Karmanos' very own wonder woman conquered cancer not once but twice

The Barbara Ann Karmanos Cancer Institute is proud to recognize June as Cancer Survivor Month. With nearly 16.9 million cancer survivors across the United States, there is a lot to celebrate. Cancer survivors may not wear actual capes, but they embody the resilience it takes to be heroes. Lisa Bartolone is one heroic survivor that Karmanos is proud to honor.

After noticing an abnormal growth underneath her chin, Lisa underwent extensive testing at the recommendation of her primary care physician. The results of a biopsy in 2014 showed something Lisa did not expect: non-Hodgkin's lymphoma. What seemed like a casual observation of an abnormality was a monumental discovery that would save her life.

Non-Hodgkin's lymphoma is one of the most common cancers in the United States, accounting for nearly four percent of all cancer diagnoses. The signs and symptoms can include enlarged lymph nodes, loss of appetite, fatigue and chest pain.

After her diagnosis, Lisa began consulting with an oncologist, but she was left feeling hopeless and alone. After seeing a television commercial for Karmanos Cancer Institute, she decided to turn to the experts in cancer care. From her first visit, she knew she had made the best decision.

"With my medical history, I've been to a lot of clinics, hospitals and doctors' offices, but there is such a difference when you walk into Karmanos. I think it's because everyone knows that patients are going through the fight of their lives," she said.

Jay Yang, M.D., leader of the Hematology Oncology Multidisciplinary Team at Karmanos, prescribed chemotherapy for the first couple of months. Lisa said, "When I first met Dr. Yang, I was amazed at his compassion, patience and warmth."

After a year of increasing the dosage and frequency of treatment, Lisa's scans indicated that her lump had returned, so Dr. Yang referred Lisa to Jordan Maier, M.D., a radiation oncologist at the Lawrence and Idell Weisberg Cancer Treatment Center in Farmington Hills.

"The first thing I noticed was that Dr. Maier – not a nurse or assistant – would always come out to the waiting room and personally walk his patients to his office," Lisa said.

"Our health care team here is committed to provide individualized care – to make a patient feel as if she is the only one we are treating," said Dr. Maier. "Our objective is to make patients feel as comfortable and confident with the care they are receiving and with those providing the care."

Dr. Maier truly understands the critical role that cancer care providers play in the lives of their patients. He began his pursuit of radiation oncology after helping to care for his father, who was diagnosed with five different cancers. He reflected on his own experience as a cancer caregiver and committed to providing a personal and compassionate approach to every patient, including Lisa.

Together, Dr. Maier and Lisa fought Lisa's non-Hodgkin's lymphoma with chemotherapy and radiation for five years until she was finally cancer-free.

"Dr. Maier made all the difference in my life. I could have been at the lowest of lows during my cancer journey. I don't have much family, but he gave me the courage to go on. He made me feel like I was worthy of being treated and should keep living," she said.

Dr. Maier said, "We have a lot of resources to address not just the physical components of cancer diagnoses and treatments, but also the mental aspect. Hearing a diagnosis multiple times, as in Lisa's case, can take an emotional and psychological toll on a patient and her family members that is often underappreciated."

After her battle with non-Hodgkin's lymphoma, Lisa believed that her fight against cancer was over. However, one night, Lisa woke up to a painful sore on her tongue that would not go away. After a long, misguided journey from various dentists, a biopsy revealed something Lisa did not expect — she had skin cancer.

"I received the call that I never imagined hearing. It absolutely stunned me. I was diagnosed with cancer again. It was squamous cell carcinoma. Without hesitation, the first call I made was to Dr. Maier at Karmanos," she said.

On March 17, 2020, Lisa underwent surgery and her sore was successfully removed. However, the cancer cells traveled to her lymph nodes. "I asked myself, 'Am I really going to go back to square one and fight cancer again?' When I felt like giving up, Dr. Maier motivated me to keep going," she said.

Along with the challenge of a second cancer diagnosis, 2020 brought further obstacles due to the COVID-19 pandemic. For Lisa, this meant that some of her follow-up visits turned into telehealth visits. During the pandemic, Karmanos expanded its telehealth services and many other safety protocols to provide patients like Lisa with the oncology care they need in the comfort and safety of their homes.

"Telehealth is a great tool, and it is going to stay in the future — it is not just going to be useful during the pandemic," said George Yoo, M.D., FACS, chief medical officer at Karmanos.

After numerous telehealth visits and rounds of treatment, Lisa proudly wears the "cape" of Karmanos' very own Wonder Woman after conquering cancer not once but twice.

Lisa continues to inspire people with similar stories. She said, "After beating cancer, I feel like I must have a purpose. One of my coworkers, who was supportive in my cancer journey, has been diagnosed with ovarian cancer. In turn, I can give her advice and listen like no one else can. Cancer is not the end of your life. Cancer treatments are only temporary," she said.

Seven years after her initial diagnosis of non-Hodgkin's lymphoma, Lisa has dedicated her life to helping others in their fight against cancer in a very practical way. She has graciously chosen to promote the cancer research at Karmanos by donating her tissue samples.

"If I can help someone down the line, I will do it. I can't recommend Karmanos enough. I wish I could do more for the people who saved my life," Lisa said.

Karmanos Cancer Institute is proud to celebrate cancer survivors. As an institution dedicated to seeing a world free from cancer, Karmanos will not stop fighting for those who are in "the fight of their lives," as Lisa described the journey of cancer.

From groundbreaking research to the most up-to-date therapies and individualized treatment plans, Karmanos is proud to lead in the fight against cancer. We're committed to being at the forefront of cancer treatment and offering tomorrow's standard of care today.

If you or someone you love has been diagnosed with cancer, it is important to be evaluated by cancer experts before beginning treatment. Please call 1-800-KARMANOS (1-800-527-6266) to speak with a trusted oncology patient navigator who can help you determine which tests are right for you.