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Mar 11, 2021, 14:43 PM by Nicole Young

When Jeannette Shade moved from the Sierra Foothills into a condo in downtown Santa Barbara, she felt out of place. The busyness of city life was different from the wide open space of her northern California residence. Jeannette always hoped she might somehow find her way back to the Central Coast, where she had previously lived for 28 years. Proximity to longtime friends and her son in Ojai made the change to city life worthwhile. One of the greatest benefits of returning to Santa Barbara was hidden then, but within a few short months, Jeannette would give thanks for her new location, a quick 5-minute ride from Ridley-Tree Cancer Center. “It turned out be a gift,” she recounts.

Cancer Center Providers with Jeannette Shade

Jeannette admits she had been neglecting her health for some time. Sansum Clinic recommends that asymptomatic people start regular colorectal cancer screening at age 45 to 50 years, with the preferred screening test a colonoscopy. Jeannette chose to do at-home Cologuard® tests starting at age 50. They all showed negative results until 2019 when at age 58, Jeannette received a positive result from the test. This came at the same time she was experiencing certain symptoms that were too great to shrug off. Jeannette’s Sansum Clinic primary care physician Dr. Laurel Bliss recommended a colonoscopy. When Jeannette visited Sansum Clinic gastroenterologist Dr. James Egan for the procedure, the gentle and kind manner of the team melted away fears she’d harbored about this test. What could not be erased, however, was evidence of cancer. Dr. Egan referred Jeannette to Dr. Cristina Harnsberger, Sansum Clinic’s fellowshiptrained colorectal surgeon. Like Jeannette, Dr. Harnsberger had recently returned to Santa Barbara. The physician had spent the previous 12 years in medical training in preparation to receive her doubleboard certification in colorectal and general surgery. “I just remember thinking, ‘What do I need a surgeon for?’ I couldn’t process all of this,” Jeannette shares. “I had no idea what the protocol was. I knew nothing about cancer.”

After reviewing multiple tests, the surgeon confirmed Jeannette had stage 3 rectal cancer, and would need two surgeries: one to completely remove the cancer and lymph nodes and reattach the colon back to the rectum, and a second to reverse an ileostomy. Jeannette would also require the services of Ridley-Tree oncologists. Regret washed over Jeannette as she digested the news. “I was embarrassed and ashamed that I had not gotten a colonoscopy sooner, because I think this all could have been avoided,” she notes. “A colonoscopy is the gold standard diagnostic test,” remarks Dr. Harnsberger. “The main difference between a colonoscopy and other tests is the ability to remove asymptomatic polyps before they have a chance to turn into cancer.”

Once connected to medical oncologist Eric Bank, MD and radiation oncologist George Cheng, MD, PhD, Jeannette liked knowing the duo would collaborate on her treatment, along with a tumor board of specialists to review her case and offer recommendations. “I was very impressed to be in the hands of many people. That was really good for my psyche,” she remarks. The team determined that simultaneous radiation therapy and oral chemotherapy would be the best course to shrink the cancer before surgery. Jeannette remembers Dr. Cheng’s empowering statement “Your cancer though stage 3, is closer to stage 2 than stage 4. Our goal is to cure you.” She greatly appreciated the doctor’s personal phone calls and his thoughtful consideration to schedule around a trip she planned to see family. Dr. Bank’s calmness and questions about her home support meant so much to her. They’d often lighten the mood by chatting about Jeannette’s grandson and Dr. Bank’s baby on the way. “It was that type of experience that was so helpful, people caring not just about your cancer, but also about your head and your heart,” she says.

Patient Navigator Pam Wells provided Jeannette with a respite from the emotional overload of this new diagnosis. Jeannette calls Pam her “guardian angel.”  When the blur of information clouded Jeannette’s memory during the first critical medical appointments, Pam answered questions and took notes. She also functioned as Jeannette’s first point of contact for anyquestions or concerns, and checked in on her often. Pam noticed how her patient’s positive attitude and brightly-colored outfits lifted everyone up “as if she was bringing her own brightness to get through a hard day.” Jeannette’s youngest son captured this very spirit in a photo taken on her first day of treatment. Her motivation to push through the difficult moments was her three sons and grandchildren. When she frequently sat in the waiting room with patients who drove from afar to receive treatment, Jeannette felt grateful for her space only blocks away. She looked forward to seeing the radiation therapy technologists and department members every day who now felt like old friends. When Jeannette was admitted to Cottage Hospital for a case of diverticulitis in December of 2019, visits and cards from her radiation therapy technologists and oncologists made her feel like a V.I.P. and her new Ridley-Tree family kept her afloat.

Once Jeannette’s radiation therapy was completed, RN Specialist Andrea Hodosy prepped Jeannette for her upcoming surgeries. Andrea is also a certified wound, ostomy and continence nurse and her years of experience explaining complicated procedures to patients shone through. In February of 2020, Jeannette underwent the first surgery in the capable hands of Dr. Harnsberger. Recovery was tough, but the payoff came on Valentine’s Day when Jeannette was healing from her procedure. Dr. Harnsberger had just reviewed the pathology results for Jeannette’s surgery. The surgeon calls pathologists “unsung heroes” who work efficiently and precisely behind the scenes to evaluate a patient’s cancer and help direct clinical decisions. Local pathologists from Mission Pathology Consultants, including Dr. David MartinReay, who evaluated Jeanette’s tumor, and fellowship-trained gastrointestinal pathologist Dr. Eric Himmelfarb, regularly assist Dr. Harnsberger and Dr. Bank by determining the source, molecular type, and extent of involvement of a patient’s cancer. In Jeannette’s case, her cancer was eliminated, joyful news that Dr. Harnsberger wanted to share in person. “We both stood there with tears in our eyes,” explains Jeannette.“ I thought, just like my parents, these people gave me life.”

Once healed from surgery, Jeannette began infusion chemotherapy and oral chemotherapy to blast any remaining cancer cells. The early surge of COVID-19 kept anyone from accompanying her for treatment, but her Ridley-Tree team provided critical support. “I was not going through it alone, not at any one step. I always just felt like I was the only patient they had,” Jeannette adds. Oncology Nurse Specialist Jay Nubia and the team of RNs “worked their magic” and reduced her worry over getting a port. Dr. Bank explained how this type of chemotherapy would not cause her to lose her hair. As the end of her treatment plan neared, Jeannette began to believe even more deeply that her return to Santa Barbara was more than just good luck. It was where she needed to be for this specific time in her life. This place gave her new life in more ways than one. Her mission now is to inform anyone who will listen about the importance of colonoscopies. “I have encouraged 12 people to go in for screenings, and I tell them not to be afraid,” she comments. “Sharing my story seems like proper closure, if I can help even one person. I do think this was meant to be, and there is a reason this happened to me.” Dr. Harnsberger calls Jeannette one of the most grateful and positive patients she has ever had. “Her quiet strength, determination and positive attitude carried her through with support from her team and family. Seeing this and the success in Jeannette’s smiling eyes when she came for follow-up, this is why I love my job.”

Photo Caption: Dr. George Cheng, Jeannette Shade, Dr. Cristina Harnsberger and Dr. Eric Bank