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Spreading positivity wherever she goes, breast cancer patient wears costumes to treatment

VCU Health Community Memorial Hospital cancer experts emphasize the importance of early detection for treating breast cancer.

Five polaroids of the same woman dressed as a clown, bunny, pink boxer, silver formal, and the cartoon, Maxine. Lynn Cisar knew she had to stay positive after receiving a cancer diagnosis and wore costumes each week to her treatment quickly became a tradition. (contributed photos)

By Kristy Fowler and Sara McCloskey

Keeping your chin up can be difficult after hearing the words “you have cancer” from a doctor. Lynn Cisar, of Bracey, knew she had to stay positive. Decked out head to toe in pink to signify the fight she was facing, Cisar walked into her first chemo treatment. 

“Things are what they are and will not change in a good way from fear, anxiety or negativity, but they are changed by positive momentum,” Cisar said. 

After a lesion was detected in her annual mammogram, Cisar was diagnosed with stage one breast cancer in November 2022. She had surgery at VCU Health Community Memorial Hospital, and went on to get infusions and radiation therapy at CMH Cancer and Specialty Care in both the Hendrick Cancer and Rehab Center and Solari Radiation Therapy Center.

With a strong support system of family and friends encouraging and praying for her, Cisar was fueled with positivity. Featuring funky wigs and colorful get-ups, wearing costumes each week to her treatment quickly became a tradition. When a holiday rolled around, Cisar would dress up for that too. 

At first, Cisar says the other patients in the waiting room didn’t know what to think of her. 

“It took a while for people to start acknowledging me, because it's odd,” Cisar said. “Maybe it was the fourth time, they started talking to me in the waiting room. One lady wanted my picture, and so they were starting to warm up. The staff was over the moon with it. They couldn't wait to see the next thing.”

The positivity of her outfits was infectious. Cisar’s fun personality makes the energy in the room change, bringing smiles during a time that can be scary and very serious for some. 

"Ms. Cisar brought a happiness into the treatment room that can be extremely difficult to accomplish,” said Emily Lucy, clinical coordinator for medical oncology at CMH. “The other patients enjoyed the moment of lightheartedness and were excited to see her each week. While keeping herself upbeat and positive she was also giving that gift to our other patients experiencing similar situations."

Understanding the importance of early detection

Breast cancer is the second most common cancer among women in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The disease causes cells in the breast to grow out of control. It can also spread outside of the breast through blood vessels and lymph vessels, which is known as metastasizing. 

Early detection is key for treating cancer. 

“If you catch cancer earlier, it gives you a better chance to fight it,” said Kayla Trask, director of oncology at CMH. “That’s why it’s important to have an annual mammogram and do regular self-breast exams so you know what your normal is.”

Different people have different symptoms, while some don’t have any symptoms at all. That’s why it’s so important to know what “your normal” is, as Trask explains. Some warning signs of breast cancer include a new lump in the breast or armpit, discharge from the nipple other than breast milk, thickening, swelling or pain in any area of the breast. 

VCU Massey Comprehensive Cancer Center, which is connected to CMH, recommends yearly mammograms beginning at age 40 if you are at average risk of breast cancer. At CMH, patients can call to schedule a mammogram with no doctor’s order. 

As the medical oncology director at CMH Cancer and Specialty Care, Nemer El Mouallem, M.D., sees first-hand the effects of waiting too late.

“It’s better to be safe and have any areas of concern checked by your primary care physician or gynecologist,” El Mouallem said. “Getting an annual mammogram should be a priority for every woman.”

This being Cisar’s second time with a cancer diagnosis, she understands this completely. 

“In 2015 I had endometrial cancer, also caught early and successfully treated with just surgery,” Cisar said. “I never appreciated the burden of well woman exams, but I can say it was the most responsible thing I’ve ever done. There are no regrets.”

Community values at the heart of care teams

Trusting your care team is essential. Cisar knew approaches to cancer treatment differ for everyone. To avoid any unnecessary confusion and worry, she relied on CMH team members to answer her questions.

“Initially it’s a lot of information to digest along with a bit of shock,” she said. “There is a sense of fear when you hear chemo and radiation, so I focused on preparing to navigate the typical side effects.”

Collaboration is key to providing innovative and thorough care at CMH. As a hospital in a rural region of the commonwealth, team members often get to know their patients and community more intimately. 

“Our oncologist, nurses and care teams recognize the difficulties that come with a cancer diagnosis,” said Trask. “We not only strive to improve the health of our communities through innovative cancer treatment, but also want to holistically help our patients with all of their needs.” 

Cisar says she appreciated how her care teams worked with each other to provide her well-coordinated care across the hospital. She also felt respected and heard.

“Fear is just unanswered questions,” Cisar said. “When you ask questions to a team you trust, it's not just their compassion and warmth. It's their knowledge. They've traveled this with many patients.”

Taking the long road with patients during their cancer journey is what CMH Cancer and Specialty Care team members commit to every day. They were there as Cisar received her diagnosis to when she rang the ceremonial gong to symbolize her treatments wrapping up. Their unwavering dedication provides an extended support system for everyone who walks through the hospital, Hendrick Cancer and Rehab Center and Solari Radiation Therapy Center. 

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