Thriver & Survivor: A self-exam and technology saved Jan’s life twice

by Kettering Health Network©

Reprinted with permission

When Jan Hillman and her husband, William, moved to Dayton in 1980, she never imagined she would still be living here four decades later—let alone that the move would prove providential.

She’s alive today because of it.

“We came to Dayton because William got a job as a fellow at Grandview Medical Center,” Jan says. “We thought we would be here one year.” The couple had completed their graduate studies at the University of Toledo. Their daughter was born there, and they intended to move back.

But “Dayton and Grandview have a habit of wrapping their arms around you,” Jan says. “William wound up advancing at Grandview until he was vice president of planning.”

Along the way, they added a son to their family, and Jan’s own career advanced, including a position with Grandview and launching her own consulting business. By 1986, they were a happy family of four, living on a hobby farm outside of New Carlisle.

Until one ordinary day, when Jan’s life suddenly became anything but ordinary.

“I was doing a breast self-exam and wondering, how in the world does Dolly Parton do this?” Jan recalls. “It was that exact moment when I felt the lump.”

She told William, “I found a lump. I know it is cancer.”

He said, “How do you know that?”

“I just know.”

The battle begins

When the biopsy results came back, “sure enough—it was cancer,” Jan says.

“I waited until William got home from work, and when I told him, he went back behind the barn and cried. Then he came back and said, ‘We are going to play the hand we’ve been dealt, and I will be there with you every step of the way.’ And he was. He never left my side.

“Shock was my first feeling,” Jan continues. “Then determination to beat cancer with the help of truly great family, friends, and health care providers at Grandview and Southview medical centers. My daughter was 6, and my son was 4. I was determined to not just survive but thrive, and my motivation was to see them graduate from high school.”

Jan had stage 2 intraductal carcinoma. “The lump was small—the size of a pea,” she says. “Self-exam is so important. It is one of the critical factors in early detection.”

She decided to have a lumpectomy. “I had my surgery at Southview and got great treatment there,” she shares.

Another diagnosis

Life moved on for Jan and her family. Her children became teens. William’s career with Kettering Health Network continued to advance, and so did Jan’s: By the mid-1990s, she was a director for the Kettering Medical Center Foundation, working on a campaign for what would become the Wallace-Kettering Neuroscience Institute (now Kettering Brain & Spine).

Jan was immersed in raising funds for the foundation to acquire a powerful imaging machine that uses technology called positron emission tomography (PET) to detect and identify tumors and other masses.

Although PET technology had been around for a while, it wasn’t widely known beyond research institutions, even among physicians. That Kettering Medical Center had this technology at all—let alone was raising funds to acquire a newer, more advanced version—was unusual for a community hospital.

In 1997, Jan went for a routine mammogram and got a callback—“the thing nobody wants,” she says. Jan had a mass in the same breast as her previous tumor 11 years earlier. A biopsy determined that it was cancer. When she received the diagnosis, Jan planned to have another lumpectomy.

“I was never one to invite myself to a pity party and include others in that,” Jan says. “Instead, I took a ‘whole person’ approach as an equal opportunity healer, utilizing meditation, prayer, exercise, socializing by being with family and friends, learning as much as possible about my diagnosis, trying alternative medicine techniques, and so much more.”

A surprising discovery

Jan also drew on her knowledge of PET and the support of her colleagues in PET who had become close friends. “Since I knew the power of PET so well, I knew that [a PET scan] was what I wanted—to know the full truth about any other masses I might have in my breast and the rest of my body.”

Jan was able to get a PET scan by participating in a small PET research study on lymph nodes that happened to be going on at the time. The scan showed that while her lymph nodes were unaffected, there was a second tumor in her breast along the scar line of her 1986 surgery.

“If I’d had the lumpectomy I was planning, the second tumor would have been outside the surgical margins of the tumor that was removed,” Jan says.

This discovery changed the whole course of Jan’s treatment. Instead of a lumpectomy, she had a mastectomy and reconstruction. Had she not moved to Dayton all those years ago, had she not been working for the foundation to raise funds for PET, she would not have known to ask for the scan. Now, 35 years after her first diagnosis, Jan is cancer-free.

Knowledge is power

Jan’s experience has made her an even more ardent crusader for PET, telling others about it so that they, too, can ask their providers if a PET scan is appropriate for them.

“I am a huge PET proponent because it changed the course of my disease treatment and potentially saved my life,” she says. “There needs to be so much more awareness of the power of PET in many ways, but especially in relation to diagnosing cancer, because it is powerful, it is accurate, and people deserve to have that kind of treatment if they need it. I’ll be forever grateful that the PET technology was available to me at Kettering Medical Center.”

As a two-time breast cancer “thriver” (a word she prefers to “survivor”), Jan frequently speaks about breast cancer awareness and the importance of early detection.

Though the pandemic has put her speaking engagements on hold for a while, she still has a message to share:

“Cancer does not take a vacation, and it does not take a break for a pandemic,” she says. “So if you are due for a mammogram, you need to schedule one and get in and get it done. There are precautions being taken—do not be afraid. Get it done.”

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