At a Brattleboro Memorial Hospital event last spring, Phyllis Benay spoke about her experience receiving treatment and rehabilitation at the hospital following lung cancer surgery. The following is the first part of an interview she later gave to help BMH celebrate 25 years of providing Oncology Services.

My journey through cancer began nine years ago when my husband was accidentally killed. I found him in the woods behind our house on February 3rd, after coming home early from work. While he was taking down a tree in the woods behind our house, a limb broke off and struck him in the back. I later learned these tree limbs are called “widow makers” by people in the forestry profession.

When I saw John’s body slumped on the tractor seat, it really felt like something happened to my body. It was as if everything inside went up, came down and then was reconfigured.

I was a cigarette smoker at the time. After the accident my smoking habit was out of control for a while, but I eventually stopped smoking all together. We all know there is a correlation between smoking and lung cancer, but I’m also convinced that something else happened to my body on that February afternoon.

Phyllis Benay
Phyllis Benay

It was a fluke that my cancer was diagnosed, given my personality. I’m very bad about making doctor’s appointments. I had a very bad chest cold in December 2011 and one time after a bout of coughing, I saw a tiny droplet of blood. I happened to mention it to a friend while we were snow shoeing and he told me I really should go to the Emergency Room. I told him I thought he was being ridiculous. He said if I didn’t go to the ER he wasn’t going to walk with me anymore and then he insisted that I go right away. While I wasn’t happy at the time, I told him later I probably needed that push.

I went to the Emergency Department at BMH and they gave me antibiotics for pneumonia. On my way out, the doctor said I should be sure to get a chest x-ray when I finished taking the drugs because of my history as a smoker. I work in Keene so my primary care doctor is at Cheshire Medical Center. At the time I had that x-ray, my physician happened to be away so her partner reviewed the results with me. It looked clear except for one thing that he questioned. When I mentioned that I had finished a course of antibiotics only two days before, he mentioned that might be skewing the x-ray results. The doctor recommended, however, I get a follow-up x-ray after waiting five days. I was not happy with his request, but now see that if he hadn’t been so insistent I probably wouldn’t have gone back for that x-ray.

When I went back to my doctor for the results of my second chest x-ray, she asked me to sit down and then gave me the news that I had lung cancer. She asked where my daughter, Erin, was at the time, knowing I would need family support. Erin is an art history professor and was teaching at SUNY-Oswego in New York. The school was so accommodating; they put her courses online so she could be with me in Vermont. She came home and kicked everything into high gear for me.

We spent two days at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center in Lebanon, NH and the staff there was incredible. I felt very confident with them and decided to schedule my surgery there. Surgery was very hard on me, personally. They had to perform a lobectomy due to the location of the tumor. The surgeon said he took out 10 or 11 lymph nodes and two of them showed slight traces of the cancer cells.

The next step was chemotherapy. The surgeon said he would have recommended chemo even if there were no traces of cancer in the lymph nodes; he called it an “insurance policy”. I could have done my treatments at Dartmouth but my surgeon said some of their oncologists travel to BMH a couple times a week. He told me he was going to try and get me an appointment with Dr. Letha Mills. He felt very strongly that she was a doctor that would work very well with me. Looking back, I realize how lucky I was that he did this for me. Having my treatments so close to home allowed me to save some energy so that I could keep track of my work at Keene State College. Even though I was on medical leave, I still attempted to keep on top of things which, I suspect, would not have been possible if I was traveling back and forth to Dartmouth.

At the time, I was scared to death of the whole process. I felt like I was in a movie as Letha Mills and Agnes Mikijaniec, ARNP, showed me around the Oncology Unit. I just couldn’t believe this was happening to me. I felt I needed more time from the surgery before starting chemotherapy treatments, but they encouraged me to move forward. They said “let’s do it”.

Phyllis Benay is a Brattleboro resident and Director of the Center for Writing at Keene State College.

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