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Dawn's Cancer Story

by UPMC Susquehanna

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As a colonel and co-commanding officer of the American Rescue Workers in Williamsport, Dawn Astin, 54, provides food, shelter and assistance to people in need every day. In January 2011, just four days after her 50th birthday, she became the one in need when doctors detected a large tumor during her first colonoscopy. Within days, Dawn and her husband, Sam, met with Dr. Mauricio Pineda, a hematologist and medical oncologist at Susquehanna Health Cancer Center.

Still in shock, Dawn remembers the clean and bright environment of the Cancer Center, the beauty of the healing garden, and even more importantly, the feeling of being enveloped in care and concern by her doctor and nurses. “They were very reassuring. I had this overwhelming sense of a unified effort to take care of me,” she says. “They knew about my work in the community, and they made me feel important and loved. One of the nurses said, ‘You take care of everyone else— now it’s time to let us take care of you.’”

Positive impressions were confirmed when, at Dr. Pineda’s suggestion, she received a second opinion from Penn State Hershey Medical Center Cancer Institute and got the same treatment recommendation.

After surgery to remove her tumor and confirm her stage 4 colon cancer diagnosis, Dawn began six months of chemotherapy at the Cancer Center. The treatments ran three days a week, every other week, and it wasn’t long before Dawn was in the throes of side effects. “The nurses were just wonderful to me. They were definitely part of my healing,” says Dawn, explaining how they affirmed her experiences with hot flashes and mood swings resulting from the sudden onset of menopause as well as nausea, constipation, mouth sores, “chemo brain” and fatigue.

In addition to offering compassion and understanding, they helped her cope. They provided printouts on her medications, gave her cookbooks to improve digestive health and helped ease her anxiety before treatments. It was reassuring to have received responses to her questions within the same day.

Dawn’s numerous treatment guests were always welcome. As long as space was available, she could choose a private or open treatment area based on how she was feeling. Praying with a visiting chaplain, priest or nun was often part of Dawn’s experience as well as being treated to warm blankets and hand massages, which helped her relax and feel comfortable. “They made me feel so loved. The Cancer Center provides health in a holistic manner, and they do it very, very well,” says Dawn. “The special treatment provided physical relief from the issues going on in my body.”

After her final treatment in October 2011, a clear CAT scan brought jubilation. Dawn and her mother delivered food, including shrimp and cookies, to the Cancer Center in celebration. With chemo behind her, Dawn began feeling better. She and Sam flew to Arizona to visit their daughter, son-in-law and grandson and eagerly anticipated the birth of their next grandchild.

Then, in March, Dawn was devastated to learn she had a rapidly growing cyst on her ovary as a result of her colon cancer. Following surgery to remove the cyst, Dawn resisted Dr. Pineda’s recommendation for more chemotherapy. At his urging, she traveled to Johns Hopkins University Oncology Center in Baltimore for a second opinion. “There I was with my husband and my son, and one of the leading teams for treating colon cancer in the United States gathered around us to say they would do exactly what Dr. Pineda recommended,” she recalls.

The next six months of chemotherapy were less physically taxing and produced fewer side effects for Dawn. As she neared the last treatment in October 2012, Dr. Pineda recommended a maintenance infusion of Avastin every three weeks for as long as she chooses to continue.

Three years after beginning maintenance infusion, Dawn is re-energized, able to enjoy her family and continue her ministry of Jesus Christ’s love through her work. She remains cancer-free and is grateful to Dr. Pineda and the staff at the Cancer Center. “When I walk into the chemotherapy room every three weeks, I feel like everyone there is just as intent on helping me heal as they were the first day I walked in,” she says.