Theresa Greenwood: A true miracle
Do you believe in miracles? Theresa Greenwood does. Her oncologist, Vincent E. Reyes, Jr., M.D., Chief of Hematology & Medical Oncology, does, too, and calls Theresa “my miracle.” A profoundly spiritual woman, Theresa finds wisdom, comfort and hope in prayer, and she needed all of those things when she was diagnosed with advanced cancer. It began one morning when Theresa, 63, who lives in South Fayette, awoke to find a hard lump on her breastbone. She contacted her primary care physician, Donald E. McFarland, D.O., who immediately ordered a mammogram. That led to a sonogram and biopsy, and an unforgettable call from Dr. McFarland: “Theresa, you need to see an oncologist, a cancer specialist.” He referred her to Dr. Reyes.
“Dr. Reyes told me I had Stage 4 lung cancer with metastasis to the bones in my spine and my lymph nodes. I felt fine; I had no symptoms and was working as a waitress. It was bad news — he said the prognosis was six months to a year. I felt like my brain turned upside down. At first, I said no to chemo, because my mind simply could not absorb this, and chemo scared me. Then it occurred to me that by going through it I could help someone else; maybe the doctors would learn something from my case. Dr. Reyes assured me that I could quit anytime. Knowing I had that choice helped, so I agreed to it.
“I have two kids — Melissa, who is 46, and Stephen, 37. I could not tell them; I had my best friend Becky call them, and then they called me. That was the hardest thing I have ever faced. I was scared, but I put my trust in God and Dr. Reyes; I did everything he told me to do. I told him I could handle the spiritual journey, while he handled the science, but we were on this journey together.”
Theresa’s treatment began with radiation therapy to her spine at St. Clair Hospital Cancer Center, under the care of radiation oncologist Felicia E. Snead, M.D. That was an essential first step, as the growing tumors threatened to cause paralysis. Next, she underwent 10 months of intense chemotherapy. It wasn’t easy — she kept working as a waitress throughout the entire course of chemo, and the job entailed long hours, on her feet constantly. Still, Theresa chose to view it all with positivity and gratitude: “It all helped me: chemo, radiation and prayer. I was grateful that I could still work and that the cancer happened now and not when I was raising my kids. I had only myself to take care of, and I could work, come home and sleep.”
It was working. But then the bottom fell out; the sternal tumor recurred, grew and came through Theresa’s chest wall. It created a deep hole, three inches wide and 1⁄2 inch deep, and it was very painful. Due to the tumor’s proximity to her heart, radiation was not an option. “I was referred for wound care; I had specialized nurses come to my house to treat the hole in my chest. It was awful; I needed a lot of pain medicine, and I was very sick. I reached a point where I could no longer work. I called my kids and told them it was time for them to come: time to say goodbye.”
Theresa was gracefully accepting of death. “I was okay with the idea that I was going to die. I envisioned myself embraced in the arms of God, at peace, and that helped me. I was suffering and I saw death as a release. I knew my kids would be fine.”
When her kids came to Pittsburgh, they went together to see Dr. Reyes, to talk about hospice care. “He said he had just one more option before that. It was a new drug. I was physically and emotionally exhausted and didn’t feel I could continue with a new treatment, but Melissa spoke up and said, ‘Mom, you have to; I’m not going to give you up when there is one more chance.’ So I agreed to try the new drug.”
The drug worked, and worked quickly, astonishing Dr. Reyes. It was one of the immunotherapy drugs that are transforming cancer treatment. “We had tried chemotherapy and radiation, and Theresa was not getting better,” he explains. “Her chest wound was terrible and she needed a lot of pain medication; it was heartbreaking. But now we had immunotherapy; it was the last thing to try.” Theresa’s wound began to heal immediately. In just a few months, it disappeared. She was able to discontinue the pain medication and go back to work. “Theresa is my miracle patient,” says Dr. Reyes. “It was the most dramatic change I’ve ever witnessed. To use a baseball analogy, we oncologists always hope to get a base hit; a single is a victory. Theresa is a grand slam.”
Four years later, Theresa, who is insured through traditional Medicare, is still taking the medication. It has become routine for her: “It’s just something I have to do, like brushing my teeth.” The only side effect she has is fatigue, but she manages to handle a part-time job. She has a new role, as a home health aide for older adults. She likes it.
Theresa reflects on her cancer journey with gratitude and awe. “I’m amazed by what happened to me. It seems that God wanted me to keep living. I was already a spiritual person and I can’t imagine going through this without that; it kept me from feeling sorry for myself. Cancer nearly wipes you out, but I kept a grateful heart, no matter what. I was in good hands with Dr. Reyes and God. Dr. Reyes is the best doctor; it’s a blessing simply to be in his presence, to hear his voice and see his smile. He is living proof that you can be a genius and still be good, humble and human. The entire team at the St. Clair Hospital Cancer Center is great; physician assistant Sarah Magilson, PA-C was excellent, and I needed her as much as I needed Dr. Reyes. They’re close by and always on call; they call you right back when you need something.
“I love St. Clair Hospital. I had my babies at St. Clair, and I nearly died from an ectopic pregnancy many years ago. St. Clair saved my life then, and now they have saved it a second time. In April, it will be four years since I was diagnosed and given a six- to 12-month prognosis. Dr. Reyes says we can think about stopping the medication soon. Imagine that. I have my family: my kids are wonderful, and I have five beautiful grandchildren. When I get to see them, I am on cloud nine.”
FELICIA E. SNEAD, M.D.
Dr. Snead specializes in radiation oncology. She earned a medical degree at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine, New York City, and then completed a residency in radiation oncology at New York Presbyterian/ Columbia- Presbyterian Medical Center, New York City. Dr. Snead is board-certified by the American Board of Radiology-Radiation Oncology and is affiliated with UPMC Hillman Cancer Center. Her practice at St. Clair Hospital is in-network for all major insurers.
To contact Dr. Snead, please call 412.502.3920.
VINCENT E. REYES, JR., M.D.
Dr. Reyes is Chief of Hematology & Medical Oncology at St. Clair Hospital. He earned his medical degree at the University of Cincinnati College of Medicine, and completed a residency in internal medicine at Temple University Hospital, Philadelphia. He then completed a fellowship in hematology and oncology at Fox Chase Cancer Center, also in Philadelphia. Dr. Reyes is board-certified by the American Board of Internal Medicine. His practice at St. Clair Hospital is in-network for all major insurers. He also serves as Assistant Medical Director–Medical Oncology, UPMC Hillman Cancer Center.
To contact Dr. Reyes, please call 412.942.1750.