By Heather Sessions
At 56-years old, Ginger Hanson was enjoying life – spending time with her family and two grown sons, visiting her lake house, and running her antique shop. But, life as she knew it suddenly changed when she received unsettling news: stage 3 breast cancer.
On top of her unexpected diagnosis, Hanson found herself receiving cancer treatment in the middle of a global pandemic.
“When I heard about COVID-19, I was concerned, and I remember thinking if I get it, I hope to get it early when there is still a large supply of medical resources and protective equipment,” Hanson said. “Our world has changed so much with the coronavirus, and although it can be scary, I know that the people taking care of me are taking every precaution for my health and safety.”
Hanson had a warrior spirit inside her, and she prepared to battle cancer with the help of her oncology team at Memorial Hermann-Texas Medical Center.
Jessica Jones, MD, breast oncologist affiliated with Memorial Hermann Cancer Center-Texas Medical Center and assistant professor of oncology at McGovern Medical School at UTHealth, says the health system has implemented new policies and procedures to ensure the health and safety of all patients.
According to Dr. Jones, keeping cancer patients safe during COVID-19 is a four-fold approach including:
- Limiting in-person care to those receiving active treatment or having emergencies
- Personalizing care by adjusting medications as needed to ensure cancer control while balancing the patient’s risk of exposure
- Screening all patients, visitors, and staff before entry to ensure patients are not put at risk
- Empowering patients by giving recommendations for how to stay safe at home while undergoing cancer treatment
It was during a routine self-exam that Hanson felt a lump. Always on top of her screening appointments, she’d just had her annual exam with her Ob/Gyn. Her annual mammogram was already scheduled when she found the lump, and because of this her routine mammogram was changed to an ultrasound to better examine the lump.
“I knew I had to get in to see a doctor,” Hanson said. “Once I did, everything happened so quickly. Before I could even wrap my mind around the fact that I had cancer, I was going from one appointment to the next having genetic testing, blood tests, scans, and biopsies. I was overwhelmed, yet grateful that my cancer team immediately jumped into action.”
Hanson’s lump was confirmed on the breast ultrasound. She only felt one lump in one breast, but it turns out there were several clusters of lumps in both breasts.
“I’ve always been hyper vigilant about getting my annual screening exam given my family
history,” Hanson said. “Despite my genetics, I was still shocked when I received the diagnosis.”
Hanson has a history of cancer in her family that includes her mom, aunts, grandparent and cousins on both sides. When Dr. Jones did genetic testing on Hanson, she found that she carries the BRCA 2 gene, a mutation that puts her sisters and children at higher risk of breast cancer. After she finishes her chemotherapy, Hanson will have a double mastectomy, just as her mother did.
Much has changed since Hanson’s mother was diagnosed, but perhaps the biggest difference is learning how to navigate and adapt to new behavioral norms with the worldwide outbreak of COVID-19.
While the virus has changed the way Memorial Hermann does business, the health system has continued to safely provide care for cancer patients throughout the entire crisis.
“Memorial Hermann is definitely taking the pandemic very seriously and is doing everything possible to prevent exposure,” Hanson said. “My in-person appointments have been scaled back, but I always have access to my medical team. I’ve noticed there are far fewer patients in the waiting rooms now when I go for my infusions.”
Social distancing is also a huge part of preventing the spread.
“We continue to stand with our patients while we navigate social isolation and active cancer care,” Dr. Jones said. “We are united in our goal to fight cancer and keep our patients safe without compromising their care. Our commitment to maintaining our patients’ health continues to be our top priority, so we can still control cancer and stop the spread of COVID.”
Hanson says the best protection she has against the virus is positivity, prayer, reliance on Dr. Jones to get her through cancer, and common sense to get her through COVID-19.
“I’ve learned not to dwell on the little things,” she said. “I typically don’t cry, but I remember crying by myself in the bathtub after I received my diagnosis. Then, I got out and decided it was time to put things in perspective because it is curable. When my hair started falling out, it was traumatic, but it will grow back. I only have a few chemo treatments left, so I need to focus on getting through that and mentally preparing for surgery and reconstruction.”
Dr. Jones says she noticed Hanson’s warrior spirit during their first interaction.
“Ginger came in ready to fight,” Dr. Jones said. “She will continue to make progress and we will continue to work together to protect her children and bring awareness to her family. We are standing by her side during her entire journey and giving her the tools and knowledge that will help her loved ones be proactive and make smart decisions related to preventing cancer in the future.”