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The holidays come with many surprises, and we hope they will be wonderful ones — to include thoughtful gifts, warm memories and sweet desserts, but for Stacey Tilton, her holiday surprise couldn’t have been any more shocking.

“I fell asleep on my stomach,” shares Stacey, “and I just felt something hard in my breast. That’s how I discovered a lump two days after I came to Raleigh to visit my sister for the Christmas holidays.

“Yet, I really believe God directed my steps here. I learned of my condition while in North Carolina where there are some of the best hospitals and where I am surrounded by my family. Plus, I quickly found a good, local church and had hundreds of people praying for me, sending me cards and sending me gifts.”

These are Stacey’s recollections of an incredibly startling health crisis that would bring her many difficult days but would also teach her many lessons about life and love.

Navigating a Challenging Insurance Process

Upon discovering the lump, Stacey contacted her provider back in New Hampshire.

“I didn’t have an obstetrics and gynecology (OB-GYN) provider here, so I called mine back in New Hampshire and told her about it. She had performed my breast exam 10 months prior in February and found nothing but said it could have been the size of a grain of sand at that time.”

Stacey’s OB-GYN urged her to get the lump checked out, so she visited a local clinic, though the visit was not covered by insurance, and she was referred to a nearby radiology office for an ultrasound of her breast.

She completed the scan on Friday, December 23, 2022. Following the ultrasound, the radiologist asked her if she could return on Tuesday, December 27 immediately upon their reopening after the holiday.

It was at that point, she felt in her gut that something ominous loomed ahead.

That Tuesday, the team performed a biopsy, and Stacey could sense by the seriousness of the care team that something was very wrong. She teared up, and the nurse held her hand.

“The nurse was such a blessing. My sister couldn’t be there that day, and she was holding my hand and crying with me. She assured me that the best care was available in the Triangle area. She also urged me to wait for firm news.”

Stacey was not surprised when on December 29, she received a notification that she had a fast growing and aggressive three-centimeter malignant tumor.

Since Stacey was not a resident of North Carolina, her insurance had not covered any of her medical visits. Fearful and unsure of what to do next, she contacted a Wake County breast and cervical cancer nurse navigator who helped her transfer her government insurance through the marketplace.

Receiving Full Circle Compassionate Care at WakeMed

While still waiting for insurance to officially begin and trusting that she met all the requirements of the program, she decided to seek care through WakeMed Cancer Care — Hematology & Medical Oncology. There she was introduced to WakeMed oncologist Pallavi Kopparthy, MD, nurse navigator Julia Russell and the care team.

“They were all spectacular. Very smart, caring and quick to return phone calls. They helped with the details, and I really appreciated that.”

Russell, the women’s health oncology nurse navigator recalls meeting Stacey.

“It has been such a rewarding experience working with Stacey. She has faced this battle head on with a continuous smile and positive attitude. I remember the level of anxiety she felt when she first received her diagnosis. As her navigator, I was able to be a sounding board for her, answer questions, connect her with the provider when needed and expedite all of her baseline procedures prior to starting chemo.

“With any new diagnosis, people feel overwhelmed and even short delays feel terrifying, so as a navigator, we are able to take some of that pressure off of the patient and make sure that their care is organized in a way that allows them to focus on healing instead of tasks. We allow them to take everything one day at a time while we organize the big picture. I will be partnering with Stacey through her survivorship journey, and I look forward to supporting her for as long as she needs me. “

Dr. Kopparthy gently and carefully explained that she had a human epidermal growth factor receptor 2 (HER2) positive breast cancer that would require a specialized treatment. HER2-positive breast cancer is a breast cancer that tests positive for the human epidermal growth factor receptor 2 protein.

Dr. Kopparthy observes, “Receiving a cancer diagnosis as a young patient is never easy. With a collaborative approach, we were able to help Stacey understand and accept the diagnosis and proceed with appropriate treatments. Breast cancer management has come a long way, and at WakeMed, we are committed to providing personalized cancer care to our patients. It’s truly inspiring to see the courage and strength that patients like Stacey display when facing cancer. Their resilience motivates us to continuously strive for improvements in health care and treatment options to better support them in their journey.”

On Tuesday, January 10, 2023, Stacey met with WakeMed breast surgeon Lori Lilley, MD, FACS, who would perform her surgery following her cancer treatment.

Stacey received more diagnostic testing to determine the best course of action. She had a computed tomography (CT) scan on January 11 and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) on January 12. These tests provided positive news, showing that the breast cancer was only in the breast and lymph nodes. It had not metastasized to other organs, yet it had grown in that short time to five centimeters.

“It was terrible news to learn I had such a fast growing cancer, but I could see God’s divine providence. If I had been in New Hampshire, I’d have had to travel an hour and a half to two hours to get to a good hospital. That would not have been feasible to do while ill.”

On January 18, Stacey was referred to the WakeMed Heart Center to have a port placed by a physician assistant, so she could begin chemotherapy.

She began six-hour chemotherapy and HER2 infusion treatments on Monday, January 30 with follow-up infusions every three weeks. She also received a body injector to boost her immunity. This went on for six cycles, and Stacey completed treatment on May 23.

