Melissa Owings Wilcox: Breast Cancer

Jackson veterinarian Melissa Owings Wilcox discovered she had breast cancer a few months after she turned 40, with the results of her very first mammogram.

Jackson veterinarian Melissa Owings Wilcox discovered she had breast cancer a few months after she turned 40, with the results of her very first mammogram. “It came as a complete shock, especially because there is no history of breast cancer on either side of my family. It was definitely a life-altering experience,” she said. But after a successful surgery and the completion of her chemotherapy and radiation treatment at Henry Ford Allegiance Health, Melissa said, “I feel better than I did before the cancer.”

Fortunately for Melissa, the mammogram detected her cancer at a very early stage. She had been faithfully performing breast self-exams and getting regular physicals from her primary care doctor, but the tumor was too small to be felt. A second mammogram and an ultrasound were scheduled for her, as well as a biopsy of the tumor, which confirmed it was cancer.

“I could not believe this was happening,” Melissa said. “I thought there must be some way I could avoid surgery, but there was no way around it. I knew I had to get through it and stay positive.”

Melissa chose Henry Ford Allegiance Health for her surgery and treatment. “No matter where you go for cancer treatment, it’s hard,” she said. “If I was going to do this, I had to feel supported and I wanted accessibility to my doctors. I knew I would have that at Henry Ford Allegiance, and I was right. They always made me feel like I mattered to them.”

Her regard for Henry Ford Allegiance Health was reinforced by Melissa’s husband, Duane Wilcox, who is a registered nurse at the hospital. “Through his experience, we both felt confident in the hospital, physicians and staff,” Melissa said. “We know Henry Ford Allegiance Health has an experienced, research-cancer based program. The team works hard to stay current with the latest treatments and therapies.”

Duane connected Melissa with Phillip Frantzis, MD, a general surgeon who chairs the Henry Ford Allegiance Health Breast Cancer Disease Site Team. Together with her oncologist Malcolm Trimble, MD, they developed a plan of treatment that included a lumpectomy—surgery to remove the tumor only. This was followed by six cycles of chemotherapy, six weeks of radiation and a year of monoclonal antibody therapy—a treatment that indentifies and attacks substances in the body that may help cancer cells grow.

Choosing to have her treatment close to home meant that Melissa could request her friend and nurse anesthetist Sarah Webster to be part of her surgical team. Sarah is the manager of Henry Ford Allegiance Anesthesiology Services, “and she was fantastic,” Melissa said. She was also happy to see other friends from the community throughout the hospital. “There is such comfort in having familiar, trusted people around you in difficult times,” Melissa said. “Everyone was so caring, I felt like I was surrounded by angels.”

With the help of her “extremely supportive coworkers,” Melissa was able to continue working at her veterinary hospital throughout her cancer treatments. About midway through her treatment, Henry Ford Allegiance Health opened it’s newly redesigned Gayle M. Jacob Cancer Center. “I started at the old cancer center, so I could really appreciate the improvements of the new one,” she said. “It’s obvious Henry Ford Allegiance Health made an effort to do the redesign right. It’s comfortable, private and not depressing in the least. I really enjoyed looking out onto the waterfall and gardens during my chemotherapy infusions.”

During her chemotherapy treatments, she recalled, “Dr. Trimble was available to me and very approachable. He would stop by to sit with and answer my questions.” That kind of personal care was a common thread in Melissa’s experience. “These doctors have a very tough job, but they were always friendly, always smiled and remembered my name,” she said.

She also appreciated the attentiveness of the nurses and staff. “Some of them are cancer survivors, and it really helped to hear about their experiences,” she said. “The volunteers were wonderful, too, offering me magazines and blankets and stopping to sit with me. My children were 5 and 7, so I never had them in the infusion area. But they would come with me for blood draws and everyone was nice to them and made them feel at home.”

Through her experience with cancer, Melissa has learned to appreciate the important things in her life. “I realized that before the cancer I was running on ‘E’ all the time. Now, I am better at balancing my work and family life. My husband and my mom were fantastic and very helpful, and I was fortunate to have a huge circle of support from family, friends, neighbors and veterinary clients. They were always making us meals, offering to take care of the kids. I am very appreciative of all their love and support, and I am grateful to have been treated close to home, which made it so much easier on everyone.”

Having completed her cancer treatment, Mellissa says she is “taking better care of myself and working out like a fiend. My husband and I are having more fun with the kids, too, riding bikes and taking trips together. Life is very good.”

You can reduce your cancer risk by getting regular medical care, living smoke-free, limiting alcohol use, avoiding excessive exposure to UV rays from the sun and tanning beds, eating fruits and veggies, maintaining a healthy weight and being physically active.