that something was wrong. At one of their Saturday lunches, Vicki finally told him, and he broke down in tears. “I thought, ‘I’m waiting for a heart transplant and you’re fighting liver cancer,’” Jim says, “How much worse could this get?”  Jim did successfully receive his heart transplant in December of 2012.

Vicki continued with the Taxol regimen, but Dr. Fesen noticed that her progress was starting to plateau and wanted to try something else. He explored and suggested participating in a clinical study involving the chemotherapy drug Capecitabine, to which Vicki agreed. “I have huge respect for Dr. Fesen,” Jim explains, “Because with my heart issues that I’ve been through, I’ve met a lot of doctors. What I really admired about him, and still do, is his determination to find an answer like he did for Vicki.”

While she was on Capecitabine, she had a few side effects, but handled it pretty well for four years. However, Vicki’s tumor markers started rising again, so Dr. Fesen suggested another clinical study that involved the chemotherapy drug Kadcyla.  This clinical trial required a trip to Overland Park every three weeks, which Vicki and Jim did not feel up to, so they opted out. This did not satisfy Dr. Fesen, so he found a way for Vicki to get the trial drug Kadcyla at Central Care in Great Bend, which was closer to Vicki’s home in Lucas.

Not only did Dr. Fesen become a pillar of Vicki’s cancer care, but so did Central Care as a whole. “They’re very accommodating,” says Vicki, “It’s like family when you go there.”

Vicki is also a huge advocate for clinical trials. “There’s a very good chance that I wouldn’t be here if there weren’t clinical studies and programs,” she goes on, “I’m just so thankful that there have been. The first one I did, I was just thrilled to be able to do it because whatever happened to me, could maybe benefit someone else.”

It is important to be aware of all cancer treatment options.  That includes considering taking part in a cancer clinical trial. By being a part of a clinical trial, a patient may not only receive benefits from participating, but help advance cancer research, treatment and prevention, and possibly assist in finding a cure as well as help out future generations.

For Vicki, deciding whether or not to participate in clinical trials is a no-brainer. “I don’t see how it is a losing proposition,” she explains, “To me, it’s a win all the way around because you’re winning for yourself and you’re winning for other people.”

After several months of taking the trial drug Kadcyla, Vicki started developing some worrying side effects. She is now going to try Letrozole, an immunotherapy drug, along with Herceptin, a chemotherapy drug. Switching regimens for the fourth time and round three with cancer hasn’t lowered her spirit at all. “We always like to look at the positive side of it,” Vicki explains, “You have to keep yourself positive in your thinking to help fight this.”

Faith and positivity have been significant anchors for both Jim and Vicki. “You find out, when you step into these shoes that we both walk in, that you aren’t in control of your life,” Jim says, “I read a book and it said, ‘At the end of myself, there’s Jesus.’ And so that’s what you have to do. Trust Him to see you through.”

Mel Schwinghamer

Mel Schwinghamer, a mother of three and Hartford resident, is a shining example of remaining positive through all of life’s challenges. Two years ago, Mel was diagnosed with breast cancer, but just by speaking to her, you would never know. She radiates positivity despite the fact that within the last two years, she was diagnosed with cancer, had two lymph nodes removed and underwent a mastectomy.

In 2019, Mel went in for her annual mammogram at Newman Regional Health’s Breast Care Center in Emporia. That’s where her physicians found a lump in her left breast. She had the lump biopsied and removed, and was diagnosed with stage 4 BRCA negative triple-negative breast cancer.

According to the American Cancer Society, triple-negative breast cancer is a type of cancer where the cancer cells don’t have estrogen or progesterone receptors, and don’t make much of the HER2 protein, which is a protein that promotes growth on the outside of the breast cells. This type of breast cancer typically grows and spreads faster, and has more limited treatment options. Triple-negative breast cancer accounts for about 10-15 percent of all breast cancers, according to the ACS.

Without a family history of cancer or any signs or symptoms, this news was shocking to Mel. “I was totally overwhelmed with fear and worry,” she says, “All of a sudden cancer changed my life and my body forever.”

