How a Breast Cancer Diagnosis Inspired a Career Change: Ronda’s Story
In 2002, Ronda Sapache, a 35-year-old maternal homecare nurse, faced the shock of a lifetime. Despite no family history surrounding the disease, she was diagnosed with breast cancer. “I put off having the mammogram for a few months; I almost didn’t go through with it. But this little voice in my head told me told me to get the exam,” says Ronda of her diagnosis. “I am so glad I did it then. Any sooner and they might not have caught it; any later and I might not be here today.”
Fortunately, they found it early. Ronda’s cancer was stage 1. It was early enough that she still had options. She could have a lumpectomy and undergo six weeks of radiation therapy - but this option came with a high risk of relapse. She decided to go with option two - a bilateral mastectomy, which she was told would eliminate her risk of developing breast cancer again. Option two was a success, and after eight months, Ronda was in remission.
With her health no longer a major concern, Ronda was able to focus some attention to her career. “I loved being a nurse in maternal homecare, but I knew it wasn’t what I was meant to do forever,” says Ronda. She wanted to help women who are going through what she had just experienced. She wanted to work in oncology. Ronda was soon hired by Orlando Health as an Oncology Certified Nurse (OCN), a position she holds to this day, where she is directly involved with patients, treatment and research. “This is what I want to do,” she says of her career change, “This is what I need to do.”
Her new job also came with a new health insurance policy; one that required her to leave the hospital where she had been treated and begin seeing a doctor with Orlando Health. As an OCN, her follow-up appointments would inevitably be with her colleagues, more specifically, Dr. Nikita Shah, the oncologist on staff who specializes in breast cancer at the Breast Care Center at UF Health Cancer Center at Orlando Health. “Every patient is just as important as another, and as my patient, Ronda’s continued health is very important to me,” says Dr. Shah of their unique relationship.
As compared with her experience at her previous hospital of treatment, Ronda says the care she has received at Orlando Health, “It is like night and day.” The Breast Care Center gave Ronda access to a team of experienced surgeons, physicians, radiologists and nurses, all who specialized in treating breast cancer. Despite having been in remission for 11 years, Ronda’s experience with Orlando Health was the first time she felt involved with her treatment. “From my previous doctor, I was under the impression that I was cured - cancer was no longer an issue for me. They even discouraged me from following up. Dr. Shah has explained to me that, even as a survivor, I still face risks.” She also learned that the underlying cause of her cancer was estrogen, and is undergoing treatment to assure that it will not be a factor in other health problems. “The care here is so personalized,” raves Ronda.
Dr. Shah is not surprised by the glowing review. “We treat all of our patients the same here. Every patient is a VIP,” she says of the Breast Care Center. Dr. Shah and her colleagues strive to make life easier for their patients during a difficult time. The Breast Care Center at UF Health Cancer Center at Orlando Health acts as a one-stop shop. Anything and everything related to their treatment, from mental health to chemotherapy, and even reconstructive surgery, takes place within the walls of the Center. This efficiency even extends to the examination rooms; all of the appointments happen in one day, and the doctors rotate for the patients’ convenience.
With the worst behind her, Ronda remains a strong advocate for proactivity. Each October 1st, she sends a reminder out to all of her girlfriends to kick off Breast Cancer Awareness Month with a mammogram. She encourages women to trust their instincts, and not to avoid an exam out of fear. “Early detection saved my life,” she says, “If I had stepped out on that first mammogram, things might have turned out differently.”
*A bilateral mastectomy was the right treatment option for Rhonda. For more information on other treatments for breast cancer, see Dr. Dvorak's comment below.