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Breast Cancer Survivor Using Life’s Lessons to Help Others

Lawrence E. Flaherty, M.D.

Deborah Woods, breast cancer survivor, rings the bell three times at the Karmanos Cancer Center’s Weisberg Cancer Treatment Center in Farmington Hills, commemorating her last cancer treatment.

The plaque under the bell reads: Ring this bell three times well its toll to say, "My treatments done, This course is run and I am on my way.” 

Deborah Woods, breast cancer survivor (center) is greeted by a members of her medical team at the Karmanos Cancer Center; Staff Nurse Kimberly O’Shaughnessy, R.N. (left); and Kathleen Hardy, LMSW, oncology social worker.  

TaiLana Knight (left), ambulatory care associate at the Karmanos Cancer Center, visits with Deborah Woods. 

by Patricia A. Ellis

Last fall, Detroiter Deborah Woods was taking a shower when she felt a lump around her breast. Her last mammogram was a year earlier. Deborah was concerned. At the time, she was in school taking classes toward her master’s degree in social work. She was unemployed and had no health insurance. She was scared. If this was cancer, how could she afford treatment?

Deborah, now age 63, has four adult children, 10 grandchildren and will soon have her first great grandchild. She was the caregiver for several family members, including her husband Paul who passed away of leukemia in 2006. They were married for 37 years. Now, Deborah was facing her own health challenge.  

A Facebook “friend” that Deborah had never met posted information about the Breast and Cervical Cancer Control Program (BCCCP) in Wayne County – a program that provides breast and cervical cancer screenings at no cost to eligible, uninsured women between the ages of 40 to 64. 

Deborah decided to call BCCCP. As it turns out, the Barbara Ann Karmanos Cancer Institute administers the BCCCP Wayne County program which serves residents in Wayne, Oakland and Macomb counties.

Within two days of calling BCCCP, Deborah met with Case Manager Gloria Slade. Gloria put Deborah at ease right from the moment they met.

“I call Gloria my angel,” said Deborah. “She was patient, compassionate and inspirational, and assured me everything would be all right.”

First, Deborah had to have a mammogram and, depending on the results, possibly further testing and treatment. The healthcare provider Deborah initially saw for her mammogram confirmed there was a mass and referred her to the Karmanos Cancer Center.   

Deborah was familiar with Karmanos and the work being done there to help put an end to cancer. Deborah’s husband Paul was a patient of Charles Schiffer, M.D., at Karmanos. Paul was scheduled to have a bone marrow transplant and his brother, who was to be the donor, was a perfect match. Unfortunately, just two weeks before it was scheduled to take place, Paul’s brother passed away unexpectedly. By the time another match was found, Paul was too weak for the transplant. 

“My husband received wonderful care at Karmanos and they did everything they could for him and our entire family,” said Deborah. “I knew if went to Karmanos I would be in good hands.”

It was determined that the lump Deborah found was stage 2 estrogen-positive breast cancer. She had a lumpectomy in December 2012 with several rounds of chemotherapy, followed by 33 rounds of radiation treatment. Deborah received her treatments at Karmanos’ Weisberg Cancer Treatment Center in Farmington Hills.

In August, Deborah had her last radiation treatment. She got to ring the bell in the treatment center three times, a tradition for Karmanos patients commemorating their last day of treatment.

Deborah’s medical team consists of Surgical Oncologist David Gorski. M.D., Ph.D.; Medical Oncologist is Lawrence Flaherty, M.D.; Radiation Oncologist Jordon Maier, M.D.; Oncology Social Worker Kathleen Hardy; and numerous nurses, medical technicians and other staff.

“God put the best people in my path,” said Deborah. “The entire staff at Karmanos is wonderful. They are gifted at what they do.

“Right after my surgery, Dr. Flaherty took time to plan out my entire treatment plan. He sat down with me and explained everything, as if I were the only patient he needed to take care of, which I knew wasn’t the case. Even the pharmacy staff delivered medicine to my room so my family wouldn’t have to go out to the drug store once I was released from the hospital. The compassion and kindness I experienced from everyone has been absolutely amazing.”

Kathleen Hardy who has been her support person and counselor for the last year said, “Deborah has a beautiful spirit about her. Going through breast cancer can be a stressful journey. Deborah has a deep faith and has remained prayerful throughout her journey to wellness.”

Deborah decided halfway through her treatment that she wanted to use her experience to help others.

Hardy added, “First we grieve the loss of one’s health and then we accept hopefully and move forward. Deborah is moving forward.”

Deborah is also taking part in a National Cancer Institute nationwide clinical trial at Karmanos involving early stage breast cancer patients. Participants in the trial will all be on adjuvant hormonal therapy but half of those in the trial will receive a second drug to see if there is added benefit beyond what is usually achieved with hormonal therapy. Clinical trials are a critical element for the advancement of cancer treatments.

“Anything I can do to help myself stay longer I’m glad to do. Why not?

“Women, especially African American women, are good managers. We’re always taking care of everyone else but ourselves. It’s time we changed that and make some time for ourselves.”

That includes getting the necessary mammograms and other health screenings.

According to Deborah, her cancer experience has changed her life. She is the in the process of writing a book about her journey which will include humorous, anecdotal experiences, such as when she lost her hair, she never realized how the water in the shower would hurt her head.

“You just don’t know about some of these things unless you’ve lived it.”

Deborah now wants to focus her master’s degree on helping low-income women receive the necessary cancer screenings to help prevent cancer, as well as help detect it early, so that more women will have a better chance of surviving this disease.

“I feel I’ve always been a generous person but my cancer journey has made me more aware of the compassion, kindness and respect that can impact someone’s life – not only when they’re dealing with medical concerns, but also in everyday situations.”

She added, “Everyone has a song to sing but not everybody listens. I want to be the one who listens.”

For more information on BCCCP and other cancer services, call 1-800-KARMANOS (1-800-527-6266) or visit

Click here to see the story on pages 9 -11 in the Oct. 23, 2013 Michigan Chronicle’s LivingWELL.

Patricia Ellis is director of Media Relations for the Barbara Ann Karmanos Cancer Institute.


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