Mel is an active woman with no history of smoking or other cancer-causing behaviors, and yet she still found herself in a battle with breast cancer. It is not rare for women with no risk factors to develop breast cancer, and that’s why annual screening is so important.  Monthly breast self-checks and annual mammograms play a vital role in early detection for breast cancer.

After her diagnosis and lumpectomy, Mel had to have her lymph nodes removed, followed by a single mastectomy.  After that, she continued treatment at Central Care Cancer Center. “I checked into Central Care, right next to Newman Hospital and luckily I did because they provide the best cancer treatment ever,” says Mel.

At Central Care, she began seeing Medical Oncologist Dr. Elshami Elamin who began her chemotherapy treatments and Radiation Oncologist Dr. Claudia Perez-Tamayo who began her radiation treatments. “I stayed positive throughout the whole thing, even going to the cancer treatments,” Mel explains. “I’m a people person and it didn’t take me long to get to know the staff members at Central Care.”

“I mean, if I had any questions or concerns, they were always there for me,” she goes on, “Their kindness and generosity will always, forever be in my heart. They treated me like a family member inside and out.”

Central Care is dedicated to keeping cancer care close to home. They make the patient their top priority by offering comprehensive cancer care, including chemotherapy, radiation therapy, financial counseling, second opinions and other supportive services all under one roof.

It’s ironic that Mel’s breast cancer diagnosis contained all negative terms, despite the positivity that she exudes. Throughout her treatments, Mel remained upbeat and powered through the side effects. She stayed active, worked at the Hartford Public Library and kept a bright smile on her face. One of her favorite activities has been pickle ball. “I’m actually obsessed with pickle ball,” Mel says. “It’s great exercise and it kept me busy, along with playing pitch card games with my friends and walking with one of my best friends, Evelyne, who has just supported me through the whole ordeal.”

After five months of chemotherapy and two months of radiation, Mel finished her treatments and is back to enjoying her life the way she did before. “I’m back to normal,” she says with a smile. “I mean, I’m a peppy person, you know. I’m a go-getter and I do everything like I used to do. It’s just unreal that everything is done and over with and I’m just very elated.”

However, Mel did not get through her treatments alone. She has her husband, who according to her, is her number one supporter and took her to all of her treatments. She also has her two daughters, her son, her friends and the staff members at Central Care. Especially Radiation Oncology Manager Justin Branine and Medical Oncology Manager Shanna Clock, who Mel also impacted with her positivity and strength. “I couldn’t have done it without all of them,” she says. “They are the best ever and I will never, ever forget how well they took care of me.”

“Shanna helped me to get involved with a support group,” Mel explains. “I trusted their knowledge with all my heart. If I had any friends who were in the same situation as me, I would recommend for them to go to Central Care in Emporia. They were just so good with everything, they knew what to do and they were so very friendly with people. ”

Mel just had a one year follow-up appointment where a malignant neoplasm was found in her same breast as before.  She’s scheduled to have it biopsied the first part of November.

Faith is something which Mel has relied on to help her through treatment and recovery. “I’m a Christian person, so I’ve always prayed,” she says. “I trust in God and always pray to Him to watch over me and help me to stay positive and be strong.”

October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month. The pink you may see around you in your daily life this month is a reminder to get yourself checked out.  Breast cancer statistics show that monthly self-exams are important as well as getting an annual mammogram after the age of 40.  1 in 8 women and 10 percent of men will develop breast cancer.  Feel free to reach out to Central Care with any questions concerning breast cancer, or any cancer, at (620) 342-1117.

For more information about screening options at the W.S. & E. C. Jones Breast Care Center at Newman Regional, as well as their Breast Care Screening Fund, please call (620) 343-6800 ext. 21167.

Kevin Barrett

Last year, two days before Christmas, 57-year-old Kevin Barrett woke up in the hospital with no recollection of the ambulance ride, the MRI he received at Newman Regional Health or the surgery he had on his brain at the University of Kansas Medical Center in Kansas City. He woke up to find out that he had brain cancer.

