In Waterloo-Wellington, we are proud of our regional approach to cancer care, where cancer patients are supported by partnerships between seven local hospitals, including Grand River, St. Mary’s General, and Cambridge Memorial. Our shared goal is to deliver high quality, timely care close to home. Ellyn Winters-Robinson received this support following her breast cancer diagnosis in the spring of 2022.
Ellyn was referred to Dr. Dan Charleton at St. Mary’s General Hospital for surgery. “I really appreciated his approach. He made me feel like I was a partner in my care,” she says. Dr. Charleton was highly responsive, took the time to address all her questions and was open to hearing her insights and opinions.
Although the cancer was isolated to her left breast, Ellyn decided on a full mastectomy and aesthetic flat closure (AFC) – a form of chest wall reconstruction surgery that is an alternative to breast mound reconstruction typically involving breast implants or body tissue transplant.
“Dan was respectful of the fact that I wanted to go for a flat closure,” Ellyn says. There is still a common assumption in society and within the broader medical community that women with mastectomies will always want breast reconstruction. Ellyn now advocates for more acceptance and for physicians to explain flat closure to their patients, so they know all the options before making their decision.
Following her surgery, Ellyn needed chemotherapy and radiation to complete her treatment. First, she went to Cambridge Memorial Hospital for chemotherapy. “Dr. Helen Lin, Dr. Sara Hahn, the nurses and everyone was awesome,” Ellyn remembers. “I tolerated chemo really well, without the horrible side effects, so I think it was also easier for them to see a patient doing well.”
After completing 12 weeks of chemotherapy, Ellyn moved to the Grand River Regional Cancer Centre for radiation treatment under the care of Dr. Joda Kuk and his team of radiation therapists. It is very common for cancer patients to move between hospitals for treatment, based on the first available space that meets the patient’s needs, and patient preference. “In cancer, we work very hard to deliver care close to home” says Donna Van Allen, Director of the Grand River Regional Cancer Centre. “All of these services are provided in our region, as part of our regional cancer program partnerships.”
“In the Cancer Centre, I was always warmly greeted by the volunteers, went to the same waiting room, the same radiation suite, and saw many of the same team members from the beginning to the end of my treatment,” Ellyn says. “There’s not a person I’ve met at any hospital who wasn’t kind and compassionate, caring and sensitive.” She remembers the little things that made the journey easier: the technologist at Grand River who stood right beside her to reassure her during her first CT; the pre-operative communication clerk at St. Mary’s General who made her feel comfortable with the prep for her first ever surgery; the CMH pharmacist who was “just fabulous”; and the nursing team at CMH who gathered around her cheering her on as she “rang the bell” after her last chemotherapy appointment. She says no matter where she was, she felt prioritized, and people always took the time to connect with her as a person, not just a patient.
Ellyn is now cancer-free, and is writing a book about her experience to support other patients with breast cancer. “There’s so much you learn from other women as you go along,” she says. “As I’ve shared my experiences through stories in the Globe and Mail and People Magazine, people have reached out to me from all over Canada and the US, voicing their support and sharing their experiences.” She hopes that her book will be able to support everyone with a breast cancer diagnosis and their families, so they know a little more about what to expect – “I want the reader to feel like they have a girlfriend holding their hand.”
One in eight women will be diagnosed with breast cancer in their lifetime. So Ellyn also advocates for mammograms – saying that when she received her diagnosis, women in her circle were inspired to go and get the scan. Shockingly, two of these friends were also diagnosed with early stage breast cancer. The Ontario Breast Screening Program currently recommends mammograms for women, trans, and non-binary people every two years after age 50, and earlier for people at higher risk.
If you are over 50, you can book an appointment directly, without referral, by calling the Waterloo Wellington Breast Centre at 519-749-4270. People under 50 can talk to their doctor about breast screening and can ask for a referral.