Decades of Care Sees One Patient Through Tough Times

Decades of Care Sees One Patient Through Tough Times

Melissa Banach volunteering in the HCGH Breast Center

Melissa Banach volunteering in the HCGH Breast Center

In 1970, Melissa Cunha Banach moved to Columbia when Howard County General Hospital (HCGH) was just a gleam in the community’s eye. As HCGH became established and grew, so did Melissa’s family. HCGH was there for her when it was time to give birth, and it was there to save her mother’s life after a sudden heart attack. But perhaps most importantly, HCGH and Johns Hopkins were there for Melissa as she battled two life-threatening diseases.

In 1998, Melissa was diagnosed with breast cancer. “I went in for a routine mammogram and then received that horrible call from the doctor.” Like most cancer patients, Melissa felt unable to think clearly. “As doctors are giving you rapid-fire instructions, your mind shuts down. You focus solely on the diagnosis and not really on the prognosis.”

Melissa was referred to Kiran Parikh, M.D., for surgery at HCGH and to radiation oncologist Sally Cheston, M.D., for radiation therapy. “I was treated with care and compassion at HCGH, but there were few additional support resources 15 years ago. I did a considerable amount of reading regarding breast cancer, nutrition and lifestyle,” says Melissa, who went back for periodic checks and has not had a recurrence of breast cancer.

Lightning Strikes Twice: Muscle Sarcoma

In 2008, Melissa was diagnosed with a very rare muscle sarcoma—another cancer totally unrelated to breast cancer. Physicians first thought her symptoms were from a pinched nerve, but, as the pain continued to increase, she sought another opinion from local physiatrist Clark Brill, M.D. “He is a thoughtful, deliberative physician and, after listening carefully to my symptoms, he requested a new test, which showed a malignant tumor in my thigh. He saved my life,” Melissa says. Dr. Brill called The Johns Hopkins Hospital (JHH) immediately, and they were able to admit Melissa for treatment that same day.

Melissa stayed on the Hopkins campus for inpatient and outpatient treatment for four months and describes her experience as “incredible.” During her stay, she participated in an intensive treatment regimen that included continuous care, alternating weeks of chemotherapy and precisely targeted radiation therapy, supportive care and physical therapy. The medical team included orthopedic oncologist Kristy Weber, M.D., and radiation oncologist and sarcoma specialist Deborah Frassica, M.D., who directed Melissa’s complicated treatment.

“We treated Melissa with an intensive interdigitated therapy, alternating chemotherapy and radiation, and then followed with surgery. We use this type of therapy specifically for high-grade sarcomas that are very large and in patients who are young and healthy enough to withstand it,” Dr. Frassica explains.

Melissa praised the medical treatment team, saying: “Dr. Frassica is an exceptional physician. She directed a complicated radiation protocol with professionalism and compassion.” Melissa also had high praise for the nurses, adding, “The nurse navigator system helped me find my way through the treatment process and to the path to wellness.”

She realizes she was fortunate to have access to such high-caliber specialists at one of only a few sarcoma centers in the United States. Today, Dr. Frassica and Dr. Cheston practice in Howard County at Central Maryland Radiation Oncology (CMRO)—a unique collaboration between Johns Hopkins Medicine and the University of Maryland Medical Center. CMRO offers local patients access to the most advanced radiation therapy treatment and clinical trials available.

“We treat sarcoma patients right here in the community and in collaboration with the sarcoma team at Hopkins,” says Dr. Frassica.

Today, Melissa has become a benefactor, volunteering at the new Breast Center at HCGH. Resources like these help give better direction and explanation to patients, providing the bridge between diagnosis, treatment and eventual well-being.

“The beauty of living in Howard County is the access to the Hopkins network, which includes community hospitals and world-class medical research institutions. The referral process is seamless when you are part of the Hopkins network. Everyone is connected—from the family practitioner to the specialist,” says Melissa.

Read this story and others in the Fall 2013 issue of Wellness Matters