Kevin, an Emporia native and father of three boys, had been experiencing headaches and migraines for years. “I just thought, you know, they were just headaches,” he says, “Then I had some migraines just on the left side. And it just started getting worse, but I’ve been going through this for years and years.”

However, one day Kevin had a migraine so bad that he decided to take time off from Hopkins Manufacturing, where he had worked for 27 years. “The next thing I know my son and brother called the ambulance on me, because they said I wasn’t talking right, I didn’t know what I was doing,” Kevin goes on, “I don’t remember going to Newman. I don’t remember going to KU. All I remember is waking up at KU and I had surgery on my head.”

Kevin had undergone brain surgery to remove cancer from the left side of his brain. His surgeon said that it looked like a 3-inch golf ball. Kevin says, “He showed me the picture of what my brain looks like now – there was absolutely nothing, you couldn’t see anything there. So that gave me more hope.”

After his surgery and a 15-day stay at the hospital, Kevin told the doctors that he wanted to do his treatment at home in Emporia, rather than driving to Kansas City every day. So he went to see Dr. Elshami Elamin at Central Care Cancer Center in Emporia, where he began radiation and chemotherapy. “Every morning I had to be here at 8 Monday through Friday, and when I got done here, I went back home and I took all my chemo pills and all my other medicine,” Kevin says.

“Central Care has been nothing but respectful and very nice to me. Every one of them. And if I have any questions, I have their personal numbers to call.”

Central Care is dedicated to keeping cancer care close to home. Since this was important to Kevin, it was important to his recovery. Central Care makes the patient their top priority by offering comprehensive cancer care, including chemotherapy, radiation therapy, financial counseling and other supportive services all under one roof. Kevin says, “I’ve done everything Dr. Elamin and Justin [Branine, Radiation Oncology Manager] have asked of me. Everything. And that’s helped out a lot, it really has.”

According to the American Cancer Society, there is a less than 1% chance that a person will develop a malignant tumor of the brain or spinal cord in his or her lifetime. Kevin Barrett is part of this .6 percent, but he’s getting through it with the help of his family, friends and oncology team at Central Care. “At first I didn’t want to come here,” Kevin explains, “I ain’t going to lie, because I was nervous. And then once I got here they were so nice, he [Dr. Elamin] explained everything to me and I think it’s helped me out because I think so far I’m doing really good.”

Kevin’s 19-year-old son, Chris, has also been a huge help to him throughout his battle with cancer. “He’s been a lifesaver,” he says, “For being that young, he really shouldn’t go through all of this, but he’s dealing with it pretty good. He’s been a god-send.”

According to Kevin’s latest MRI, there has been no cancer reoccurrence. However, Dr. Elamin will continue to monitor Kevin’s brain with MRI scans every three months for the rest of his life. “I’m hoping and I pray that everything is good,” Kevin says with a smile, “Because I feel good. I really do. Everybody looks at me like ‘Are you sure there’s nothing wrong?’”

Through everything, Kevin has remained strong and hopeful. “You’re going to be scared, I know,” he says, “But just don’t give up because there’s always hope. I’m not giving up.”

According to the American Brain Tumor Association, more than 700,000 Americans are living with a brain tumor today. While brain tumors affect a significant portion of the population, they are still relatively uncommon. In 2021, more than 84,000 people will be diagnosed with a brain tumor, compared to the more than 280,000 women who will be diagnosed with breast cancer.

When asked what he would tell someone who might be diagnosed with cancer, Kevin said, “First thing I’d tell them is don’t be scared. Just don’t give up and just fight. And do what the doctors tell you. Just because you’ve got it, doesn’t mean you can’t beat it. You never know in life what might happen.”

Richard Cramer

If you have been to Central Care Cancer Center in Great Bend, then you might know Richard Cramer.  He has unfortunately been a fixture of the clinic since the clinic’s beginning, and has battled a variety of cancers including colon, prostate, and two rounds of lung cancer. Through it all, the 82 year old father of three and grandfather to seven, remains upbeat, full of life and a bit ornery.