Stacey had mild side effects to treatment, including nausea.

“I felt fine the first couple of days after treatment, and consistently around the fifth or sixth day I began feeling nauseous. Around day 14, I also lost my hair and found fun ways to keep my head warm and cozy.”

Deciding on Lumpectomy or Double Mastectomy

With successful completion of treatment, Stacey met with WakeMed breast surgeon, Lori Lilley, MD, to address which surgery — lumpectomy or mastectomy — would be best. Dr. Lilley met with the tumor board to discuss Stacey’s case, and they determined she had a less than five percent chance of recurrence of her cancer. That in mind, Stacey happily agreed to move forward with a lumpectomy.

Stacey had her outpatient lumpectomy on July 5 at WakeMed Cary Hospital. She was in the hospital for about eight hours but went home that evening.

“Recovery from the lumpectomy wasn’t bad at all. I was tired the first day or so and then sore. I couldn’t move my arm. I did exercises to help with my recovery, and by the third week, I felt really good.”

Undergoing Radiation and HER2 Shots

Thereafter, Stacey began radiation treatment, which she completed on August 16.

“I had radiation for four weeks — a total of 20 treatments, five days a week.”

Once radiation was complete, Stacey next transitioned to HER2 positive medication shots into her thigh.

“It made my leg sore, and it was hard to walk the stairs for the first day. Otherwise, it wasn’t too bad.”

Stacey will continue these treatments for a full year. She will also require magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) or a mammogram every six months to ensure the cancer remains at bay.

Living the Good Life

Today, Stacey is feeling great. She has been declared cancer free and is back to enjoying her pets, playing the piano and spending time with loved ones. She has a newfound appreciation for life and has sold her home in New Hampshire and moved permanently to Raleigh to be close to family. She also is working as a nanny and mystery shopper.

Discovering Hope and Paying it Forward

Reminiscing on that difficult season, Stacey recalls bright spots, such as Dr. Lilley’s joy when they offered her the lumpectomy over double mastectomy.

“Dr. Lilley said to me, ‘We thought for sure you’d have to have a bilateral mastectomy because of how fast that tumor was growing and how big it was when I first saw you, but the chemo did what it was supposed to do, and it’s completely gone.'”

Stacey also remembers Russell’s kind words.

“She reminded me, ‘Remember how you didn’t know how you were gonna get through this when you first started and one-by-one the appointments just ticked by.'”

Smiling, Stacey shares, “Thinking about how others were a friend to me in my time of need, I’m now willing to be that friend to somebody who needs someone to journey with them through cancer treatment.”

About WakeMed Breast Surgery

We know the worry and stress that comes after an abnormal mammogram or the identification of an issue with your breast that raises a concern. That’s why we’re dedicated to offering coordinated care, timely appointments and swift intervention. In fact, we offer same or next day appointments because we know waiting and worrying is not an option.

  • Breast cancer
  • Breast mass/lumps
  • Breast pain
  • Cysts
  • Abnormal mammogram
  • Discharge from the nipple
  • Fibrocystic breast changes
  • Duct ectasia/Fibroadenoma
  • Dense breasts
  • New nipple changes such as retraction, dimpling, rash, bloody or clear nipple discharge

A diagnosis is the start of a journey and we’re here every step of the way for our patients to provide the medical and surgical care they need with the care and compassion that they deserve.

About WakeMed Cancer Care — Hematology & Medical Oncology

Cancer isn’t a diagnosis that anyone wants to hear. If you are diagnosed with a blood or oncological condition, rest assured that our WakeMed Cancer Care team of specialized physicians and staff will employ the most appropriate and compassionate treatment protocol — respecting your dignity and individuality.

Utilizing a multidisciplinary approach to patient care, our Cancer Care team is committed to supporting our patients and their families in every way we can, for as long as our patients need us.

From comprehensive cancer care to personalized treatments and state-of-the-art technology backed by diagnostic and surgical expertise, our Cancer Care team works to understand every aspect of our patient’s condition to create the best, most personalized treatment plan.

About WakeMed Imaging Services

WakeMed Imaging Services is a full-service imaging department offering advanced technology, convenient access and prompt testing and results. As professionals who have a true passion for care and caring, we focus on providing excellent, individualized service to each patient. Additionally, we have been designated a Diagnostic Imaging Center of Excellence by the American College of Radiology, one of the largest and most influential medical associations in the United States.

Services & Technology

About WakeMed Heart Center

When it comes to matters of the heart, there’s nothing like experience. Wake County’s first open heart surgery was performed at WakeMed in 1968, and we continue to be a leader in innovative cardiovascular care delivered by highly trained, board-certified physicians and staff who take a team approach to patient care. At WakeMed, patients always come first.

Whether it’s having a cardiac intervention team ready and waiting for you in a time of emergency, managing your high cholesterol or high blood pressure levels or helping you regain strength with our dedicated cardiac rehab program, WakeMed’s Heart & Vascular services, physicians and staff are here for you.

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