It’s the day before she’s set to receive a pin for 40 years of service in the Baptist Memorial Hospital system, and Wanda Dent has the day off — sort of.
She’s got a 24-year-old starting chemotherapy today, a 65-year-old getting a mastectomy, and she’s waiting on a 34-year-old to call her to answer if she will receive chemotherapy before or after her surgery.
When she starts her official 12-hour work day as women’s health navigator for Baptist Memorial Hospital of North Mississippi, she’ll come in the early morning and check her patients for the day — a list she puts together a week in advance. She’ll drop in for chemotherapy appointments, doctor checkups and consultations. After giving medical care for more than four decades, Dent plans to retire in November.
Dent began her career caring for patients in their youngest days in the neonatal intensive care unit and labor and delivery. She’s worked in recovery rooms as a head nurse and as a director of nursing. She came from Columbus in 2014 to be the nursing educator at Baptist of North Mississippi, commuting from her home in Tupelo and staying sometimes four nights a week in Oxford. She had merely cared for cancer patients after surgery until she found herself on the other side of the stethoscope after her annual mammogram came back abnormal.
“Having it myself has really taught me so much about the feelings that you go through when you hear that diagnosis,” she said. “The fears, the anxiety, the confusion.”
Her primary responsibility as a nurse navigator is to assess and educate her patients about any barriers in the way of their treatment and to be a consistent face through their continuum of care.
Dent’s first introduction to her patients comes when a mammogram or scan comes back abnormal. She will begin their relationship by talking them through the biopsy process. She will watch for pathology results, then contact the physicians and nurse practitioners to set up care options. When the time comes for surgery, she drops by for a visit, if possible, but she always calls or sends a message, watching for more pathological reports that will determine the length and intensity of further treatment. She is there for the first oncology visit, the first radiation oncology visit and routine checkups throughout treatment. She puts a name on the illness ravaging their bodies, often diagramming and mapping out just where the mass is and how to reach it.
This was how she crossed paths with Sarah Smith, an X-ray technician, a mother and, now, a breast cancer survivor.
“I can tell her anything,” Smith said of her nurse navigator.
Smith was first diagnosed in 2014 with ductal carcinoma in situ or DCIS. She underwent a full mastectomy and reconstruction, removing the abnormal tissue to prevent any possible reoccurrence. Then, in 2016, she found a new lump while in the shower after returning from a trip with her family to the Sugar Bowl. She came to lean firmly on a network of support, including her husband, Cliff, 7-year-old son, Sterling, and the team of nurses and doctors who would become as close as family during treatment.
“We started chemo, and the first six treatments were pretty tough, big drugs,” she said. “Then, we did radiation in September of 2016 every day for 33 days, 7 minutes on the table before work, and then I went back to work.”
Some days were better than others. She cried tears of loss when she had to shave her head before her son’s soccer game. She cried tears of joy when the boys on the team took the field in pink socks. She promises to well up this Friday night when she calls the coin toss at Lafayette High School’s “Pink-Out” game.
From diagnosis to survivorship, she credits the strength of her support system and the ear of her nurse navigator.
“I had chemo, and then I had this anxiety: Am I about to run to the bathroom? Am I going to throw up? Am I going to have these little aliens in my head?” she said. “I didn’t know how it was going to treat me.”
She said that having familiar faces in the hospital was key in her recovery and her feeling at home after relocating from her native town of Greenville only months before she was diagnosed.
Smith is just one of more than 100 patients whom Dent oversees and one of the 252,710 cases of breast cancer diagnosed every year, according to a representative of the American Cancer Society.
Dent, who also oversees the free mammogram program and manages the assistance funds from the Susan G. Komen organization, the C.A.R.E. Walk, said that breast cancer is the leading cancer being treated at Baptist. The American Cancer Association recognizes breast cancer as the second leading cause of cancer death in women, behind only lung cancer.
Early detection with risk reduction is the key to being cured of breast cancer. Factors like age, family history, alcohol usage, hormone therapy and sedentary lifestyles can increase chances in all women.
However, the American Cancer Society recently changed its policy on mammogram frequency from starting at age 40 to starting at age 45 and getting annual scans until the age of 54. Guidelines from most physician organizations, such as the American Society of Breast Cancer Surgeons and the National Comprehensive Cancer, still recommend that all women over the age of 40 get annual breast cancer exams.
Dent and Smith can both attest that proactivity in scanning can be life-saving. Both women would not have been scanned under the ACS’s new recommendation at the time of their diagnoses.
Smith said her apprehension about family history saved her life when she had an early mammogram at the age of 36.
“I have some friends who say, ‘My insurance doesn’t cover it until I’m 40,'” she said. “But I look at them and think, ‘What’s the cost of a mammogram to you? Worth seeing your child grow?'”
Dent, who was diagnosed at the age of 56, continued to have annual mammograms after the age of 54, noting that skipping a year could have cost her her life.
“I had my mammogram every year without fail, and I had a perfect mammogram in 2013, and my mammogram in 2014 showed a small abnormal micro-calcification,” Dent said.
Smith said she still does a self-breast examination on a set day every month, a tip handed down to her by Dent, who advocates for regular breast examinations for all women with any family history or increased risk factors.
In the month of October, Dent typically speaks on breast cancer awareness for more than 20 groups, but this year, she has taken only five or six speaking engagements. After returning from a mission trip to Cuba on Nov. 1, she will retire after 44 years in the nursing profession and countless lives touched.
“It seems like there is something every day: a kind word or a thank you or just seeing a patient relax or helping educate them so they can make a good decision by participating in their care,” she said.