When Ginnie Gillen was first diagnosed with breast cancer in December 2016, her initial response seemed counterintuitive: She felt blessed.
“I know so many people who have gone through so much with this disease, and my experience wasn’t nearly that bad,” says Ginnie, who lost her mother and a cousin to breast cancer, while another cousin underwent a radical bilateral mastectomy at the age of 25. “I have a great faith, and I knew God was going to get me through this—and I have to say that every person I came in contact with at Sentara Martha Jefferson Hospital was like an angel placed directly in my path. They were all incredible, and they made the whole process a lot easier.”
Because of her family history, Ginnie—who moved to Charlottesville in 1998 after her husband, Pete, was hired to take over as the coach of the University of Virginia men’s basketball team—had long been involved in the local fight against breast cancer. She volunteered to serve as a member of the Sentara Martha Jefferson Women’s Committee and helped host the In the Pink Tennis Tournament each fall. All of the proceeds from this annual fundraiser support services facilitated through the Cancer Resource Center and Marianne’s Room, providing cancer patients with wigs, hats, scarves, prostheses and resource materials.
Ginnie’s charitable work put her in contact with a variety of people affected by cancer, and she quickly came to realize how critical Marianne’s Room was in helping them cope with the harsh physical realities of cancer treatment, as well as maintaining their self-esteem and a positive outlook.
“It really became my personal mission to tell everybody I met about Marianne’s Room and all the resources Sentara Martha Jefferson offers,” she says. “It is just such a special place.”
With her unique insight into how quickly cancer can take hold, Ginnie never once missed a mammogram—even though her semiannual schedule frequently resulted in suspicious findings. “I was always getting called back in because the images would show something that didn’t look quite right, and then I would get an ultrasound for further evaluation,” she explains.
Each time proved to be a false alarm—until the one day it wasn’t. In May 2016, Linda Sommers, MD, a breast surgeon at Virginia Breast Care, flagged a small but potentially problematic area in Ginnie’s right breast and recommended a careful wait-and-see approach. The following December, the mammogram images showed that the area had grown and changed. This time, Dr. Sommers told Ginnie that she needed a biopsy, and the results came back positive for cancer.
“Dr. Sommers was so amazingly kind and gentle when she told me my diagnosis,” says Ginnie. “She was just great throughout the entire process.”
Thus began the rush to find out the extent and stage of the tumor, as well as the available treatment options. Ginnie had an MRI, which revealed a second tumor in her left breast, and then another needle biopsy also found that growth to be malignant.
Soon after the diagnosis, Ginnie and Pete welcomed their daughter, Shannon, and son, Brendan, home for Christmas. “I so wanted to wait to tell them, to keep from ruining the celebration for them, but they knew something was up,” Ginnie recalls. “I tried to reassure them that I would be fine and that everything would be OK.”
In January 2017, Ginnie underwent a bilateral partial mastectomy, better known as a double lumpectomy. During the surgery, Dr. Sommers also took two sentinel lymph nodes from the left breast. The news was good: the cancer was contained in the breasts.
Following her procedure, Ginnie for the first time had the opportunity to see Marianne’s Room and its generous resources through the eyes of a patient. She found the support and encouragement given by staff wonderful.
Ginnie was then scheduled for radiation therapy under the watchful eye of radiation oncologist Sylvia Hendrix, MD. The treatments meant traveling to the Sentara Martha Jefferson Cancer Center five days a week for more than six weeks.
What could have been a very scary, lonesome journey, however, became a very supportive and healing experience.
“There were days when I just wanted to pull up the covers and not come out,” Ginnie admits. “But when I arrived for treatment, Dr. Hendrix, the nurses and the technicians were just so amazing. They immediately put me in a good place. I would leave there actually feeling happy and more uplifted. I can’t say enough about all the staff. It seems strange to say this about going through cancer, but they made my experience a good one, and I’m just so thankful.”