It started near the year 2000, when Richard thought he had hemorrhoids, but his referring provider thought differently and ordered a colonoscopy, which showed colon cancer.  Richard had a colectomy in 2001 and started seeing Dr. Mark Fesen with Central Care Cancer Center.

In the United States, colorectal cancer is the third leading cause of cancer-related deaths in men and women with the majority of them being preventable.  Early detection is key to success, such as getting a colonoscopy.  Richard’s most recent colonoscopy in 2019 came back negative.

On top of the colon cancer, it was discovered that Richard hadn’t had a recent PSA test. The PSA test is a blood test used primarily to screen for prostate cancer. The test measures the amount of prostate-specific antigen (PSA) in your blood.  According to Richard, “they checked mine and it was higher than a kite. I mean it was out of sight.”  Richard received treatment and his PSA is now at a normal level.

Dr. Fesen encouraged Richard to go through a series of tests and scans. That’s when cancer showed up in his right lung: non-small cell lung cancer.  Richard’s right upper lobe was resected in 2003.  He underwent an intense schedule of radiation therapy and chemo for over a month.

However, a few months later, cancer had metastasized to Richard’s right adrenal gland and surgery was performed to resect the gland.  On top of that, Richard developed a hernia on the right side of his body. “The family was in Salina at a hotel and my young granddaughter at the time was sitting on a chair playing a game.  She about fell off and I went to grab her, causing the hernia. I got that repaired, but I had it sticking out there pretty good.  I could rest my arm on it,” chuckled Richard.

“So, I’m getting over the hernia and recovering from the right adrenal gland resection, when it was discovered I was losing my vision.” By now its 2004 and Richard underwent cataract surgery.  It would seem though Richard would not be done seeing the inside of a hospital, as shortly after this surgery, he was sitting on a stool, shaving with an electric razor in his bathroom. He got up, but went down hard and broke his left leg in two different places.  “After that, I was in pretty good shape for a long while,” said Richard.

It wasn’t until January of 2020 when cancer appeared in Richard’s left lung. Again, non-small cell carcinoma.  “Currently it’s in remission, but I continue to take IVIg’s,” said Richard.  Intravenous immune globulin (IVIG) is a product made up of antibodies that can be given intravenously.  Antibodies are proteins that your body makes to help you fight infections.  With cancer, the body’s immune system can be depleted and not make antibodies on its own.

Throughout this whole time, Richard has worked with Dr. Fesen at Central Care.  Richard jokes, “I’m kind of the boss there. When I’m there to do my IVIg’s, I just go there, and pretty much know what I’m doing.  I mean, everybody knows me and if they don’t me, the will in short order (laughing). Nobody really tries to boss me around. I’ve been here since the clinic opened!”

This Army veteran not only battled colon and prostate cancer, but lung cancer twice.  “When I first started, I was scared to death. I didn’t know what was going on.  Dr. Fesen had written a book (Surviving the Cancer System: An Empowering Guide to Taking Control of Your Care) and that book probably helped me more than anything else. But when he told me I had lung cancer, that kind of kicked me in the butt. I just felt well what the heck is going on here. It’s not just the treatments, but its everything else – preventive medicines, additional appointments and doctors. I guess after the lung cancer, I just kind of got strong and I believed a little bit more in the Lord maybe. I got to the point where you are not going to kick me. You are not going to kick me, because I’m already down. I’ve got to kick this.”

Mary, Richard’s wife of 59 years agrees. “He is such a strong person and he takes care of himself, all of his medications and doctor’s appointments. It’s amazing how he has come through all of this. He has had setback after setback with these numerous cancers, but he always comes through. It’s amazing.”

Despite it all, when asked how he’s doing now, Richard responds, “I feel all right. Hell, when you’re over 80 years old, how are you supposed to feel really? I would say that I don’t feel like I’m 40, and I can’t do things like I used to, but I feel all right.”

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